The Met typically calls dibs on the big fashion exhibition each year, but this fall MoMA is giving the uptown museum a red-carpet-worthy run for its money. Items: Is Fashion Modern?, a rare clothing-themed exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, will examine some of fashion’s most iconic pieces and ask pressing questions about the intersection of fashion, culture, and innovation.
Don’t expect a gallery full of mannequins and pretty dresses; this isn’t your traditional designer retrospective. The theme is unabashedly cerebral, focusing on 111 “indispensable items” and exploring them along the three tiers of “archetype, stereotype, and prototype.” In other words, “if Diane von Furstenberg’s 1974 wrap dress is the stereotype of this design form in the 20th century, then Items will extrapolate backwards in time through examples such as Charles James’s 1932 Taxi Dress, all the way to the archetype of the kimono,” the exhibition curators explain in a blog post on MoMA’s website. The blue jean, the flipflop, the Little Black Dress, the hijab—all are examined in their various historical incarnations, and then reimagined for the future.
Diane Von Furtsenberg Wrap Dress
Which is where things get interesting. In order to “reimagine for the future,” MoMA is actually commissioning new prototypes of items they believe are ripe for redesign. The curators explain: “Within the exhibition, new generations of designers, artists, engineers, and manufacturers will be invited to respond to some of these ‘indispensable items’ with pioneering materials, approaches, and design techniques—extending this conversation into the near and distant futures, and connecting the history of these garments with their present recombination and use.”
Designer Stella McCartney, a long-time champion of vegan fashion and sustainable design, is one of the exhibition collaborators. Her namesake brand is partnering with the innovative California-based biotechnology company Bolt Threads to create a one-of-a-kind custom dress for the exhibition made of gold Bolt Microsilk™, a lab-created textile based on proteins found in nature. Think Kate Hudson’s yellow dress from How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days—but vegan.
Stella McCartney vegan spider silk dress
When McCartney visited the lab last week, she posted a photo of her tour enthusiastically captioned, “In a continual pursuit for more sustainable materials, we are creating a vegan spider silk made from yeast!” The photo of McCartney in the Bolt Threads lab, holding a petri-dish, wearing a (remarkably chic, personalized) lab coat is a reminder of just how disconnected most designers are from the actual production of their clothing. As well as a reminder of the possibilities if more designers were willing, or able, to commit to sustainable sourcing. As Lucy Siegel, author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World, has said,
“If we empower designers, they are incredibly innovative problem-solving people and will natural gravitate toward sustainability.”
McCartney is the epitome of the empowered designer. She’s been a voice for change towards greater sustainability in the fashion industry throughout her career, and, as she sees it, change and innovation are what fashion inherently should be about. “We’re excited by risk. We’re excited by thinking outside the box. We think that’s modern,” she told Business of Fashion back in 2015. “I think the fashion industry is supposed to be modern, and I find [the lack of sustainable innovation] so extraordinarily old fashioned at times that I can’t really get my head around it. The fact that we’re even having this conversation, it seems medieval to me.”
She brings up an important question. Why does the fashion industry, which is all about iteration and innovation, remain so far behind in nearly every aspect of sustainability? By empowering designers to come up with creative solutions to fashion’s many problems, MoMA’s upcoming exhibition may just change the game.
Items: Is Fashion Modern? opens at MoMA on October 1, 2017.
Words by Kerry Folan. Kerry is a writer and editor with a special interest in sustainable fashion. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Racked.com, and Glamour.com, among other media.