DFW Style Daily’s Jim Duran chats with Dr. Valerie Steele, famously dubbed one of “fashion’s brainiest women”.
Read on for her insights into mass-market collabs, designers to watch, and more.
The Washington Post dubbed Dr. Valerie Steele one of “fashion’s brainiest women”, and the New York Daily News listed her among Fashion’s 50 Most Powerful. An accomplished author and editor, as well as Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she recently visited our fair city to lecture at the Dallas Museum of Art.
During this trip, we sat down with Dr. Steele to discuss the industry’s past, present, and future. Her insights offer a rare glimpse at the fashion world from an anthropological and academic perspective.
DFW Style Daily: You recently curated the Daphne Guinness exhibit at the Museum at F.I.T. Why are women like Ms. Guinness important to fashion?
Valerie Steele: There have been so many exhibitions on great individual fashion designers like Jean Paul Gaultier or Alexander McQueen, but there have been surprisingly few that focus on individuals of great personal style, who help bring fashion off the runway and into real life. I felt that Daphne Guinness is more than a collector of amazing haute couture, and more than just a muse. I felt that she [is] an exciting fashion icon in the world today. I think women like Daphne inspire designers, and inspire all of us who love fashion to be individuals, and to try to make everyday an event worth dressing for.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s career-spanning retrospective exhibit opened last month at the Dallas Museum of Art. What makes this exhibit so important to both the fashion and art worlds?
Gaultier has been instrumental in launching a lot of very fertile experiments that explore the way fashion relates to sexuality, gender, and class. He helped launch underwear as outerwear. He helped transform the image of the corset from a symbol of women’s oppression to, when being worn by people like Madonna, a symbol of female sexual power.
He brought elements of lower middle class Parisian fashion into high fashion, breaking the class barriers. Most of all, he has explored alternate visions of beauty, so that men [who] are sensitive and women [who] are strong, people who are older and fatter, all kinds of people who don’t fit the norms of what we might typically think of as beautiful, he has always found beautiful.
Of the youngest generation of avant-garde designers, who do you see that is likely to follow the tradition of the great couturiers and keep haute couture alive?
I think what you are seeing with designers like Gareth Pugh and Rick Owens, as well as people like Azzedine Alaïa, is the creation of clothing that might be described as demi-couture. It’s not officially a part of the couture system, which has a lot of somewhat arbitrary rules. But, there is the same kind of attention to detail and the focus on real creativity, design and workmanship.
I think that what you have with couture involves artisanship, which is in danger of dying out in Europe. There a very few people who know how to do the kind of embroidery you see in the best couture pieces. There are people in India that do amazing embroideries that need to be brought into the global fashion world. So, technique and craftsmanship is one aspect, and the other is design and creativity.
Who among the youngest generation of designers would you like to see in a retrospective exhibit in 30 years?
It is very difficult to look at a designer in the beginning of their career and guess how much they are going to evolve. It’s a little bit like looking at young, contemporary artists, but I think, just on the basis of what they have done so far, I would have to take a look at Gareth Pugh, the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte, and Haider Ackermann. Ackermann is someone who is super-talented, and I would not be at all surprised if you saw a retrospective of his work in the future.
Versace and H&M recently released a mass-market collaborative collection. Why are such collaborations important to fashion, and how do they benefit both parties?
Well, it certainly gets a huge amount of publicity for a fast fashion retailer like H&M. It clearly has the Versace DNA in it, but it is also affordable. So, [shoppers] will save up to buy a purse, where they might have seen it as unattainable before it was available at H&M. It raises the high fashion quotient for H&M, and it reminds everyone in a mass market how cool Versace is.
For more information on Dr. Steele, visit ValerieSteeleFashion.com.
(Photo credits, from top: 1. Headshot – Aaron Cobbett, 2. Patrick McMullan, 3. Dallas Museum of Art)