FIT Symposium 2011 Recap

FIT’s annual symposium always dovetails with their exhibit at that time, this one highlighting Daphne Guinness and her crazy / awesome style. So this year’s symposium theme was… fashion icons and insiders. At the risk of being flippant, it bored me. I feel as though an educational institution devoted to fashion should come up with something more challenging, more cutting edge, more thought provoking than fashion icons, who are the focus of pretty much every fashion rag and most popular fashion books. Though the theme did nothing to inspire me, off I trotted to FIT’s imposing brutalist buildings to see how it might have inspired other people. Following are some highlights.

Daphne Guinness

By far, the most densely attended panel was Daphne Guinness in conversation with Valerie Steele, which started the two-day conference off. Though she obviously generated quite a stir (as she does everywhere), Ms. Guinness is not terribly articulate, and for the amount of stage time she had, I learned relatively little. (For those unfamiliar, Ms. Guinness is heiress to the sizable Guinness beer fortune and seems to spend most of her money on awesomely outlandish clothes and accessories.) There was an amusing story of how mutual friend Isabella Blow could not convince Guinness to meet her ultimate close friend Alexander McQueen, whose spectacular garments she had been avidly collecting; one day at some event, she hears and “OY! So you’re the one who refuses to meet the designer of all  your clothes, eh?” Deep friendship ensued after this inauspicious start, and the Guinness exhibition is dominated by McQueen’s designs (many of which were not in the McQueen exhibition at the Met). Guinness collaborates with many artists to create wearable objects for herself, including one with jewelry designer Shaun Leane to create an ostentatious diamond crusted chainmail glove that exemplifies her overarching obsession with shiny, armor-like fashions.

diamond chainmail glove

Daphne Guinness wearing Shaun Leane glove

One of my two favorite speakers was Dr. Caroline Weber who spoke on “Fashion Icons from Marie Antoinette to Daphne Guinness.” Ms. Weber wrote one of my very favorite fashion history books, What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. I have heard her speak several times now, and her oration style is exactly as energized and engaging as her writing (fortunate for her students!). Though her area of expertise is French history, she transitions easily into fashion history, and made convincing comparisons between Daphne Guinness’ style and Marie Antoinette’s, even while concentrating on Marie Antoinette: their mutual predilection for big hair and loud headware, for example:

Marie Antoinette's "La Pouf a la Belle Poule"

Daphne Guinness

The differences in motive is also highlighted, though: while Guinness is more of a wealthy artist who has cultivated a distinct style based on aesthetic preference alone, Marie Antoinette used her clothes — her headwear in particular — as political commentary. As with the illustrated pouf above, the whimsical ship atop Antoinette’s coif is a model of the Belle Poule, the ship that won in a key victory against the British in 1778. Weber noted similarities in Guinness dressing for Met’s Costume Gala in Barney’s display window last winter, and Antoinette displaying herself in her latest finery among the crowds of Paris, both living models of cutting edge taste. Having heard Weber speak on Antoinette before, I was pleased when she gave a glimpse of her upcoming project(s) on French Surrealism — a favorite topic of mine (Heather has written on Schiaparelli as well).


Thierry-Maxime Loriot, curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, spoke about his huge exhibition “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.” Though I’m not convinced Gaultier’s high-impact creations demand extra help making an impression (then again, didn’t McQueen embrace over-the-top technology?), an interesting technique was used on the otherwise ordinary mannequins: holograms. The faces of actual people — including Gaultier himself — were photographed in the round and projected onto the custom-sculpted mannequins. The faces even moved, blinking and mouthing words in a delightfully creepy manner.

Gaultier, sailor striped lycra crop top, SS97

Loriot talked about the influence of Gaultier’s grandmother, who raised him, on his design sense. Watching her ritual of drinking a bottle of vinegar and having a wee Jean Paul strap her in while her stomach was contracting was an awesome image for me, and segued neatly into the first theme of the exhibition: the boudoir. Loriot didn’t have time to get into Gaultier’s inspiration for each of his recurring themes, but I nonetheless thought the exhibition (wish I’d known about and wish I could see!) did a good job of distilling JPG’s aesthetic, including “Skin Deep” (obsession with anatomy); “Punk Cancan” (London punk meets French Belle Époque ); “Urban Jungle” (adaption of international textiles and style tropes); and “Metropolis” (the cutting edge technology of his runways and futuristic textiles). Gaultier has seemingly always played with couture standards, and has always played with markers of his French heritage, as Balenciaga highlighted his Spanish roots.


flayed print body stocking with corset lacing costume, 2009

Eiffel Tower dress


Nathalie Khan, who I met at this past summer’s Pop Culture conference in New Zealand (random, right?), talked about “Celebrity Fashion Icons.” In a departure from the typical lens of “fashion icon” referring to a person, Khan talked about clothing accouterments becoming iconic in and of themselves, in a Lacanian reading. She discussed Michael Jackson’s glove being indicative of an absence of a body when unworn, and yet symbolic of Jackson the whole performer when copies were worn by his brothers to carry Michael’s coffin. Khan discussed the disembodied value of Andy Warhol’s wigs, and Betty Page’s fetish shoes. Most interesting to me was Greta Garbo’s cigarette, which she discussed specifically in the context of a phallic prop in a romantic interlude within Flesh and the Devil (1926). The cigarette stands out from the other discussed objects as it does not exist after being smoked, it is even more ephemeral than delicate textiles and shoes; it’s impact lives on in our memories as “iconic,” yet the object ceases to exist immediately.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil, 1926

The most rewarding lecture was by Thelma Golden, Director and Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, who spoke eloquently and forcefully about black fashion icons as being more than simply their interesting looks — of representing the African American struggle in daily wear that communicated pride, dignity, self-worth. She related these topics to icons by listing some of her personal icons: Diana Ross as aspiring fashion designer and lover of a working class activist politician Tracy Chambers in Mahogany; Josephine Baker and her ability to play with racial stereotypes; Grace Jones; and several others, all with accomplishments past simply looking radical and/or amazing.

Josephine Baker performing banana dance



Though I do wish the overall theme of the FIT symposium had been a bit more inspired, I did take away some fun facts, and of course, reconnect with some old fashion friends.


Other speakers included:


  • Dr. Vicki Karaminas “Vampire Dandies: Fashionable Masculine Identities and Style”
  • Simona Segre Reinach “Italian Fashion Icons and Insiders”
  • Cherie Burns “Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers”
  • Glenda Bailey and Laura Brown “Harper’s Bazaar: Greatest Hits”
  • Eric Gaskins (of The Emperor’s New Clothes) and Eric Wilson “Birkin is the New Black, or How Items Have Replaced Icons”
  • Caroline Rennolds Milbank “Unsung Icons”

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