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Exhibit Review: Fashion and Fine Art Meet at MFA

New Exhibit Displays Designer Masterpieces

By Marie Y. Thibault

“Fashion Show: Paris Collections 2006”

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Gund Gallery

Nov. 12, 2006 — March 18, 2007

The crowd awaiting the introduction to the newest, first of its kind, Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, “Fashion Show: Paris Collections 2006,” could have been considered a work of art themselves. Fuchsia and floral blouses and dresses flashed against a more austere background of steely gray and chic jet black pants, trench coats, and boots.

These reviewers and reporters were dressed better than the usual grouping of journalists — no wonder, since we would be previewing an exhibit that features clothing from ten top designers. Some are household names, like Chanel and Christian Dior, while others, like Yohji Yamamoto and Hussein Chalayan, are only familiar to those who follow the fashion industry.

Our brief welcome included an introduction to representatives from several of the fashion houses. I was secretly delighted to find a similarity between my last name and that of Chanel’s representative, Arlette Thebault. Impeccably dressed and styled, these men and women were on hand to answer our questions about their label’s designs.

Through the entrance, we were first greeted with the slouchy menswear style of Yohji Yamamoto. His oversized coats and hoods fall somewhere between the elegance of a plush bathrobe and the macabre style of a “Lord of the Rings” cloak. Yamamoto says that “Men’s suiting on a woman’s body … for me, that is femininity.”

This collection cut a strong contrast when situated next to the dainty ruffles and manikin curtseys of Viktor & Rolf. The scene here is a bit “Nutcracker,” with metallic gold, silver, and clear shoes and nets covering the faces of all the manikins, or “pr cieuses,” as named by the statement on the exhibit’s wall. Entire dresses are plated in silver and there is a distinct holiday-and-tinsel mood to the pieces.

There is a comfortable elegance to Cyprian Hussein Chalayan’s designs. And by comfortable, I mean the sensation of sinking into a lounge chair comfortable, as a couple of his pieces come complete with an armchair collar. The shapely silhouette of a dress, I was surprised to realize, was molded from the curves of a maroon, overstuffed velvet armchair.

If these first three designers surprised me with the freshness of their creations, the next label, Maison Martin Margiela, astounded me with its ingenuity. Vests, jackets, even entire dresses were created from everyday items found anywhere and everywhere. There is a men’s “playing cards waistcoat.” “Playing cards taken from packs of many different card games are shuffled and age d by dyeing, fraying, and ironing, and used as a fabric to create a waistcoat,” reads the description next to the piece. Obviously immense amounts of time and effort were put into each article of clothing, yet the finished product looked easy and carefree.

Take, for example, a jacket made entirely of strings of pearls and beads. It is a rainbow of champagne, Tahitian, and jade-colored pearls, but there is more to this jacket than meets the eye. A representative from Maison Martin Margiela told me that the jacket must be perfectly balanced in order to sit on the wearer easily, meaning creators must weigh each strand carefully. Where does the inspiration for a dress made entirely of scarlet and maroon silk flowers draped over a manikin come from? That, the representative tells me, is the “six million dollar question.” “Some days the materials come before the ideas, other days the ideas come before the materials,” he says.

Continuing through the exhibit, I came upon Rochas. Olivier Theyskens, artistic director for Rochas, seems to favor tans, blacks, and grays in this collection. Ruffled, puffy sleeves are also in vogue, and one striking gown features dainty birds rising into a sleet-colored sky.

Tunisian designer Azzedine Ala a’s seductively lacy furred pieces concentrate on a very feminine shape. Though I wasn’t as enthusiastic about some of the heavier pieces, which included a goat-fur skirt, I was left in raptures by a gown made of shirred mousseline. A sassy, thigh-skimming dress made of chantilly lace was a joy to look at as well.

Christian Dior’s display was noticeably more dramatic than its compeers, with red metallic panels casting a glow of love and hatred upon its onlookers. This collection was marked by elaborate, ornate fabrics and embroidering. One breath-taker, the “embroidered silk taffeta, linen, and leather dress; leather gloves, leather cross,” elicited a guffaw from a fellow reviewer, who had noticed a black beaded and embroidered skeleton sewn into the skirt of the dress. The year “1789,” marking the beginning of the French revolution, was glued in beads onto another manikin’s chest. That same manikin wore quilted leather pants that had been painted to look like blood.

The Valentino collection did not evoke as much emotion as the Dior, but was nonetheless impressive. Glitter and elegance abounded with a couple of evening gowns, but my favorite piece was a simpler knee-length lilac shift.

Christian LaCroix’s “Mozart dress” was modeled on what representative Carrie Phillips called a courtesan-like manikin. The dress, a “gold-embroidered silk crepeline corset over white silk organza skirt with handpainted gold leaf,” defined extravagance and was the perfect feast for the eyes. This lavishness was easy to get used to, and I became personally attached to a white organdy and crepeline gown.

I could only think of the White Witch from “Narnia” as I stood in front of a Chanel wedding dress. It was a fluffy affair, made of tulle, silk, and sequins and its bolero, or jacket, was gathered with a peach ribbon. It was spell-binding. It … really must be seen with your own eyes.

My afternoon at the MFA fashion exhibit was a thoroughly exhilarating and awe-inspiring one, but I realize I owe that to my fascination with fashion and clothes. Sure, this sort of display might be boring to some, because as with anything, a prior enthusiasm for the subject is the only guarantee for enjoyment. But I encourage everybody to view the exhibit (especially since it is free to college students) and take a chance on the fashion world. I hope that the well-planned displays, videos of runway shows, and beautiful fabrics will convince you that fashion really is art.