Paola Antonelli is the Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture & Design as well as the Director of Research and Development at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York City. Insisting that everyday design is worthy of display in her lectures and published work, Antonelli has pushed forward the permanent collection of MoMA, which includes iconic pieces by Philippe Starck, Frank O. Gehry, Robert Venturi, Charles Eames and Marc Newson, as well as Clip’n Stay Clothespins, a digital file of the Power symbol, MultiMax Single-Use Earplugs, a collection of early Apple, Inc. Macintosh computers, Kosuke Tsumura’s Final Home 44-pocket parka, a cast iron manhole cover, Post-it notes, and if Antonelli’s persistence pays off, hopefully soon a Boeing 747 as a remote acquisition.
For the first time since 1944, MoMA will hold an exhibition dedicated to the field of fashion design, curated by Antonelli and entitled Items: Is Fashion Modern? Paola’s Italian origins lend themselves well to this medium, though the exhibition will steer clear of the kinds of ‘show pieces’ that fashion retrospectives in Europe often favour. Rather, the archetypes of fashion, including Levi’s 501s, the simple white T-shirt and Charles James’ 1932 Taxi Dress will be amongst the 99 fundamental Items of design on display.
PolimodaMag spoke to Paola Antonelli about this exhibition, coding, and the experiments of Demna Gvasalia.
The simple challenge that the subtitle introduces places doubt on common thought that fashion is indeed contemporary. Could you tell me how this name came to be?
The subtitle of the exhibition takes inspiration from Bernard Rudofsky’s exhibition Are Clothes Modern? held at MoMA in 1944. For Rudofsky – as well as for many philosophers and cultural theorists before and since – to be modern meant to have a very specific relationship with the historical time in which one finds oneself. Therefore, asking today a similar question, cast on the relationship between fashion and modernity is to ask the same question as Rudofsky posed – how do the clothes we wear now relate to current technologies, aesthetics, and the current socio-cultural moment – but in many ways to receive radically different answers. Rudofsky, for example, was not confronted with fast fashion as we are today, and he reasoned in gender binaries whereas today fashion seeks a kaleidoscope of gender and identity specifications.
This 1944 Rudofsky exhibition cites ‘clothes’, whereas Items uses the word ‘fashion.’ What does this imply?
Quite simply, it implies that we want to take on the knotty, complex, contested word ‘fashion’ – and I owe great thanks to my friend and colleague Glenn Adamson for encouraging me to use it. In many ways, we’re honoring the spirit of Rudofsky’s choice of word, ‘clothes,’ because we’re tracing, first and foremost, design and not designers in this show. We want to take on fashion as that term indicates a very particular friction between timelessness and temporality that I think tells us a lot about the contemporary moment.
Do you see overlap between the year of Are Clothes Modern? and our current moment?
I read an article in The New York Times recently that echoed intensely a paragraph from Rudofsky’s original press release. The Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman said that fashion was still the ugly duckling of the art and design world, always relegated to the sidelines of serious scholarship and discussion, and unfairly so. Rudofsky railed against the very same in 1944, and so I think there is a connection between his exhibition rationale, and ours which is bringing what we wear back into the locus of design discourses today. There is so much critical and robust scholarship in fashion now. I recognize that and want to celebrate it within MoMA’s expertise, which is contemporary design.
Do you find yourself often convincing people of the value of familiar designs and objects in a museum space?
Ever since my 2004 exhibition Humble Masterpieces – and even before then – it has been my very great pleasure to reconnect people with everyday objects in the museum. It’s like introducing old friends. People find out that staples of their daily life that they have never really considered in any depth have compelling and profound design histories that shed light on the politics and practices of everyday life. I hope that the Items exhibition will continue this, a legacy that goes back to some of the earliest design exhibitions MoMA mounted like Machine Art in 1934.
Would you go so far as to make a distinction between theoretical and applied fashion in the same way as you have in other areas of design?
Having been recently introduced to the marvellous journal Vestoj, I think it’s safe to say that there certainly exists a robust current of theoretical and critical fashion discourse. However, I’m not sure if theory sits completely apart from applied fashion – the boundaries of each overlap, though also stake out their own multifaceted territories. Fashion, especially runway fashion, has always had a firm purchase on the imaginary and the speculative which then filters down to pret-a-porter. Like any discipline or practice, opposite ends of the spectrum seem quite far apart and distinct, but the middle ground in fashion is more distinct, I feel, that in other areas of design.
How might something like the elegance of code contribute to fashion design?
Code is, for some designers, their needle and thread, and as such is already contributing to the future of fashion, whether through experiments in 3 and 4D printing (see the Kinematics Dress MoMA acquired in 2014, or this season’s threeASFOUR show at NY fashion week) or in terms of programming innovative prosthetics and exoskeletons (see experiments at the Wyss Institute at Harvard, for example). There are instances where the code is a tool, and some exceptional cases where it is the design itself.
Where do you consider to be the centre of gravity in the field of fashion?
People who wear clothes – all of us – are the center of gravity. As we have done in other spheres, for example food, there is great power in setting our own agenda, which may be different than the agenda of large corporations or governments. In the food system, there is now greater awareness of factory farming, fair and foul labor practices, the connection between seasonality and the carbon footprint of food, and waste, to name just a few underlying aspects. There has not been a perfect solution for any of these concerns, and socio-economics still play an outsize role in individual and collective agency around them, but I think it is fair to say there has been a dramatic shift for the better. I see the same in fashion. People are increasingly aware of the pitfalls of fast fashion, though we still have a long, long way to go to transform ourselves from consumers into citizens of the world. And designers are also disengaging from the system and forging their own paths – I think of the work of Mary Ping of Slow and Steady Wins the Race, for example, but also of the furor over Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements label, which has been praised for moving away from the fashion house system and truly engaging with contemporary culture. How that experiment turns out still remains to be seen, I think, but it’s unarguable that many stakeholders within the industry are seeking alternatives to well worn paths.
Title illustration by Mirea Papotto