‘Prêt-a-Toucher’ – Inside A Very Special Fashion Archive

Fashion exhibitions are generally curated and presented is such a way as to distance the clothing from the viewer – a ‘do not touch’ rule applies.  It’s not hard to understand why, considering the need to preserve and protect the fabrics and construction.  However, it significantly limits our ability to understand the garments and to a degree forces us to see them only as aesthetic objects in static form.  So much about clothes is in the construction, underpinnings, drape, weight, linings and stitching – the heart, the soul – especially in couture, which is made entirely by hand.  You need to look inside to see it through the eyes of the craftsmen and women who made it.

The Temporary Fashion Museum at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam allows just that.  With an exhibition presenting the archive of Eva Maria Hatschek, a Swiss woman who had an extraordinary collection of clothes designed, but (oddly in today’s terms) not made, by designers including Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel and other couture masters of the 1940’s and beyond.

tmm_collected_by_1_foto_johannes_schwartzCollected by Eva Maria Hatschek – Image: Johannes Schwartz

Eva Maria Hatschek was a great appreciator of fabrics, colour and texture and from the 1960’s to 1980’s kept a diary of swatches, photographs and notes about outfits she would have designed by the great designers mentioned above then created by her own seamstresses, usually from Swiss textiles.  Incredibly, at that time (from the late 1940’s)  she would buy the paper patterns for the garments from the great designers and her staff would amend and cut them out and construct them in the fabric of her choosing.  She never threw anything away and the collection is comprised of 1700 pieces in total. 

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While discussing Mrs Hatschek’s collection with the museum staff they explained that it was unclear as to whether there were any limitations on the fabric selection imposed by the designers.  Given our current age of intense copyright and IP protection the selling of fashion house-created patterns to individuals to use at their will seems strangely open and relaxed, although it was very typical of that time.  Some of the fashion houses even provided labels for Mrs Hatschek to have sewn into the garments. 

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Eva Maria Hatschek not only wore custom made pieces by her seamstresses, but she had a vast collection of couture created by Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Coco Chanel.   Incredibly, Mrs Hatchek wore most pieces once only or not at all.  She was a true collector and appreciator of clothing for the sake of the beauty of the textiles, the techniques and craft, not ‘fashion’ as a notion of perpetual newness.  There were no fashion magazines found at her residence, only hundreds of archive boxes and her sketchbooks full of notes on the pieces she had bought and had made.

The fascinating exhibition is displayed as an industrial shelved archive and was made possible by the Swiss Textile Collection, which took custody of the immense collection (of which only one third is available to view in this exhibition) from Mrs Hatschek’s family after she died.  The Swiss Textile Collection wished for viewers to be able to interact with the textiles and understand the nature of the garments through close inspection and touch.  It’s a great privilege to be able to inspect in detail the work of such skilled crafts-people and understand the techniques of stitching and finishing they employed.

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There is a beautiful ceremony around the process of viewing the pieces.  You are first presented with a catalogue, from which you can select garments/outfits to view.  The exhibition staff then locate the appropriate box in the open-shelved archive and once gloved, lay the garments out on tissue paper for the viewer to unfold and inspect.  I see a Chanel three-piece boucle suit which is archived as an ensemble with a silk shirt and matching scarf and boucle shawl.  The textiles are incredible and it is evident that the boucle’ yarn has been woven for the three piece suit, knitted for the shawl and crocheted for the shawl trim.  It shows a great understanding and exploration of textile techniques and creation of complimentary pieces – the same way a fashion designer might explore textiles within a collection and extend their use in different ways across different garments.  It is also a reminder of a historic way of dressing where an outfit was designed and created to be worn as a whole, without styling variation, in stark contrast to the contemporary way of dressing. 

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The Chanel suit reveals inner markings on the waistband which are believed to be the signature of one of Mrs Hatschek’s seamstresses – a star-like motif that can be found on a number of garments.  It’s a hallmark of pride and craft and is a wonderful secret that would have been contained had these garments been exhibited in a traditional way on mannequins. 

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Exclusive fashion made inclusive.  The way it should be and poignantly in line with fashion’s current digital evolution.

The exhibition entitled Collected by Eva Maria Hatschek runs until May 8th.  For further insight into the great fashion collector read the Instituut’s interview with Rosmarie Amacher of the Swiss Textile Collection.  

Header image by Johannes Schwartz

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Is the Fashion Critic Dead?

What is the place of the fashion critic in an increasingly democratic, social media-driven industry?  Are they obsolete?  The conversation between Susie Lau and Alexander Fury at the LV series 3 exhibition on Friday night made me ponder this very question.

IMG_5800Susie Lau in conversation with Alexander Fury at Louis Vuitton’s LV Series 3 Exhibition, London

If fashion is being captured and disseminated by the public, who are shaping their personal style according to online influencers (celebrities/bloggers) rather than looking to fashion critics for direction on what to buy, then what purpose do the critics serve? To propagate the agenda of the publication for which they write?  Do they influence buyers?  Consider a buyer seeing a blogger with half a million followers wearing an item of clothing or a fashion critic writing a favourable review about that item.  Which one would have a greater influence on the buyer, whose main aim is to purchase products and sell them to a social media-obsessed public?  Are they there for industry insiders to read what amount to peer reviews?

Marketing and PR have always been an important support mechanism for selling fashion products – I know this from experience selling my own collections to boutiques – but now online influencers appears to have transcended traditional marketing and PR strategies.  Traditional PR involved stylists and shopping editors calling in items to photograph and publish at the time the product came into store – i.e. six months after the product was initially presented at London Fashion Week, for example.  This has been totally usurped by immediate (and ideally sustained) social media promotion of product, although the lag until the product is available is a problem.  Selling fashion has become more about authentic portrayal/endorsement of products on social media than fashion critics and editors telling the public what to wear each season, months after the products have been shown.

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Poppy Delevingne’s Instagram 

It was interesting to see the level of engagement with Susie Lau after her conversation with Alexander Fury, which was broadcast on Twitter’s real time platform Periscope.  Alexander is a seasoned critic with an encyclopaedic knowledge of fashion history who writes for the well established and respected broadsheet, The Independent. Susie is an indie blogger who covers fashion from a personal perspective and illuminates the work of designers with a refreshingly thoughtful slant.  She is as much a supportive and grass-roots champion for emerging designers as she is a front row stalwart.  While Alexander dismissed ethical fashion as not important to designers because they are too busy and over-worked, Susie is a vocal campaigner for Fashion Revolution Day and has oversight of ethical advances being made within the industry, including supporting the recent launch of Katie Jones sustainable knitwear in Selfridges.

Considering the impact of social media, on Instagram Susie has considerably more followers than Alexander.  Any idea who people were queueing up to chat to afterwards and have a photo taken with?  This is by no means a slight on Alexander, simply a reflection of how the public engages with and consumes fashion in a digital, authenticity-driven age.  In mentioning Alexander and Susie’s position on ethical fashion I hope to illustrate that a fashion commentator with oversight of the industry as a whole and who explores fashion’s wider context is surely better placed to provide critique than one who does not, and perhaps that means the role of the fashion critic in today’s industry needs to expand.

Reading Alexander’s show reviews in the Independent last week I discovered he had written a critique on a show he didn’t attend – he used the online show images from which to form his opinion.  We can all access these images in a matter of minutes and in some cases in real time, so theoretically, any person can form an objective review of a fashion show.  I found this interesting because it throws the purpose of the fashion critic further into question, especially as we’re all increasingly taking on the role of curators of our own (and other people’s) style and members of the public have been invited to industry runway shows for the first time this season at Givenchy.

unnamedMembers of the public at the Givenchy show. Image: Business of Fashion

Conversation amongst my lecturing colleagues includes discussion of critics’ reviews and there’s a definite reverence for critics’ (including Alexander’s) opinion,  but to the fashion consuming public, who brands are putting more and more central to their marketing and PR strategies, is the era of the fashion critic dead?

Perhaps fashion critics need to evolve their reviews to include fashion’s impact and involvement with society, culture, technology and the environment, putting fashion in a broader, more accessible and arguably more interesting (and powerfully relevant) context?

Want to explore the debate further? >> Fashionista: Where Have all the Fashion Critics Gone?

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