How do you properly tell the story of a city – any city – but specifically New York City, a 320 square mile expanse of layered stories and singular attitude? Make it an ode to clothes.
“A Matter of Style,” a pop-up fashion museum opening Sept. 9, is an exploration of New York’s sartorial heritage, framed by the extensive photographic archive of Fairchild Media Group, whose portfolio includes the faithful Observer of style Everyday women’s clothing. (WWD is owned by Penske Media Corporation, the same parent company as ART news.) The museum, presented at AG Studios in Manhattan, will showcase exclusive artwork, vintage fashion, immersive experiences and photography in tandem with New York Fashion Week.
Fairchild, founded by John Fairchild in 1910, has one of the most important archives of fashion photography in the media. It includes candids of quintessential New York personalities alongside images of everyday people whose daily dramas unfold outside the spotlight.
There’s Jackie Kennedy, who escapes from her usual lunch spot, La Grenouille. Downtown luminaries like Andy Warhol and Patti Smith appeared in its pages. The eras of American history unfold before the photographer’s lens: the stiff skirts synonymous with the nuclear family; the beaded and fringed waist of the hippies; and the dapper power uniform of the Black Panther era. “Style is a language and reflects history like any other type of visual medium,” writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis once said. WWD.
“A Matter of Style” comes at a fruitful time for fashion exhibitions. Perhaps due to the enduring popularity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, the garment entered the artistic institution – not always an ongoing process – where its historical weight is taken into account. Currently, an investigation into the work of the late artist and designer Virgil Abloh is underway at the Brooklyn Museum. And the Costume Institute’s latest big release also focused on American fashion, but with a greater emphasis on its relationship to European haute couture.
The Fairchild Museum’s focus on New York is a nice diversion. This should offer insight into how the personal and the political intersect on our clothes.
To learn more about the show, ART news spoke over the phone with its curator, visual culture historian, archivist and design educator Tonya Blazio-Licorish. A condensed version of the conversation follows below.
Can you tell us a bit about your role as an archivist?
My work here revolves around archive content for all Fairchild brands. I came to PMC as a historian of visual culture. And so, I use my background in fashion history to bring an element of storytelling to how I look at the Fairchild archives, which is just an incredible amount of information. Truly, it’s a well-deserved moment for Fairchild, which has been there to capture what, exactly, fashion has been saying for decades. She celebrates her 112th birthday this year. It captures the history of fashion, which encompasses designers, catwalks, celebrities, music, art – no part of our culture is spared. This show will focus specifically on the history of fashion in New York.
And how did you find a story to tell about New York?
I focused on the people, places and things that made it a global fashion city, but also made it unique other fashion city. It’s about creating context: what was happening at the time, disguised as what New Yorkers were wearing. I mean, just think denim – think about the effect of this shot of James Dean in jeans and a white t-shirt. You are instantly transported to that exact moment.
And New York – America, really – has evolved differently from European capitals; its modes were more democratic. Denim and other fashions reflected America’s desire to form its own cultural zeitgeist. Think the earthquake of the 60s, the Black Panther uniforms of the 70s. Every generation was trying to say something.
How do you think WWD stand out from similar fashion publications?
The exhibition focuses on how WWD captured that, how intimate it was with the landscape. John Fairchild viewed fashion as a conversation, how its advances could predict the trajectory of the zeitgeist. From the start, WWD would do a street style photoshoot in and around town – it was called “They Wear” and it appeared weekly in the publication. New York in general was one of the first fashion capitals to pay close attention not just to what the models wore, but to everyone else, probably since there have always been so many photographers working here. “The Ladies Who Lunch” is another trademark of the magazine – it was dedicated to the life of socialites. In a way, this was all an early form of social media.
As an image historian, what do you think of the “is the art of fashion” debate?
The understanding of fashion as an art form has changed. Fashion is a cultural memory in which we live; it is logical that it opens onto a highly critical space. Fashion is art – it has levels, it has processes. He has inspiration, he tells a story. The person who carves it can speak softly or very, very loudly. And going back to the idea that American fashion is democratic, it’s like that with art too. Art and fashion at a time are those things that may seem out of reach or inaccessible. But this is never the case.