Fashion as Art: 5 game-changing fashion curators you need to know

Alexandra Palmer ROM
Alexandra Palmer ROM
Viktor & Rolf Dolls at the ROM. Photography by George Pimentel

Who says all trends come from the street or runway? Ever since Diana Vreeland invented the blockbuster fashion exhibition during her tenure as a special consultant to the Met’s Costume Institute, curators has kept the fashion-as-art conversation going with the re-discovery of forgotten designers or historical eras. “I try to curate shows that have a relevance to what’s happening in contemporary culture,” explained Andrew Bolton, curator of the Met’s newly renamed Anna Wintour Costume Center, to Another Magazine. “The power of fashion lies in its power to transform identity. So I try to fit in ideas with the zeitgeist.”

This year, fashion curators are pulling together a number of different zeitgeist threads. The Met, for instance, will be swapping the safety pins and Vivienne Westwood bondage gear from last year’s “Punk” exhibition for a retrospective devoted to Charles James, one of the first American couturiers who was, according to the late Cristobal Balenciaga, “the world’s best and only dressmaker who has raised it from an applied art to a pure art form.” Known as a difficult genius who made clients wait for their orders—or become so attached to his pieces that he’d refuse to hand them over at all—the designer was a blueprint for some of today’s best talents.

With the rise of Spring 2014’s art-inspired runway trend, what better time to learn about five game-changing fashion curators as well as a hint at some of the 2014 fashion exhibitions that may lead style conversations this year.

Olivier Saillard Alaia
ALAÏA at the Palais Galliera in Paris, 2013

Olivier Saillard

This past fall, Olivier Sallard was deemed “the man of the hour” by WWD for being behind three Paris fashion exhibitions, including the just-closed Musée Galliéra’s Azzedine Alaïa retrospective. Most memorable, however, was Sallard’s “Eternity Dress” collaboration with Tilda Swinton, a November performance that took place at the Beaux-Arts de Paris exploring, from paper-and-muslin to fabric, the makings of a bespoke dress. Passionate about the poetry of fashion, Saillard firmly believes the fashion exhibition has an influence on the runway-to-high-street trend cycle: “more than ever, our role as museums is to show authors and not advertising initiatives.”

Elizabeth Semmelheck
Out of the Box at The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, 2013

Elizabeth Semmelhack

Seoul may have its bag-shaped Simone Handbag Museum, but Toronto has long had the Bata Shoe Museum, with over 4,500 years of footwear on display. As its senior curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack has continually explored the multiple roles and meanings of shoes, whether it be the balanced elegance of a Vivier for Dior comma heel (as seen in the 2012 Roger Vivier: From Process to Perfection exhibition) or securing rare sneakers from Run DMC and the Nike archives for the current Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture show. Be sure then to keep this June open, when Semmelhack’s upcoming Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century—a co-curated exhibition exploring the dangers of dresses and shoes—opens on June 18, 2014 at the museum.

Andrew Bolton Met Costume Institute
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute in New York, 2011

Andrew Bolton

He may have gotten flack from the art world for last year’s one percent-ish Punk: From Chaos to Couture exhibition, but Andrew Bolton’s curation of the Met’s blockbuster mega-show still attracted over 170,000 visitors in its first month. Bolton, a curator with the Met since 2006, is best known for the Met’s immersive Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty retrospective in 2011, which was praised by art critics like the New York Times’s Holland Cotter as “ethereal and gross, graceful and utterly manipulative, and poised on a line where fashion turns into something else.”

Kaat Debo
The MoMu Museum, Antwerp

Kaat Debo

“What must it be like to have €30,000 from your government with which to go shopping at Dior?” That rhetorical question was posed by Vogue in their November 2013 profile on Kaat Debo, director of MoMu, Antwerp’s fashion museum. Her answer? “I have to buy immediately,” she says of a Fall 2013 Raf Simons for Dior cocktail she had just secured. “I can’t wait ten years to decide.”

In just over ten years, the 37-year old Debo has define more than anyone else what exactly a fashion museum is, with successful exhibitions like the Maison Martin Margiela 20 show under her belt. With the upcoming Birds of Paradise exhibition exploring the legacy of plumes and feathers in fashion, we’re boldly predicting a feather motif revival at Spring 2015 fashion week.

Alexandra Palmer ROM
Viktor & Rolf Dolls at the ROM in Toronto, 2013. Photography by George Pimentel

Alexandra Palmer

As the ROM’s Nora E. Vaughan Fashion Curator, Dr. Alexandra Palmer is a surprisingly frequent Toronto fashion world presence—if you’ve ever attended the pre-fashion week staple that is the ShOws, she’s known for getting designers like Jeremy Laing or Steven Tai to geek out on the details of their fabric fabrications during her popular post-runway show Q&A sessions. As an authority on Christian Dior—she last authored a thorough 2009 examination on the designer’s storied New Look era for V&A Publishing—Palmer was able to specially commission for the ROM a House of Dior Spring 2011 haute couture piece that was the centrepiece of its 2012 BIG exhibition.

This June, look out for Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sittings, a ROM exhibition focusing on the “seated fashions” of Toronto-based designer Izzy Camilleri.