What Tim Burton and Alexander McQueen Taught Me about Running a Museum

The dress that made me an Alexander McQueen fan for life. There's no doubt he's an artist

When I was an intern at MoMA, the museum launched a mid-career retrospective of the filmmaker Tim Burton. It was met with skepticism. Burton’s iconic status as a mainstream blockbuster-maker, with a cult following, had critics and fine-arts-lovers questioning MoMA’s integrity. It was an exhibition that displayed process, the evolution of process, and a mental stream of consciousness. But are doodles by a director art? Is Burton a mega-museum worthy artist?

When I considered the exhibition at the time, I decided “Tim Burton” was brilliant. From a museum-marketing, public relations point of view, I still believe “Tim Burton” was brilliant.

After witnessing the line-ups and the crowds, and after mingling with the audiences, I saw the value in a marquee art venue like MoMA hosting a mass-appeal exhibition. New audiences entered the museum, memberships increased, and because the exhibition had timed entry tickets, museum-visitors had time to kill by viewing the other galleries. The meatier, more academic, more stunning show “Bauhaus” was on at the same time. I don’t doubt that the increase in the number of under-20-somethings strolling the gallery had a lot to do with Tim Burton.

2+ years later, people are still talking about it. 2 years later, the number one search term that drives people to my blog is “Tim Burton at MoMA.” It was an exhibition that had staying power in the public’s mind.

Then came “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — an exhibition with the same mass-consumer appeal.

Burton and McQueen are household names in a way Frans Hal and Lyonnel Feininger will never be.

I began following McQueen’s career when he catapulted into the fashion headlines in 1990s. He revived avant-garde haute couture and breathed a much-needed breathe of the rebellious artist into a humdrum fashion world. So, of course, when the exhibit opened in May, I promised myself I’d go.

people were lined up to get into the musem for blocks! records must have been set

“Savage Beauty” closed yesterday, and all  I saw of it was a line of waiting people stretching south along 5th Avenue and fading into Central Park. I can’t, therefore, comment on the show itself. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on “Savage Beauty.”

Drawing on global culture as much as on his native Scotland, McQueen’s career echoes those of artists like Matisse and Picasso who took the history of their medium and infused the traditional with a sense of the exotic, the other-worldly. For anyone that has ever seen a McQueen show or seen his clothes in a Vogue spread, there is no doubt that McQueen is an artist. The Costume Institute is an integral part of the Met’s collection and exhibition schedule. Fashion as art and the art of fashion is, essentially, part of the museum’s DNA.

A retrospective at the Met on McQueen was not only natural, but inevitable.

always the showman, his work was as carnal and disquieting as it was beautiful

But what about the management of the exhibition? My understanding is that there were no timed tickets for “savage Beauty” — if you wanted to see it, you had to wait your turn. Standing in line for 2-5 hours — did that permit visitors an opportunity to tour the museum? I’d be interested to see gallery counts. Thousands lined-up, thousands saw McQueen. Did thousands see “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask?”

Membership increased, but then the Met stopped granting early morning member-exclusive previews. Considering that the Met’s ticket price is technically voluntary, the only benefit to becoming a member is the privileged viewing. I bet there were some very angry new members. Were refunds requested? Were they granted?

On the one hand, it’s exciting to see a line thousands deep waiting to get into a museum of fine art. On the other, you can’t help but wonder, if that’s the only exhibit they get to see, will they be back?


I think Bravo won when it Lost Project Runway

Season 6 of “Project Runway” was a waste of 14 Thursday nights.

The season finale Bryant Park show was a lackluster display of recycled looks, average street wear, and overworked gowns. Fashion forward? Not so much.

Did anyone notice the striking resemblance between Irina’s collection and that of season 4 winner, Christian Siriano? The all-black garments, the felt hats, the dramatic shoulders, the stilettos. We’d seen it all 2 seasons ago… but Christian was a showman. I still remember those stunning bolero jackets and high-neck blouses. His collection was like a series of Rembrandt portraits — dark and powerful, modern and immortal. Irina’s collection, while cohesive and certainly well-constructed, was not particularly memorable. It was perhaps the most tired of the three lines.

Althea just looked at what’s already going on in fashion — layers, boyfriend blazers, harem pants, 80s-shoulders, and cinch-waist belts — and made her own. It reeked of a high schooler on a limited budget who embarked on a DYI fashion project. Indeed, there were several individual pieces that would become staples in any woman’s wardrobe — a cardigan or pair of pants. But did it shake up your fashion world? Did it inspire you to redo your wardrobe? No. It was a snooozefest… albeit, one that would sell well in Macy’s.

Carol-Hannah had the most compelling, though most disjointed, collection of the three. Her first dress, a short, flowing champagne-colored cocktail number, was structured and draped in a way that echoed the lancet arches of Gothic cathedrals. It was a show-stopper. As was her “13th look” — a teal, floor-length gown that simultaneously screamed Grecian goddess and silver screen siren. But there were several metallic looks in the middle that looked like bad maternity wear, even with all the stunning embellishments. Also, her signature look (a gold, fish-tale gown) was remarkably similar to Rami’s (of season 4) signature look.

Throughout the season, Irina was the judge’s favorite. She won more challenges than the other designers and rarely received negative feedback. But she has a thing for fake fur, which to me means she has a taste problem. Fake fur always looks cheap. She also likes her dresses hip-hugging and skin-tight… which to me also indicates a taste problem.

Challenge after challenge, I questioned the judges’ decisions. Michael Kors was MIA for most of the season, and I feel as a result, some looks won and some looks were overlooked that shouldn’t have. Frankly, there was nothing particularly memorable about most of the winning looks… except maybe Chris’ first winning dress that was a cascade of ruffles that stopped just above the knee. I wish they had kept him for Bryant Park… at least he would have put on a show with 12 voluminous, over inflated gowns. Anything would have been better than all that black and beige.

And can I just say, what happened to all the sleeves on all the knitwear in that final runway show? Did they stretch out on the hangers and the models, or did Althea and Irina mean for the cuffs to hit the knees? I’m all for an oversize sweater, but at some point oversize looks ridiculous.

Considering Season 5’s dullsville finale (does anyone remember who won?), I was expecting Season 6 to be a knockout on par with seasons 1-4 (I wanted every one of those winners in my wardrobe). But after two lame seasons in a row, I have to say… I’m sorry, Project Runway, you’re out. Auf wiedersehen.

Victorians are Always En Vogue

Portrait of William Walton, 1886

James Carroll Beckwith, "Portrait of William Walton," 1886.

If you happened upon today’s NY Times Thursday Style section, you may have noticed a front page spread on a Victorian revival in menswear. Partially spurred by Guy Ritchie’s re-envisioning of Sherlock Holmes, the 1800s inspired bowler hats, military coats, three-piece suits, and suspenders now en vogue seem an appropriate return to masculinity in a fashion world otherwise dominated by slightly effeminate hipsters. When we think of Victorians and fashion, corsets, bustles, and hatpins are what typically come to mind. What we forget is that the American male identity — the cowboy and the power-broker, the rugged frontiersman and the rough-edged urbanite — was effectively created in the years following the Civil War, in the Gilded Age. (Hello, J.P Morgan!)

I find an interesting irony in this revival in style. With last fall’s economic collapse, we witnessed the death of another Gilded Age. Wednesday’s Times featured articles on the post-meltdown retraction of philanthropic giving. Yet interior decorators and menswear designers have turned to the 1890s, an age marked by opulence, extravagance, and the birth of American philanthropy as we know it. What are designers trying to tell us? That things are looking up? Or have they found a sense of humour?

Whatever the case maybe, I’m quite happy to have this revival of old-school haberdashery. I don’t know about you other women out there, but these skinny jeans on anorexic men is just not my idea of sexy.

Now, what about the new Sherlock Holmes?

I once told three sharp women to “Leave Auntie Jane [Austen] Alone.”

Now I’m going ask Guy Ritchie to leave Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alone. I’m going to hold my tongue and not call Guy Ritchie one of the most overrated upstart directors of the last decade. I’m not going to call him a one-hit wonder (really, all he had was Lock, Stock… Snatch wasn’t up to snuff). But I will ask, does he really think turning history’s most beloved uber-sleuth into stuntman is a good idea? Does he really think Robert Downy, Jr. is the best man to embody a character marked by his “extraordinary powers” of deduction? Maybe Ritchie was thinking about Holmes as a cocaine addict when he was casting. Holmes is a dandy, not an action hero. He’s an intellectual who’s just a wee-bit feminine, and most importantly, he’s a social outsider, who as Watson tells us “loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul.” Somehow, Downy, Jr.., with his 8-pack, is just a little too cool for the Sherlock Holmes school… and don’t get me started on Jude Law as Dr. Watson.

Rules for Dressing like a Fashionista

1. Always dress for an event like you’re coming from/going to something more important. The only exceptions to this rule: your wedding and the Oscars.

2. For dress and work wear, buy clothes you know you’ll want to put on 5 years from now. I believe in looking current, but I believe in looking classic more.  With this in mind, consider your good clothes investments and take care of them appropriately.

3. Don’t keep old t-shirts. There’s nothing like a pair of dark jeans and a t-shirt, but don’t wear something with holes in it or permanent stains. I’m all for clothes that tell a story, but if there’s nothing sentimental behind that dusty tee, trash it. The Gap has lots of sales.

4. Ladies, you can never go wrong with a pair of high-waisted, wide-leg, pleated pants. They scream Katherine Hepburn. Just make sure the tailoring and textiles are impeccable.

5. At work, dress for the job you want. So even if you’re an intern, don’t wear jeans unless it’s casual Friday

6. Make use of your tailor. If something’s in good shape, but is a little dated (or you’ve lost a few inches off the waistline) take it to someone who, with a needle and thread, can help you update it.

7. Forget reading Vogue or GQ. Scan catalogs for the latest trends. Fashion mags are more interested in artsy layouts, celebrity photographers and runway style. Catalogs are marketed to the consumer and aren’t over stuffed with advertisements (has anyone ever told Vogue that the 800 page fall issue has 700 pages of ads?).

Artwork of the week for Sept. 7, 2009


Paul Poiret
Costume (Fancy Dress), 1911

French couturier Paul Poiret couldn’t sew, yet he was probably one of the most influential and revolutionary fashion designers of the 20th century. Two years ago, the Met’s costume institute featured an exhibition on Poiret’s work. If you ever had any doubt about Fashion as Art, “Poiret: King of Fashion” would have wiped it away.

This exotic ensemble was probably Worn to “The Thousand and Second Night” Party, one of Poiret’s famous fancy costume balls. The party’s theme alluded the story of Scheherazade and 1001 Arabian Nights and was partially motivated by the success of the Ballet Russe’s performance of “Scheherazade” a year earlier.

For more discussion about Poiret and his clothing the best place to go is here: http://www.metmuseum.org/special/se_event.asp?OccurrenceId={0DC3D00F-4611-4F91-8DC2-CC3C1A5C48D5}

The Man of Summer 2009…

…Looks an awful lot like a lost Beach Boy. beach boys

Seriously. The skinny ankle-skimming jeans, the boat shoes, the stripped/plaid shirt tucked in behind a slim belt, the floppy hair — the whole look is there. The only things he’s missing is a surf board (not practical in NYC) and his little deuce coupe. I was crossing at the corner of 74th and Madison this morning, when two guys, in their mid-twenties, both dressed in the uniform described above approached from the opposite corner. They were moving like they had just run away from their barbershop quartet rehearsal. Yes, men in the city have a new uniform, and it’s no longer the powersuit.

Hipster men have killed the plaid. Have emasculated it and made it so ubiquitous that its lost its appealing campy quality. Plaid used to have a statement. It used to be associated with an outdoorsy lifestyle, and all-Americaness. Now… it’s urban and hipster.

(I’d just like to say, that I was on the plaid band-wagon before there ever was a plaid bandwagon. It’s because I’m part Canadian. Plaid is in my blood)

This is the problem with hipsters in general. They colonize trends and render subcultures that had meaning meaningless. There was a piece in the Times today about men and their hair. It said that once upon a time a man’s hairstyle was a mark of particular associations. In 1969, long wavy hair with a beard to match meant the fella probably listened to Hendrix and was antiwar. Today, a hairstyle says nothing about the man that wears it, perhaps only that he’s a freethinker? While I’m not crazy about the Adam Lambert/Flock of Seagulls coifs, I’m glad fuller hair is back in for men. It’s our turn for us ladies to have something we can run our fingers through.

The general theme of today’s Times Style section was New York men and their clothes. I think it’s time to accept that fashions for men are pretty standard, and in no season are the more standardized than in summer. Jeans, sandals and a white tee have been the go-to warm weather ware for men since Levi Strauss stepped on the scene. You know fashion writers have run out of trends to talk about then they start calling a pot-belly the latest trend in men’s wear. Seriously, couldn’t the explanation for the exceedingly number of bulging bellies in Brooklyn simply be that there are only 3 chain gyms in all of Brooklyn… and that none of them are in the hipster parts of town?

Things You Probably Don’t Know About Me, But Should

1. I hate the smell, taste, and texture of raw tomatoes. I’ll only stand them in guacamole. I will not eat lettuce that has touched a raw, cut tomato.

2.  I’m a little bit country. Not in a cowboy sort of way (though I live in my old gringo cowboy boots and listen to Keith Anderson and have always wanted a horse), more in a rolling hills, edge of forest, home rustic cooking in cast iron cookware, English/French/Italy countryside sort of way.

3. I never wanted to be a doctor. Up until I was 16, I wanted to be a fashion designer with my own line (which would have been named Anna Lynn). Regardless, I never intended to have a typical 9-5.

An original K.A Reckling design for Anna Lynn, c. 2003

An original K.A Reckling design for Anna Lynn, c. 2003

4. I have an unhealthy obsession with Muffins… bran-berry in particular.

5. My life goal? Make the cover of Vogue.

6. I became an econ major so I could become an art journalist. Seriously.

7. I have never seen Grease and don’t intend to. Ever.

8. I have always dreamed of having an Inn in upstate NY or in New England. Someplace with 16 rooms and a great restaurant that meets the standards of Relais & Chateau.

9. I believe flip-flops should be banned footwear on the streets of NYC.

10. I always planned to marry an architect or a writer. This is probably the most negotiable of the 10 items.

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