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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

A global guide to 2017’s best fashion exhibitions 

A global guide to 2017’s best fashion exhibitions

A selection of Christian Dior gowns from the show Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams.
A selection of Christian Dior gowns from the show Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams.

It’s a big year for fashion exhibitions, and those with even a passing interest in clothes could easily spend a languid summer traversing the globe, moving from show to show.

Anna Sui is currently the focus of a major exhibit at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, on until October. Sui is the first living American fashion designer to have a retrospective of her work presented at the museum. Also in England, the famed Chatsworth House has opened its extensive archives to the public for one of the most compelling fashion events of the year. House Style presents clothing and adornment spanning five centuries, as well as contemporary pieces by Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. All were unearthed from the house’s attics, and will be displayed within the grand rooms of Chatsworth until October 22.

Sotheby's brings Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth House on video

Meanwhile, in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is showing Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, a huge show dedicated to the avant-garde Japanese fashion label. September sees the opening of not one, but two museums also dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent. With one in Paris and the other in Marrakech, they both promise to provide deep insight into the world of the brilliant but reclusive fashion icon.

Although visitors to London will be spoilt for choice, this season’s absolute must-see is the Victoria and Albert Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition: Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion. Marking the centenary of the birth of Spanish fashion icon Cristóbal Balenciaga, it is an exploration of how this bold and innovative designer literally shaped the way women dressed in the 20th century.

Unlike his peers, including Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy, Balenciaga was not interested in a feminine silhouette, but instead chose to sculpt fabric around women in ways that were both architectural and outlandish. Hailed as groundbreaking (even though many of his pieces were deemed impossible to wear), his atelier in Paris was consistently busy during its 30-year tenure. Fascinated by the geometry of fabric, Balenciaga pushed the limits of what was possible and, perhaps more importantly, of what was considered acceptable as clothing. Vast, structured pieces that covered and disguised the body became his trademark. Fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland has said: “For 20 years, he was the prophet of every major change in silhouette.”

Such was the range of Balenciaga’s work that, when putting together the exhibition, the museum’s curators were faced with a gown carved from a single piece of cloth, and held together by a single seam – a piece so complex that it had to be X-rayed before it could be correctly displayed.

Often described as a designer’s designer, Balenciaga had an innovative and fearless approach that resonates with the fashion industry to this day. This is explored in the V&A exhibition through the work of designers who were obviously influenced by concepts first drafted by Balenciaga almost a century ago: Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Viktor & Rolf, and Molly Goddard included.

Over in Paris, meanwhile, the 70th anniversary of the house of Christian Dior is being celebrated with a huge retrospective at Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The showcase opened to coincide with Haute Couture Week in early July and, at more than 32,000 square feet, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is the largest exhibition ever hosted at the museum.

Set to run until January 2018, the show explores the influence that the house of Dior has had on French fashion, starting with the pioneering silhouette created by Christian Dior himself. The famous New Look is shown in dazzling red (a shade Dior called Satan Red), its nipped-in waist and huge skirt made all the more dramatic when displayed against a black backdrop. Staged to capture the shock factor of its first unveiling in 1947, it is a striking reintroduction.

Aside from the shapes that Dior pioneered, the house is also synonymous with colour – rich reds, burnt oranges, subtle shades of pistachio and duck-egg blues all featured heavily in the designer’s work. Even after his untimely death in 1957, colour remained a signature of the house, adopted by subsequent creative directors Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano. Whole rooms of these colourful gowns and accessories are displayed at the museum, shifting through a rainbow of shades like a vast kaleidoscope. Visually stunning, the space has been transformed into a conversation about the power of pigmentation.

With Dior’s own contribution cut tragically short, the designers that subsequently took over his house are all highlighted, and it is interesting to see how different personalities interpreted the same house codes. John Galliano favoured wildly theatrical haute couture, while Raf Simons offered a far more restrained view. The newest name to head the company (and the first women to do so), Maria Grazia Chiuri offers a more female-centric take on a brand that made its name by putting women into exaggerated, often cumbersome clothes.

Salvatore Ferragamo is yet another fashion icon being celebrated this summer, this time in Florence. To mark 90 years since Ferragamo left America and returned, via ocean liner, to the Italian city, an exhibition called 1927 – The Return to Italy, Ferragamo and 20th-Century Visual Culture, is being presented at Museo Salvatore Ferragamo. It examines the reasons that motivated Ferragamo to leave a successful career in America. Italian by birth, Ferragamo moved to the United States when he was 16, ending up in Hollywood, where his skill in shoe design soon saw him creating footwear for film stars. Rating comfort as highly as aesthetics, he soon gained a devoted following that included Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo.

Despite his reputation as “shoemaker to the stars”, in 1927, Ferragamo left Hollywood to return to his homeland and decided to settle in Florence, which was undergoing something of a cultural regeneration. For centuries, the city had been a centre of art and culture, but by the start of the 20th century, it had lost much of its lustre. The 1920s saw a rediscovery of its significance in Italian history, sparking an explosion of art and culture in the city.

Laid out like the cruise liner that carried Ferragamo across the Atlantic, the exhibition is an examination of the cultural and artistic atmosphere that drew the designer to Florence. Different rooms are dedicated to the leading artists of the day, such as Maccari, Martini, Gio Ponti and Depero, as well as historical costumes and, of course, pieces by Ferragamo, to give context to the energy and fervour that enveloped the city at that time.

As with its counterparts in Paris and London, the Ferragamo retrospective is a reminder that fashion can be so much more than pretty clothes and shoes; it is as integral to, and reflective of, the culture of its day as any other art form.