Interview: Shonagh Marshall-In Step with a Fashion Curator

Last week I posted on the opening of Shoes for Show: Shoes as Sculptural Objects by javari.co.uk.  The exhibition was held to promote the luxury shoe e-commerce site, and to heighten awareness of the beauty of footwear as design artefact. This is how i would describe the dazzling and coherent exhibition, but I am pleased to also bring you the voice of the exhibition’s curator Shonagh Marshall.

I caught up with Shonagh, whom I studied with on the MA Fashion Curation course at London College of Fashion, and asked her about the process and the concepts at the sole of the exhibition, and gained fascinating insights into the experience of curating fashion as a means of brand promotion. Shonagh also holds a BA in Fashion History and Theory from Central St Martins, and since graduating has worked at The Museum of the City of New York and served as archivist at Alexander McQueen for the Costume Institute exhibit and also archived Isabella Blow’s wardrobe.

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WT:  How did you become involved in the project?

SM: I was commissioned by online shoe brand javari.co.uk to curate an exhibition centering on the theme of high-heeled shoes through history.

WT:  What did javari.co.uk present you with as a brief?

SM: The brief asked me to curate an exhibition that looked at famous high-heels through history. I feel fortunate to be given this scope as it was wide enough to explore different possibilities through research into the theme.

WT:  How did you go about procuring the selections and what was the driving force behind your choices?

SM: I wanted to exhibit shoes that may have featured in people’s consciousness before; perhaps in a catwalk image, on the stage or worn by a character in a film. By bringing these objects together it enabled me to weave a new narrative, looking into how shoes are also beautiful objects when their function does not take precedence.

To procure the selection I contacted contemporary designers directly and they were very supportive of the project. I also was lucky enough to borrow pieces from Northampton Museum & Art Gallery’s Shoe Collection; this meant the objects within the exhibition dated back to 1851. The historic pieces gave the exhibition an ability to tell a story through time when each object was placed within specific sections with contemporary pieces.

WT:  Describe some of the stories behind your favourite pieces in the show?

SM: The velvet Yantourny slippers, c. 1920, on loan from the Northampton Museum & Art Gallery Shoe Collection are extremely historically signigficant. Yantourny dubbed himself the ‘Most Expensive in the World’, picking his clients based on their gait and style. All his shoes are couture, moulded for each foot and made from antique fabrics. I was honoured to exhibit a pair within Shoes for Show.  It is noticeable how small these shoes are when featured next to contemporary pieces. Hopefully this prompts the visitor to question how shoe design has changed over the last century.

The Alice in Wonderland shoes by Nicholas Kirkwod

The Alice in Wonderland shoes designed by Nicholas Kirkwood were made for Parisian department store Printemps in line with the launch of Tim Burton’s film of the same name. A series of designers were commissioned to design pieces based on the character Alice. The shoes designed by Kirkwood are embellished with pieces he found at antique markets.

WT: The shoes were displayed on bespoke sculptural display units. Tell us a bit about more the exhibition design and commissions.

Artist Jamie Bowler's 'tesseract' sculptures were commissioned as part of the exhibition design

SM: I commissioned sculptor Jamie Bowler to come up with the structures that would hold the shoes. The aim was to take the shoes off the foot and place them within a piece of art to urge the visitor to reconsider their aesthetic importance. Bowler’s sculptures were ‘tesseracts’, hypercubes, built from steel piping. For the artist the  concept behind them was a comment on the importance of proportion and perspective a shoemaker employs when designing a pair of shoes.

WT:  Why do you think exhibitions are an increasingly popular way for brands to promote their products and services?

SM: I think that when brands sponsor exhibitions, in turn making the visitors aware of their name; it gains them a position where they are looked upon as knowledgeable within their field. Javari.co.uk wanted to place themselves apart from other brands that sell shoes online. They have an understanding of the craftsmanship of shoemaking and the Director is a former shoe designer. I think sponsorship, when aligned with the right exhibition theme can really work to strengthen a brand’s image, giving the customer a better understanding of what they are all about.

WT: What was your favourite piece in the show and why?

SM: My favourite pair of shoes in the exhibition are the Nina Ricci shoes leant by Daphne Guinness. I am really interested in the stories an object can tell about the wearer. When researching this exhibition it was surprising how many couture shoemakers still exist, whereas couture clothing is much discussed as a dying industry. When the Nina Ricci boot, made especially for Guinness, were placed next to the Yantourny slippers it underlined that couture footwear still exists today. Natacha Marro, a designer who was also featured, makes only couture pieces for customers.

Nina Ricci for Daphne Guinness by Rebecca Higgins

SM: What’s next for you in the realm of fashion archiving and curating?

I am currently in Paris archiving Christian Louboutin’s Collection as they prepare for their exhibition next year which is being curated by the Design Museum in London. In 2012 I am going to move away from the subject of shoes!  I am currently in talks to propose curating an exhibition centering on the theme of hair.

I am so grateful to Shonagh for answering my questions for the readers of Worn Through. With exciting projects in the pipeline, and the sharp eye of a fashion curator, she is sure to be a voice we are hearing from again very soon.

Thank you to javari.co.uk and all the designers and organisations that loaned material to the exhibition and also to Mission PR, for promotional material and images.

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