PRINT March 1996


Richard Martin

RICHARD MARTIN HAS LONG been associated with the formal presentation of fashion for contemplation. Less recollected, perhaps, as former editor of Arts magazine than as past director of the galleries at the Fashion Institute of Technology, his endeavors have always been as firmly situated in an appreciation of cultural nuance as in more overtly esthetic analysis. Hoping to balance as well as to challenge received notions of what distinguishes the vulgar from the vaunted, Martin has assumed the mantle of the legendary Diana Vreeland in curating the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were given the occasion to spend the afternoon with him during the run of “Haute Couture,” the Costume Institute’s winter show (the opening of which is traditionally a significant event of the social season in Manhattan).

Meeting with him in the trustee’s dining room at the Met, I was accompanied by Judy Linn, a conversationalist (and photographer) of rare observational gifts. As sheets of rain cascaded between us and the fog-bound park, our discussion careened from falling face-flat in hobble-skirts to Gianni Versace’s intellectual aspirations; we ranged from Barbie to Balenciaga before our host bore us into the bowels of the museum to be entranced by 350 years of closet space.

Darryl Turner*

DARRYL TURNER: How did fashion come to be your primary focus?

RICHARD MARTIN: I lost my way, ended up losing art and gaining fashion; it was a seamless thing for me. But I don’t consider myself outside of art. I’ve probably never made a sufficient distinction between the two.

DT: Was there some point where you said: I’m equally interested in what Gaultier and Ashley Bickerton did last season?

RM: I’m interested in those things that surpass the white cube, that have some impact outside the enclave of art and its conventional reception. So, not to put down Bickerton, but I’m probably much more fascinated by Gaultier, because I’m interested in the fact that kids in clubs are taking him up, that people are actually buying his stuff. I think the evolution of Gaultier’s work is incredible. He’ll move from a collection that’s faux Hasidic to another that’s about tattooing and scarification, to another about the exaggeration of gender. An artist who does a show once every other year evolves, but the fashion world goes through ineluctable change every six months.

JUDY LINN: What strikes me about fashion is its adequacy to the moment—you can’t do something that will continue to look terrific 20 years later.

RM: I agree. I think artists desire museum walls—the sense that one day you may share the same wall with Cézanne. Karl Lagerfeld has always said he doesn’t really approve of museums for fashion—because he believes fashion is entirely derived from, and contributes to, the immediate time of its presentation. He’s really driven by the sense of the moment.

But to get back to your question, when people have asked me the “why fashion?” question, the answer I give is: I’m interested in art and issues of body and gender—so what more appropriate form could there be?

DT: I once asked a woman high up within Rei Kawakubo’s organization how she started working for Rei. She said: I was interested in researching major contemporary female Japanese artists—that’s why I went to Japan. I said: And there were none, right? She said: Rei Kawakubo, that’s who there was.

RM: I was struck when I saw “Scream Against the Sky”—the exhibition on Japanese art since 1945—that the curators decided not to include fashion. It would have been so easy to interpolate both Miyake and Kawakubo into that show, since they address the same issues as other Japanese postwar artists—particularly those associated with any kind of vanguard.

DT: Within the commercial fashion community, she’s not really dealt with either. Most of her business has nothing to do with either Europe or America, although she outsells Miyake or Yohji Yamamoto two to one. I used to work for Women’s Wear Daily, and [editorial director] John Fairchild wouldn’t cover her collections. Very grudgingly in later years, WWD would report on her: “Kawakubo has finally come to her senses. This is something that people aren’t going to look at in horror and wonder.”

RM: WWD went through an awful anti-Japanese phase. Interestingly, it always picked on the Japanese and Geoffrey Beene—who’s among the greatest designers of our time. If you’re going to exclude one American designer, the one not to exclude, on any reasonable level, is Geoffrey Beene.

DT: To what degree do you feel that publishers, editors, photographers, stylists, etc., actually construct what occurs? Is that disturbing to you?

RM: It’s not disturbing to me in the sense that it doesn’t really impinge on my activity. Do I find it irksome that everyone is waiting to see John Galliano’s new collection for Givenchy? A little. But we ultimately depend on the work itself rather than what fashion magazines say about it. I will say that one of the good things about fashion is that its commerce is blatant. The art world generally likes to be very discreet about commerce. Fashion is about manifestation—it’s always out in the open.

DT: Why do you feel Prada and Helmut Lang have become the focus of so much attention today?

RM: I think the hot houses of the moment—Prada, Tom Ford for Gucci—are presenting a minimalism that has historical resonance. It’s about sneaking in a lot of luxury under minimalism. It’s pretty hard for me to see people wearing ’90s Gucci without remembering the late ’60s and early ’70s, the days of initials, when Gucci was associated with the most conspicuous consumption.

DT: The clothes are less obvious now about the projection of sexuality, prosperity, eccentricity. Fewer people would be likely to say: “Oh, look. She’s wearing Prada.” But if she were wearing Comme des Garçons more would be likely to say: “Oh my God—what is she wearing?”

RM: I’m always impressed by the public’s fashion knowledge. There’s a lot of art that people wouldn’t find distinct. I’ve seen people walk up and say: That’s Comme des Garçons. I think to myself: Gee, I might know that, but I didn’t realize it was such common knowledge. I find it amazing how much fashion connoisseurship there is—in fact, there’s a remarkable visual acuity about fashion.

DT: I haven’t seen much written on the actual experience of wearing and moving in the couture garment. Visual aspects we can interpret, but what’s it like to wear the stuff?

RM: I find it interesting to talk to women who wear the couture. Years ago, a woman came to talk to me about wearing Balenciaga. It must have been in the ’50s, and she’d gotten her first Balenciaga suit on layaway. She wore it onto the plane back to New York. In those days it took 10 or 12 hours, plus a stop in Newfoundland.

DT: To refuel.

RM: Yes. Anyway, she got up from that long trip, and there wasn’t a wrinkle on the suit! [Laughter] If something really fits, in a way unlike ready-to-wear, you could probably sit there and at least feel that you’re getting up absolutely unwrinkled.

JL: The Balenciaga show was wonderful.

RM: I’m a great fan of Balenciaga. The great designers really let the cloth speak—in the same way that Morris Louis let the paint speak. Balenciaga loved different textures, the scrunching-and-crunching sound that someone wearing taffeta makes.You find this same sense in Victorian novels, where you read about the rustle of the dress coming into the room. To me, that’s a very Proustian, evocative thing.

JL: At the Museum of the City of New York, there was a Balenciaga bill. I thought: Oh, please, Lord—let me be reincarnated as the owner of that bill. I think he and Charles James are incredible.

RM: I’m a great fan of James, though I must say I prefer Balenciaga, because I think his work is more about the nature of the fabric and a kind of softness. The point of reference for Balenciaga is almost invariably a curvilinear architecture, whereas James builds up in an additive rather than a subtractive way. James proffers mass; Balenciaga prefers balloons. James is great, but I’d still go for Balenciaga.

DT: Although I’ve yet to hear a Balenciaga story to rival that of Charles James sending someone down to 14th Street to get a Latin boy to cut on because the woman he was designing for was simply built wrong. [Laughter]

RM: Yes.

DT: It might be the moment to do this. I jotted down questions that you may or may not be interested in responding to.

RM: Oh, good—at least they’re on flash cards. Makes me nervous already. . . .

DT: Leaf through them, incorporate them, extrapolate from them, ignore them—your choice.

RM: Okay. First question: “What’s your take on the ‘street’ influence on mainstream fashion?” Street style is about the complexity of any heterogeneous culture. It’s not about one person—it’s a community with a shared sensibility. Urban kids wearing oversized jeans without a belt, exposing the waistband, is about the palpable dimension of knowing people in prison; then it gets translated from the milieu of the city, where it’s vital and has an immediate political aspect, into every suburban mall, where kids take to the same style, and then even to Japan. Then Calvin starts thinking about oversized jeans and gets a white-boy rapper pulling down his jeans to show the underwear. I think there were two sources for oversized clothing coinciding in the late ’80s and early ’90s: street style and Japanese design. There’s no doubt in my mind that the latter had a tremendous impact on the idea of oversizing. The industry exploited this trend: a place like the Gap can thrive by offering three sizes—small, medium, and large.

JL: Last year’s jeans are no longer in style.

RM: That’s kept the denim industry lively. Think how much a single item has proliferated over many style options.

DT: It was an amazing marketing coup that someone like Gloria Vanderbilt could have a huge jeans business.

RM: Yes. When I was at FIT I heard some students saying: I never knew she was rich. [Laughter] The politics of it all is absolutely fascinating. Great rich families producing worker clothing and trying to give it status.

DT: In order to regain her own wealth.

RM: Yes. Next question: “How was editing an art magazine different from curating?” Oh, this one I can do. I really don’t think of myself as anything other than an agent for other people’s ideas and achievements and esthetic work, so there’s a real continuity between editing and curating. In my present capacity, I feel it’s an incredible privilege to be able to present Rei Kawakubo’s work or to put out a Chanel dress. Living designers affect me the most, but it’s amazing to see a 19th-century dress that I think is going to be exciting to design students and cultural historians alike. I’ve never been much of a writer; I still write very little. But it’s nice to help others realize their work, and that’s a lot of what being an editor or a curator is about. At FIT, if we got 350 people in the gallery in a day I was thrilled. Here it can be 7,000 people a day, 5 million a year. In curating on this scale, I think there’s the possibility of changing people’s lives, making them feel that fashion has some importance, giving them some sense of fashion’s equity within an art museum.

DT: You try to fit into museum culture in some way.

RM: Yes. Being at the Metropolitan provides the opportunity to make an argument about the place of fashion, not only in an art museum but in one dedicated to the masterpiece. When I first came here I was struck by the fact that the Costume Institute galleries tended to be rather noisy, and my first reaction was: Oh, no. I’ve come to this distinguished institution, and I’m clearly the rowdiest one here. I went to other galleries, and thought: Mine is bad. But then I realized that the other gallery I found to be noisy was photography. It’s about the medium, the art form that’s being presented. Clothing has a degree of accessibility and involves and engages people, they can speak—

DT: It’s interactive by nature.

RM: Exactly. People feel that they can at least say something about clothing. They’re not holding the museum in reverential awe the way I think they do when they see a Rembrandt. Most of the time what one is looking at is this aura of the object.

What is most fascinating about fashion is that it is about public projection: a socializing process an esthetic process, and an individual process as well. All these have to be reconciled, and you have to be in public, having made that choice.

But of course there’s still strong resistance to fashion in the museum. Certainly here the Costume Institute is tolerated, but it’s clearly thought of as different from, and lesser than, the principal areas of painting and sculpture, as are photography, the American wing, parts of Africa, Oceania, and Asia.

At some point I realized that, if I had stayed at FIT forever, I would continue to address a design school—essentially a rather limited community. Coming to the Met gave me the opportunity to be evangelical regarding costume within a community that I knew—

DT:would be resistant.

RM: Yes. I didn’t come here just to ride a crest of activity.

DT: Is this lesser status revealed in terms of budgets, subtle attitudes, or what? Is it something explicitly discussed?

RM: I’ve never heard anyone say: You’re the lesser area of the institution. But I get the feeling in a variety of ways. We work on a relatively limited budget. At the same time I appreciate that some of this is a process.

When we did the exhibition “Waist Not,” I thought it was important to put on The Jane Fonda Workout Tape. But I also had another tape of classical music, in case [laughter] when Philippe [de Montebello] came down for the preview—

DT: You could switch the tapes.

RM: In this museum, to have a Jane Fonda workout tape is a little bit unorthodox. Philippe heard it and apparently thought it amusing, so we kept it on.

DT: Do you think you’d have to address similar sorts of resistances if, say, you had late 20th-century installation art for those galleries? Do you think fashion’s more difficult in particular?

RM: No one would even question a Jane Fonda workout tape if it were incorporated in an artist’s installation. But when you see a pretty dress, will it enflame our social awareness as well as delight esthetically? I think so. The label copy in the Costume Institute is among the most seditious things being published by the Met. It’s very much about an art form being social; art as having political relevance.

DT: How related are the practices of contemporary fashion advertising—Benetton, Calvin Klein—to interventionist media art coming from, say, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, or Felix Gonzalez-Torres?

RM: I do think they pursue the same kind of probing of cultural values. But even these artists, who are certainly successful, have had nothing like the enormous impact of the Calvin Klein advertising campaign or the Toscani campaign for Benetton. That the ads have become the product is something that I accept and don’t find negative. Six or seven years ago, I proposed an exhibition with the slightly pretentious title of “Calvin Klein: A Philosophy of Images,” which would have been devoted entirely to his advertising. He turned it down, saying he wouldn’t be identified only with his advertising but that if we did a show about all of his work, he’d consider it. My answer was no.

DT: Would the show have included his business plan as well?

RM: I guess. I still believe that the most important thing he’s done is the advertising. I love those ads—I loved the August campaign. I think they’re profoundly important. They’re among the most important images of the mid ’90s. Kids on the street have a greater identity for Calvin than for almost anyone else in the culture. If you count T-shirts, Calvin Klein is the best-known name in America.

DT: I think somewhat disturbing to certain people—but well within the realm of an art-critical discourse—is the idea of Calvin or Benetton (as they’ve increasingly performed what I consider to be Conceptual-art practices in their advertising) constructing an empty signifier. In term of what the ostensible product is, there is none.

RM: Right.

DT: Its only function is to provide access to a cultural enigma—stigma for one group, acceptance by another. Association with this whole corpus of ideas or images is the only specificity—attaching to label recognition.

RM: Yes. It’s as disturbing as it is incredibly effective.

DT: Did you experience the debates concerning the high-low show, the primitivism show, shows trying to present in an art context those questions that fashion automatically engages?

RM: Long before the high-low show at the Modern, when Kirk [Varnedoe] was first thinking about it, he mentioned something about it at a dinner. I said: Oh—why don’t you include fashion in that show? [Laughter] And he said they had picked very specific categories—the comic strip, graffiti, etc. It was clear fashion was not elected. It’s too bad: fashion occurs at every cultural level.

DT: Could you say a few words about the timing of the “Haute Couture” show?

RM: I’m not drawn to feathers or embroidery. Four or five years ago I don’t think I would have done a couture show. I do think there’s a real interest at the moment in looking at luxurious things. There’s never some kind of supreme objective wisdom about the decision to do a particular show. They really come out of a sense of what’s right at the moment.

DT: Are the choices of exhibitions tempered at all by the cultural position of the Costume Institute—the role it plays in the social season, with whoever is considered cultural aristocracy in attendance?

RM: No, the scheduling of shows has much more to do with the miasma of my own mind. It’s not such a deliberate thing. I do keep in the back of my mind that the December show’s the party of the year, and that it’s the show that probably has more glamour attached to it than others.

We do three shows a year, and they are planned out far in advance. The last time I submitted proposals for the Costume Institute, it was for five years of exhibitions—15 exhibitions on a single sheet of paper. I sent it up to Phillipe on a Monday and ran into him that Wednesday. He looked over the list with me and approved it all.

DT: That’s amazing.

RM: That’s not likely to happen for an Impressionist exhibition, but the somewhat laissez-faire treatment given to the Costume Institute is really wonderful. At FIT, I had gotten used to having complete liberty to do whatever exhibitions I wanted. When I came here, I expected that there would at least be some kind of reporting system that could be very inhibiting, but it hasn’t been so far. I haven’t proposed an exhibition yet that hasn’t been accepted.

DT: How important is corporate sponsorship?

RM: The “Haute Couture” exhibition has sponsorship from two designers—Versace and Chanel, but we were prepared to do the exhibition without them. Exhibitions at the Costume Institute have never been contingent on having a corporate sponsor. But I’m sure that, if several years passed with no sponsors for any of the Costume Institute exhibitions, I would be in some disfavor.

JL: You’d have to sell a lot of Dior Barbies in the gift shop to make up for that, right?

RM: Yeah, right. [Laughter]

DT: Do you find that a smaller show such as the Schiaparelli exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum can have a useful impact on the public perception of the interrelationship of art and fashion?

RM: One of my touchstones has been fashion and Surrealism, Schiaparelli’s clear inspiration from the Surrealists, and that sort of art world–fashion world connection. I probably do have some kind of dream of a ’20s kind of circle—Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and so on. I probably do have a dream of visual culture, whole and thrilling. And I look for it, long for it, and sometimes find it. I think that was very influential for me.

DT: Is that still a motivating force for you?

RM: I have been giving my somewhat standard art-fashion lecture now for ten years, but it has evolved so that today I incorporate someone like Matthew Barney. I started out with some artists who have completely dropped out of my little canon. What’s interesting—and this may seem self-justifying—is that, if I’m doing a completely different group of artists, it vindicates the process.

DT: The construct itself.

RM: The construct works. I admit that my belief in a powerful, persuasive, comprehensive visual culture has a degree of faith and yearning to it—I want to believe in the cross-pollination between all these fields. Ten years later I still believe it, and if my evidence is a different cast of characters, then maybe there’s a viability to the idea.

DT: What effect has fashion had on the increased visibility of drag queens, leather queens, and out lesbians (lipstick or otherwise) in mainstream culture?

RM: I have some problems with Valerie Steele’s recent book on fetish. I’m not sure you can really start every analysis with the idea that mainstream culture is picking things up from the fringes. I think there’s much more give and take. But there’s no doubt that fashion includes a real sense of both glamour and eroticism. Sometimes the two work together. Sometimes glamour is suppressed and eroticism is the touchstone, but I think it varies. Both leather and drag have aspects of glamour and eroticism, and so they’re prone to being appropriated by fashion. When people are interested in representing a view of the world in which the feminine is being redefined and has a transgressive aspect to it (lesbian culture, drag), there’s no doubt some impact on fashion.

DT: Do you think art’s trivialized when it winds up being directly appropriated by design?

RM: This is the Mondrian-on-a-dress question. The genius of that dress is that people were thinking in terms of planar clothing, so Yves Saint Laurent does something that is basically flat. He accommodates a little bit of ease into the black lines of the Mondrian image in a manner indiscernible to anyone looking at the dress. And yet it’s just enough so that he finds the one moment in history in which he can accommodate a Mondrian. Mondrian becomes a kind of paradigm for the flatness of that moment. To answer the question, I think Saint Laurent selected his art as judiciously, knowledgeably, and respectfully as any of the ’80s appropriationist artists.

DT: He was truly rigorous.

RM: Yes, I think he was rigorous. There are probably cases in which fashion simply seizes on art to be able to move into a blue-chip, more expensive world. I think that’s immoral. But I don’t think that’s what happened in the Mondrian case at all, or in the Schiaparelli-Dalí connection, which was not about fashion “becoming art” but about the whimsy of the body.

There is a lot of overlap between the art and fashion crowds in New York. I’m not just talking about Mary Boone wearing designer clothing, but also about Comme des Garçons setting up in SoHo. Admittedly, much of the “lifestyle merchants” and coffee shops has driven out the art, but I think that Comme des Garçons was really one of the crossover sensibilities between the art and fashion worlds.

DT: Well, there still seem to be the tiny rivalries about who has more glamour, who has more intellectual respectability, and so on.

RM: Yes. And some of that’s simply territoriality, isn’t it? Somebody did an article saying that fashion had become the new art world because it was more glamorous and that the fashion people had replaced art-world people as the new heroes.

DT: However envious that sounds.

RM: [Laughs] Yes. I do find that some art-historian types have occasionally confessed to me—

DT: Have taken you aside to whisper they actually are interested in fashion?

RM: Yes, but it’s their little secret. But I guess they know it’s safe with me.

“Haute Couture” will be at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through 24 March.