Italian Style: Exhibition Review

Italian Style*

Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945
Exhibition ran October 26, 2014 – January 4, 2015
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Curator at MIA: Nicole LaBouff; Curator of exhibition Sonnet Stanfill of Victoria and Albert Museum

*First image: Roberto Cavalli Leopard Print Gown
Spring/Summer 2007
Courtesy of Roberto Cavalli S.P.A.

Recently I took two visits to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see the exhibition Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945. In my first visit I was toured through by curator Nicole LaBouff and then did an interview with her to get more background. You can read all about that by clicking here. I also put a number of additional photos in that post.

Before heading into the show I was drawn into the gift shops. I ended up spending a great deal of time enthralled by the vintage Italian designer fashion finds the museum had acquired for sale during the exhibit, as well as current Italian styles such as unique purses and furnishings, and a slew of fashion volumes perfect for holiday gifts or an indulgent self purchase.

Once entering the exhibition the story unfolds through a series of educational panels, numerous cases and platforms with mannequins and objects, a few video clips and slideshows, some framed wall documents and photos, and varied support pieces such as sketches, log books, fabric swatches, and muslin mock ups.

This enormous exhibition is a beautiful travel through time with room after room of displays. I tend to enjoy shows that canvas a lot of territory and explore many aspects of one theme. When a show dives too narrow it often feels like the viewer is aching to fill in the gaps. However, with a comprehensive show there’s always some challenges trying to encapass so much and do each aspect of the show the justice it deserves. It’s inevitable not all portions will be at the exact same level of quality. Overall, I’d say this show did a solid job at that, and maintained a fairly high level of visual intrigue and comprehensiveness. There were a few weak spots but those were outnumbered by the positive.

This exhibition originated at the V&A and has traveled to the MIA. Panels explained that V&A curator Sonnet Stanfill started devouring Italian Vogue as early as age 10, and took many trips all the way to Italy as a child from Alaska. These early entrances into fashion began her fascination with Italian culture and design. As she became a scholar her research indicated that there was limited study on the rise of Italian fashion; thus the catalyst of this show.

Both times I attended had fairly large crowds, primarily of women of all ages. There were groups of many sorts: students, ladies, and many multi-generational families of grandmother through toddler. All were enjoying the show using different reference points, although shared the same admiration of vibrant colors and eye catching embellishments.

The MIA ran a “living social” coupon for discounted admission, and also did an impressive showing of PR including neighborhood billboards. This was the first fashion exhibition from this museum and they were obviously making a big effort to get the word out. It’s too bad I missed the Italian fashion themed films they showed in support, however I believe those were only for museum members. It would have been an extra treat to see further activities such as an academic symposium or esteemed guest speakers. There are multiple fashion programs in the area, a strong local design and advertising community, and companies such as Target, which all create a community who would attend such events.

The educational introduction starts with WW2 and gives this as a jumping off point to see the quick rise to prominence of Italian fashion. Galleries then focus on this relatively contemporary time period and traces its rise, the shifts in its priority and design/manufacturing styles, the artistry, and name designers/stylists of the region. The entry galleries feature a beautiful array of dresses of the 1940s and 50s representing the first shows that took place at the house of a buying agent entitled Sala Bianca. Letters from buying agents and accessories add to this bright room of detailed ensembles.

Sfilata (fashion show) in Sala Bianca, 1955
Archiveo Giorgini
Photo by G.M. Fadigati © Giorgini Archive, Florence

A highlight was gallery 3 which was focused on the traditional sartoria or dressmaker
Wardrobe of Margaret Abegg
whose husband owned a textile manufacturing company. She had a variety of garments commissioned and this gallery brings you into the world of the personal relationship between designer and wearer, as well as into the details of custom design. Also, Margaret’s clothing is a size and proportions conventional to the average woman and therefore it was refreshing to see the high-end clothes shown in non-runway sizes. I was not the only person in the room commenting on this feeling unique. While her taste was not flashy, and the items didn’t wow the spectator, this was a highlight gallery because of its thorough demonstration of how the items were employed including accessories and also the letter of bequeath to museum from Margaret.

These early rooms explain the development of their fashion shows and individualized market but also show that the informal clothes, such as some of Pucci’s were the key initial success in foreign markets as they spread for vacation use and broader appeal. The museum-goer then travels through a series of galleries such as the lively room highlighting the relationship of Italian fashion with Hollywood. Museum visitors were clustered around the movie clips and were also commenting on the sketches next to some of the garments showing the creative process. my interview with Nicole discusses the Elizabeth Taylor gems that eddie fisher gave her as a pitch to save their marriage. they were beautiful. a Vespa as well as a dress worn to Truman Capote’s black and white ball and other entertaining items.

Italian Style
Shoe with flame detail, Spring/Summer 2012
Courtesy of Prada
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Italian specialty leather goods are featured throughout and showcased in a slideshow as well as a case of items from 1950’s and 60s. This is a bit drab of a presentation, but the items themselves are masterful. Another gallery focuses on the cult of designer and features those big names many of the guest were excited to see. This is a point that shines.

Menswear will get its due in upcoming exhibitions at other museums, but this was a useful preview as numerous mannequins demonstrated the value of the mens fashion market ranging from Hollywood style to tailoring expertise. In this section I watched many people walked right past the grand log book featuring client details and swatches, but I was fascinated by its oversized pages of fabric choices and measurements.

Embroidery and textile design were of course a crucial element of an Italian themed show and this was a section that was strong with ephemera. The viewer gained insight into Versace’s process of pattern design from inspiration through final product and advertising campaign, and Missoni’s knitwear process takes us from marker colors to yarn dye to final product. Apparently one of Missoni’s grandsons came to the show and reminisced.
Made in Italy as marketing term and less couture

The final gallery features includes some contemporary designers such as Piglisi and Dolce and Gabbana indicating that the quality is still at a very high level. The couture closing the show brings the concepts full circle back to the custom high end dress makers at its start. A final rom focused on the future showed a film about the direction of Italian fashion is going was intriguing discussing positives as well as challenges in the industry. It was hard to hear but still fun to watch because those featured were all significant in the field.

Giorgio Armani Privé gown, Spring/Summer 2010.
Giorgio Armani
Privé Gown, Spring/Summer 2010
Courtesy of Giorgio Armani

As you can tell, I really liked this exhibition and I am enthusiastic that it will travel further and be viewed by many. This is not to say it is perfect though. I do have a series of notes that nagged at me that I would be remiss not to mention. I’m just going to lay them out. I do realize some would be do to time, space, and budget constraints and the fact it’s a traveling show and not from the institution itself:

    There is a narrative from room to room, but it’s a bit hard to follow and doesn’t feel like a story. I had to work to follow along. I think many people use admired the clothes but not the storyline. That’s probably completely normal though. This is exacerbated by some display choices where items are showcased that don’t seem that important (like Pucci lounge wear) and other key pieces are tucked into the crowd.
    The lighting is dim in some sections, films are quiet, fonts are small in films, and sometimes I entered a room and basically walked into a black corner when the way finding seems like I could have been directed into something more exciting rather than walking around a wall. I did hear complaints from the audience.
    Some messages are conveyed in panels but then not translated well into the exhibition design. I know a lot of people do not read the data and are visual learners so it is crucial to be visually dynamic. One example was a mention of all the stylish film actors wearing the clothes but there was limited showing of this in objects (not the Hollywood room but a second room). Another is the party atmosphere of Fiorucci but then the design of that display is very skeletal and not festive.
    People love to be near celebrities, and some of the biggest names and best stories of the show are tucked in almost indistinguishable. There’s a suit worn by JFK but it’s amid a row of other men’s suits with little fanfare. Museum guests were frequently name dropping a wish to see Jackie O’s clothing and there was none, however there was Lee Radziwill’s dress although again, not spotlighted. The curator’s favorite garment that she feels represents the highest craftsmanship is on the far side of one case and easy to walk past. Also there is an Armani suit that is a quintessential style of his career, yet the label does not share the story that designer hand picking the garment for the show (which gives it an extra special feel when that is known; Nicole let me know this story and it gave me a higher reverence for the object). Then there is a small photography section that is a focal point, but seems sort of removed from the core. Overall, this reflects hit and miss choices of which items are under a spotlight and which are quietly in the very large mix.

Irene Galitzine, silk palazzo pyjamas, c.1963.
Irene Galitzine
Silk Palazzo Pyjamas, c.1963
Courtesy Historical Archive Maison Galitzine
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It’s clear this exhibition was lovingly researched and constructed. I overheard one woman said “Timeless styles” with a smile and sigh. Sure a few spots were awkwardly presented or felt dry, but this is the reality of a comprehensive exhibit as the budget and resources do have a finite point. Overall the display of iconic and lesser known names internationally gave us the fun of seeing beautiful representations of familiar brands and also introduced us to those we may not know. Upon exit there was a cute children’s section with fashion illustration and photography activities, looking at the childrens’ drawing’s left behind it was clear from this exhibition that the legacy will continue.

Exhibition Acknowledgments:
Exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Presented by Nordstrom and the Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation.
Major Sponsor: Delta Air Lines
Generous support provided by: Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Topsy Simonson

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