PRINT February 2000


Richard Martin

BEFORE RICHARD MARTIN, exhibitions devoted to fashion tended to be characterized by dull antiquarianism or superficial glitz. By treating the way we dress as a living art, Richard changed everything. In scores of exhibitions and books and more than 100 scholarly articles, he examined fashion through the lens of contemporary art. It was not merely that he traced connections between clothing styles and art movements, still less that he idolized designers as creative “geniuses”; rather, he asked the kinds of serious questions of fashion that had seldom been applied to the supposedly frivolous subject.

For example, in his landmark 1987 Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition “Fashion and Surrealism” and subsequent Rizzoli book, Richard explored how individual artists/designers addressed the relationship between body and clothes. To this end, he compared the Tear-Illusion Dress and Head Scarf (a 1937 collaboration between Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí) to the clothing of the punks, which really was torn, as well as to Rei Kawakubo’s infamous “Lace” Sweater of 1982, which was deliberately knitted with gaping holes. He juxtaposed clothing, photographs, illustrations, and paintings in the show, which was organized by such themes as metaphor and metamorphosis, bodies and parts, displacements and illusions. In another brilliant FIT exhibition, “Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, Rei Kawakubo” (1987), he asked whether or not women designers created clothing that differed from that of their male counterparts. Avoiding simplistic answers, he investigated how three very different female designers approached their métier. The latter exhibition inspired me to write my book Women of Fashion, the concluding paragraph of which quotes Richard’s trenchant remarks on the pernicious stereotype of the fashion designer as a young male genius.

I met Richard in 1982 when I was a graduate student delivering my first conference paper. Richard was incredibly kind and encouraging—the way he always was with students. At that time, he was at FIT, where he organized five or six exhibitions a year in collaboration with Harold Koda and Laura Sinderbrand. Richard made the move from art history to fashion in 1982 when he was named executive director of what was then known as the Design Laboratory, FIT’s textile and costume collection. Although his first job at the New York school had been as an instructor in the department of art history, it wasn’t long before he was also teaching the history of menswear (people who knew him back then say that his own sartorial style changed accordingly—from professorial to dapper in black Armani suits). A fan of Baudelaire, Richard once told me that he thought contemporary fashion was simply more interesting than most contemporary art.

The shows Richard curated at FIT were unprecedented in the way they combined intelligence and visual beauty. Exhibitions such as “Jocks and Nerds” and “The East Village” were witty and fun, but they were also really smart considerations of fashion in its broadest social context. In a further effort to give fashion studies intellectual backbone, Richard helped launch the graduate studies program at FIT, and in 1985 he hired me to teach fashion history there.

Then in 1993 Richard moved uptown to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he organized shows such as “Cubism and Fashion,” “Haute Couture,” “Orientalism,” and (one of his personal favorites) “Wordrobe,” an analysis of the relation between text and textiles. His most popular show was a retrospective of Gianni Versace, which attracted more than 410,000 visitors during a three-month run. The attendance bore out what Richard knew all along: “Fashion plays a broader cultural role than anyone had imagined before.” Over the years, I saw Richard most often at conferences, where he was a brilliant public speaker who never needed to use notes. Invariably articulate, he combined a deep knowledge of fashion history with the rare ability to think of new and interesting things to say about the meaning of dress. Some fashion people had trouble with his language, which was that of contemporary art criticism, which of course had been his milieu as editor of Arts Magazine. Yet when he wrote in the more academic context of my magazine, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, his prose was remarkably lucid and free of jargon. He wasn’t, in any case, an ordinary academic (for example, I don’t think he ever used footnotes). Harold Koda, who accompanied Richard to the Met before leaving to study at Harvard, once told me that Richard’s method was to read selectively on a particular subject and let his thoughts take flight.

Richard was a legendary workaholic. I remember faxing him at his office early one Sunday morning. Five minutes later, I received a reply. He was far and away the hardest-working member of the Fashion Theory editorial board. If I sent him an article to review, he sent back his comments within two days (most people take a couple of months). I think he really couldn’t understand why others took so long to accomplish things. He was proud of putting on a lot of exhibitions and writing catalogues for all of them. If a friend asked him to do something, he never said no. He just did it.

Richard could also be extremely funny. I remember that when I had an eye operation and came to work wearing bandages, he treated it as a fashion statement and said, “I would have thought you’d choose to wear a black eye patch, like the Arrow Shirt man.” His wit could be cutting, but he was also very kind, especially to his students. He could also be a great tease. Once, while mounting an exhibition at FIT, a colleague once accidentally cut an article of clothing. The next day when the “culprit” appeared at work, Richard shouted, “Watch out! He’s carrying scissors!” Certain lines became running jokes. There was a time when I had interrupted Malcolm McLaren during a presentation to demand, “What about Vivienne Westwood?” For years afterward, Richard used to say to me, “What about Vivienne Westwood?” and we’d crack up.

The last time I saw Richard was in the summer, when I joined him at the Metropolitan Museum for coffee. He talked about the rock ’n’ roll fashion exhibition that he was organizing and about how he regretted not having the energy to write several articles that he had agreed to do. I told him that it was more important to conserve his energy, and he joked that I would have to get another, less productive colleague to do a little work. I wish I had told Richard how much I loved and respected him. He was really brilliant, and he certainly helped show how fascinating and important fashion could be.