Exhibition Review: Wool Modern at the London Galleria

Two weeks ago, prior to an unusual spell of very warm weather in the UK, I laid all my summer cotton dresses to hibernate in suitcases under the bed until March 2012. The sadness this inevitably caused was quickly subsumed by my sensual joy at unrolling my winter clothes and hanging them up to breathe after their seven month hiatus in storage. I had some worries that moths may have gotten at my woollens – but they were safe – and with anticiaption of chilly autumn days on the horizon I hung them gingerly on all my best hangers. Having recently read Lucy Siegle’s excellent and highly recommended To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World (a brilliant treatise on fashion, sustainability and our particular social responsibilitiy as lovers and consumers of fashion), I was feeling that wool is a fibre we should be giving more attention and more closet space to. Although there are environmental and ethical pros and cons to nearly every fabric, fibre or textile process known to man, wool comes up as a “good guy,” in the battle for ethical dressing more often than not. This is a massive oversimplification of an extremely complex topic, but it is hard to argue against the fact that wool keeps you warm – and on damp chilly days in London, putting on a sweater is a cheaper and more energy efficient method of staying toasty than turning up your home heating!

Exhibition view with Margiela's Top Artisanal Tresse (s/s 2009) and Sibling's Knit Monster (a/w 2010)

With this rather sunny outlook on wool, and a thirst for more information about the wool industry in the UK, I looked forward immensely to visiting the Wool Modern exhibition, organised by the Campaign for Wool and supported by HRH the Prince of Wales. The exhibition was staged this past September, at the London Galleria on Pall Mall coinciding with London Fashion Week, and presented itself as a ‘Celebration of Wool in the 21st Century.’ Nicholas Coleridge, Managing Director of Conde Nast, and Vice Chairman of the Campaign for Wool, touted the exhibition as a showcase of the very best in fashion and design in wool, with the aim to ‘inspire the next generation of talent to embrace wool in their own work,’ citing wool’s superiority over synthetic fibres and its ‘eco-credentials.’ This information, as well as a reminiscence about an eccentric relative wearing a wool cape by the exhibition’s curator Charlotte Lurot, appear in the first pages of the exhibition’s slick, complimentary catalog, (also downloadable as a pdf from the exhibition website). The exhibition’s website features a clever animated image of a majestic sheep which changes color and background, and sets the stage for a new engagement with one of the oldest fibres known to man.

Ensembles by (left to right) Galliano, Sonia Rykiel, Vivienne Westwood, Rik Owens and J.JS Lee

Knowing that the exhibition was a promotion for the wool industry, I was anticipating it might feel a bit like a trade fair or lean towards the informative, technical aspects of the production and fabrication of wool textiles and garments. I was hoping to both learn more about how and why we should be supporting British wool in particular, and to see some magnificent examples of wool fashions – that could keep us looking smart while being savvy about ecology and sustainability.

There were definitely some magnificent examples of wool garments by well-known and emergent fashion designers, and the exhibition’s minimal design and open-plan space provided viewers with vantage points for up-close, almost tactile spectatorship.

The exhibition's lone information panel

However, with the exception of one hanging text panel proclaiming “Tweed is a TYPO,” explaining the origin of the word tweed, there was no information about wool, its production, quality or sustainability at all. The selected garments were displayed with short captions, and a table of pamphlets from the exhibit’s sponsors was placed by the exit, but in general the exhibition lacked provision for persausion via information.

View of Alexander McQueen's gold embellished bustier dress (2011), Christian Lacroix's Souvenir pieux ou le pietement de la croix (2000) and at back right Yves St. Laurents Long Wedding Dress, (Haute Couture 1965)

The clothes were indeed fabulous. Margiela’s Artisanal Tresse Top (s/s 2009), Sibling’s Knit Monster (a/w 2010), a McQueen bustier dress (2011), and Vivienne Westwood’s Prince Charming coat (2011) were all marvelous examples of wool’s versatility and seductiveness at the hands of talented designers. In many ways these, and the other pieces in the show do speak loud and clear for wool in the wardrobe and certainly as an alluring raw material in the toolkit of designers. However, if the exhibition’s intention really was to inspire both the designers of tomorrow, and the consumers of today to embrace wool as a fibre of heritage and “eco-credentials,” then there should have been more information about the history and technology behind these stunning designs. It’s also hard to make a case for how we should all be supporting the wool industry, its spinners, weavers and farmers by displaying a selection of incredibly expensive and unattainable garments from the primarily past two seasons on the catwalk.

There were a few “historic,” pieces in the show, most notably Yves St. Laurent’s haute couture wedding dress (1965)  and  one of Courreges signature black wool tunic dresses (1973). On the conceptual end of the scale was a poetic and sensitive work by Christian Lacroix – a wool drawing that utilised fine gauge wool to create a lace-like garment silhouette.  Thoughout the gallery, wool sculptures and home furnishings served as props and backdrops to the clothes, but these did little to counter the feeling that the Wool Modern show was not so much a celebration of wool, as it was an advertisement for high-end wool fashions that you can be wearing this winter – if you can afford to.

Burberry tangerine felted wool duffle coat (2011), E. Tautz Inverness Cape (2011) and suit by Paul Smith (2011/12)

It is both difficult and easy to voice criticism about this exhibition because its flaws and its strengths illuminate topics of much debate amongst curators of contemporary fashion exhibits. Where is the line between retail space and exhibition space? What purpose do we serve by presenting commodities outside of the realm of commerce? How can luxury garments tell us other stories than that of luxury? And how can the fashion curator serve excellence not only in design but also in social responsibility through modes of presentation? How much information does a visitor need to be enriched by the experience of an exhibition? What does the curator’s work add to the designers’ and whose interests does their work really serve?

Julien MacDonald ready to wear knitwear (2010/11) and Kinder Aggiungi

For leaving me with these questions, and offering me a menagerie of wool fantasies, this exhibition was a success. But as a fashion curator keen to lend my eye and voice to projects and campaigns such as this one, it left me uneasy and disappointed. Here there was an opportunity to exhibit fashion, champion sustainable design and fibres, support a struggling industry and to celebrate national and international traditions. There were a host of talented and well-intentioned people involved in the project, and presumably a fair budget, judging from the catalog, website and location.  Despite all this, the show lacked excitement, and offered little insights into the topic at its heart.  I can not say why this was this case, having not been privy to the exhibition’s process and production, but wondering why it didn’t quite work and how it could have been better has proved to be an invaluable exercise in examining curatorial practice.

This winter, I won’t be able to treat myself to Erdem’s Savannah Coat, or Stephen Jones’ Ultrasound hat – but I will be wearing lots of wool, that has managed to escape being devoired by moths under my bed.  Perhaps, despite what seemed to me to be shortcomings, the designs displayed in Wool Modern will indeed inspire young designers and students to weave, knit, felt and tailor wool into their future creations. Hopefully, they will be bold and innovative but also egalitarian, thus encouraging consumers from all economic strata to seek wool as a fashionable and accessible alternative to the oil-based synthetic fibres that comprise most of the ‘affordable,’ garments currently filling our wardrobes and depleting natural and human resources.

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