Last month, the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London opened the largest exhibition ever staged in the UK on the house of Dior.
Before even opening its doors, the exhibition had sold 37,000 tickets and just three weeks into its initial six-month run, all pre-bookable tickets were sold out. The museum has now extended it by seven weeks.
“Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” comes four years after the V&A’s record-breaking “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” exhibition which cost £3m ($3.9m) to put together, a significantly bigger budget than past displays. It attracted more than 480,000 visitors making it their most popular exhibition ever.
While the V&A has been hosting fashion exhibitions since 1971, the scale and popularity of them has been growing in recent years. It’s not just the V&A either.
Last year at The Met Museum in New York, its “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition, exploring how Catholicism has influenced fashion, was visited by 1,659,647 people. It set a new record for visitor numbers for the museum, exceeding Treasures of Tutankhamun which had held the title since 1978.
This growing trend isn’t just good for museums, it’s also opening up fashion labels to new audiences and providing meaningful experiences with their brand.
“A lot of fashion houses now have their own archives because they’ve realized the importance of having that legacy and that there’s an interest in the history of the house,” says Oriole Cullen, curator of “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” at the V&A. “From our point of view, we’re really happy to see more businesses are realizing the value of their archives and making them accessible too.”
Olivier Flaviano, executive director of Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, which was opened in 2017 by the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent and operates separately from the Kering-owned fashion house, explains how the designer was a pioneer in archiving.
“The Yves Saint Laurent house was the first, as early as 1964, to keep a selection of prototypes from the show. At the time, in the 60s and before, the prototypes, the exact garment a model wore in the show were either given to the models or usually sold on sale to the clients. When you look at Chanel and Dior they really got interested in their archives in the ’80s.”
Flaviano believes that without these archives, that have become common practice for fashions brands starting out today, there wouldn’t be the number of fashion exhibitions that there are today.
Not only did Laurent and Bergé (Laurent’s partner in life and business) collect garment prototypes, but also the accessories that appeared on the catwalk, sketches and official documents for each piece.
The foundation looks after an impressive 7,000 haute couture garments and 30,000 accessories.
The museum is located in the former couture house of the designer on Avenue Marceau in Paris, preserved in the same state as when it was a working studio.
It provides an intimate experience for visitors and is attracting strong numbers despite being less than two years old. The most recent exhibition attracted almost 900 visitors per day, the maximum capacity for the 400 square meter space.
“Fashion has been more exposed to the public and I think that in a way fashion is becoming an art itself. With those big exhibitions, it’s helping transform the status of fashion,” explains Flaviano who says the museum attracts visitors who are interested in more than just fashion.
Brands are also beginning to directly operate their own museums too.
At Alexander McQueen’s new London flagship, the brand has incorporated an exhibition space into the retail experience. The top floor is dedicated to showcasing past and current designs, photography and a program of talks.
While at the Armani/Silos museum in Milan it has its own standalone space dedicated to the work of Giorgio Armani. As well as exhibition space, it encompasses a digital archive, a screening room which shows footage of commercials, interviews and the like, a gift shop and a café.
It was opened in 2015 as the Giorgio Armani brand celebrated its 40th anniversary.
“I didn’t want the Silos to be merely a celebration of my work, but instead a container of ideas and projects based on my collections and set out to offer a journey through my creative method, encouraging research and boosting creativity. The idea is that of a place, not just for contemplation, but rather acting as a stimulus and inspiration,” said Armani.
Armani sees the museum as a powerful tool that helps visitors have a meaningful relationship with his creations. “Visitors have an opportunity for immersing themselves in the exhibition under their own terms and at their own pace. There are no time restraints or distractions. It can be a very profound and personal experience and very different from other forms of storytelling which tend to be filtered by another medium, for example a magazine or a screen,” he noted.
Luxury brands have become far more accessible to the wider public in recent years thanks to social media but demonstrating craftsmanship and creativity in a tangible way remains a struggle.
Armani added, “In our digital era there is undoubtedly growing curiosity about what is concrete, literal and real. There’s an aspiration towards craftsmanship, things made with care and with passion and made to last. It’s the opposite of fast fashion, which appears increasingly superficial and inconsistent.”
At the same time, the social media buzz created by exhibitions is another perk for fashion brands engaging with the medium.
“It’s the exhibition, the book, the talk, the potential articles in the press but there’s also the reaction of people, the pictures taken, the social media around it, from a communication standpoint, it’s extremely interesting,” says Olivier Theyskens, the 42-year-old Belgian designer whose work spans creative director roles at Nina Ricci, Rochas and Theory as well as his own label.
Last year, Theyskens presented “She Walks in Beauty”, a retrospective of his work across different design houses at the Mode Museum in Antwerp which was accompanied by a coffee table book published by Rizzoli. He is currently working on a new exhibition, titled “In Praesentia”, for the Museum of Lace and Fashion in Calais which opens in June.
“I always hear the curators saying to me that 15 to 20 years ago designers wouldn’t want to have their work shown in a museum because they would consider it something that is done only when the designer is no more, it’s historic, it’s old, but today people see exhibitions as more modern, more dynamic, more exciting and more useful for their communication, for their marketing and for also telling the story of brands.”
Exhibitions are certainly not exclusively the realm of storied fashion houses with lengthy legacies anymore and smaller museums and galleries are tapping into the opportunity too. In Washington, D.C, the National Museum of Women in the Arts has just closed an exhibition dedicated to Rodarte, the celebrity-favorite label founded by sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy in 2005. London’s Now Gallery has presented smaller-scale exhibitions from even younger labels including Molly Goddard and Richard Malone to support up-and-coming talent.
In addition to solo exhibitions, Theyskens regularly lends pieces from his archive to museums to feature in thematic shows which he says holds value in a different way, “I really love that because it’s great to see your designs as part of the global history,” he reflects.
“I think there’s always been fantastic exhibitions and they’ve always been popular. The difference I think today is that the brands have started to see more advantage in this form of communication,” Theyskens concludes.
In a time of fleeting marketing moments – a 10-minute catwalk show, a disappearing Instagram story – exhibitions feel like ‘slow marketing’. It’s an opportunity to communicate, over a period of months, with a truly engaged audience who have come to spend an amount of time listening to you and an all-too-rare opportunity to go in-depth with the brand philosophy and history rather than pushing new season styles.
Not only should brands, both young and established, be taking care of their archives should museums come knocking, but as fashion tries to master experiential retail and attract a millennial audience who spend on things to do rather than things to have, there’s something to be learnt from the museum exhibition.