INTERVIEW | Fashion Science and Exploration Come Together at FIT

“Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme,” the new exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum, could not be more relevant. Curated by Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT, it uniquely explores how clothing meant for extreme environments eventually influenced major designers and became a key component in the advancement of fashion. “Expeditions to the North and South poles, the highest mountain peaks, the depths of the ocean, and outer space have been widely covered in the press for more than a century. But it was not until the 1960s that these endeavors began to influence fashion,” Mears mentions in the exhibit notes. As major environmental disasters continue to make the headlines (sadly making the planet progressively more inhabitable), this exhibition – which will run until January 6th, 2018 –certainly seems as timely as can be.


Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme – The Museum at FIT. Photo / PR office.

 

Before stepping into the main gallery, visitors are greeted by a diorama-like display which features expedition and safari wear with a painting of the plains of the Serengeti as a backdrop. Inside the main space, “Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme” is divided into four core themed sections: the Arctic, the Deep Sea, Mountaineering, and Spaceship, the latter of which showcases Space Age-inspired fashion design. In a straightforward and original manner, these different areas reveal how science, exploration, and fashion came together over the course of a century. By way of the 70 pieces curated for the occasion – featuring a wide variety of designers such as McQueen, Gvasalia (for Balenciaga!), Lang, Versace, Browne, Lagerfeld, Yamamoto or Saint Laurent – it strikingly illustrates some of the major innovations that resulted from this merge of disciplines, namely the development of new materials and fabrics, the pioneering manner in which designers incorporated them, or even the creation of groundbreaking silhouettes. In a more subtle way, the show seems also to be about Human survival, about how individuals adapt to critically challenging settings and situations, and about how this resilience fosters imperative change and ultimately, evolution. Patricia Mears kindly took the time, shortly after the opening, to talk to us about how the idea of this imaginative exhibit (and the first major one to examine some of the subjects mentioned above) came about, the progression of design, and how the past will probably continue to be as important as the future.


Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme – The Museum at FIT. Photo / PR office.

 

This is a unique theme for an exhibit, one that probably took a lot of research work and much original writing. How did this idea come up and what was the starting point?

Patricia Mears: The idea arose after seeing a number of fashion blog stars wearing the parkas by Joseph Altuzarra designed for his Fall/Winter 2011 and 2013 collections. Not only were they chic when paired with high fashion dresses and suits on the runway, they were beautifully worn by women attending fashion shows in February. That link between survival wear and high fashion struck me – how did this development happen?

What would be a take away from your research?

PM: There were so many ideas. The main thing I learned is how little has been written on the inspiration of expedition clothing on fashion. There are lots of books and articles on extreme exploration and on high style clothing, but next to nothing on the combination of the two.

You're working with a limited space and I can only imagine some of the security or conservation constraints are quite strict for some of the pieces. How complicated was it to set up the space?

PM: Placing the objects is one of the most enjoyable parts of the exhibition process. There are always challenges, especially with loans from other museums. But I've been doing this for over 25 years, so the process is one I and our great staff at MFIT are used to.

How quickly did you decide on the different sections? What came first, the curation of pieces or the themes?

PM: The selection of the environments came first. It was essential in focusing the scope of the exhibition and the accompanying book.

Some outfits seem like works of art and others more functional, yet in most cases they seem like genuine expressions of creativity. Do you feel the same thing can be said of fashion today?

PM: Yes, although a proportionally small number of fashion creators produce highly original designs, they do have impact.


Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme – The Museum at FIT. Photo / PR office.

 

One could say human endeavors (say in hostile conditions) and exotic cultures have represented a steady source of inspiration for designers. Technology (take internet or VR) has to some extent made those references less exciting and mysterious. What do you think will inspire designers in the future? Will they continue to mostly reference the past?

PM: I am not sure I agree that hostile conditions have inspired designers all that much. It is a new area of appropriation by fashion. This seems especially true as compared to the steady stream of historical and non-western references that have made their mark on fashion for centuries. I do believe, as you note, that the past will continue to be continuously tapped by leading designers.

The same seems true of fabrics and materials. Will designers have to mostly start working with already exciting materials, or wait for NASA or the military's further textile developments?

PM: Certain technologies, like 3-D printing, inspire numerous avant-garde designers. We will have to wait and see if new military developments continue to have similar continued influences.

Today the planet is progressively becoming uninhabitable in many places. Was that something you thought about while you were planning this exhibit?

PM: No, habitation was not something I considered because the earliest expeditions to these extreme environments were devoid of any human settlements.

Considering this exhibit is in part about hostile environments and places on earth that are difficult to survive, what part (if any) did climate change play in you creating this exhibit?

PM: The rise and importance of science throughout the nineteenth century was a key, underlying component of the project. It is why the "environments" I chose were crucial to the scope of the exhibition and book. Climate change did not really play a part in the choices, but was rather a quiet, underlying aspect that I was aware of throughout the process.