The catwalk becomes a fashion spectacle

Tickets went on sale back in April. The museum website states that “we are experiencing a large demand.” This is a big claim, especially when you consider that each ticket costs PS17.60 and has been on sale for almost a whole year.

This marketing campaign equates fashion shows with big-name concerts or festivals and emphasizes their status as entertainment. Individual designer shows have become a highlight in the museum calendar. The designer’s marketing team, fashion magazines, and other media will give them a lot of publicity. It endorses the canonization and sanctification of certain names, not only as important to fashion history but also as bankable stars who command ticket sales in advance and publicity that is far superior to quieter exhibitions on particular themes or eras.

Brides with a spectral flair. Michel Dufour/ Alexander McQueen RTW A/W 2006/ Getty Images

Savage Beauty began as a spectacle, an event rather than just a fashion show. The publicity was intensive. The exhibit was previewed at the Ritz Hotel in London, where fashion stars and Samantha Cameron, the wife of the Prime Minister, were present. There was a McQueen-themed Met Ball that launched the show. This was preceded by Daphne Guinness preparing a performance/window display in Barney’s New York.

McQueen died in 2010, and his catwalk shows, which were staged theatrically and his high-concept designs, sparked a huge interest that went beyond the fashion industry. The Met’s exhibition attracted 661,509 visitors. The museum’s largest exhibition ever was ranked in the top ten by these crowds, along with other long-established displays, like its Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition in 1978 or its Picasso exhibition from 2010. This elevated fashion shows, in particular Costume Institute, to the top tier of international art exhibitions. Alexander McQueen became a household name.

Savage Beauty had a significant influence on the museum’s business. Savage Beauty had a substantial impact on the Met’s business. It led to the addition of 23,000 new members, as well as the introduction of profitable changes in the opening hours, such as extending them until midnight at the end-of-year weekend. Special tickets for $50 allowed visitors into the museum on Mondays when it is normally closed. More than 100,000 catalogs, as well as a vast quantity of related products, were sold. These included crystal skull paperweights, tartan handbags, and other items that incorporated the designer’s signature materials.

Black swans. Pascal Le Segretain/ Alexander McQueen A/W 2009/ Getty Images

The sheer scale and numbers of the exhibition are impressive in themselves. It is a stunning show, even before you consider the collection itself, its staging, content, or importance in exploring McQueen’s oeuvre. The show sparked such a media frenzy that the British edition of Grazia magazine launched a campaign in August 2011 to bring it to London. Interestingly, the petition and social media pages didn’t focus as much on the spectacular nature of the show. The focus instead was on the patriotic wish “To Bring McQueen home”, as if the Met had kidnaped our national treasure.

It’s all fun, but it also provides vital funding to museums. What does this mean for fashion exhibits and the study and research of fashion design?

It’s hard to say. I have been following the growth of fashion in galleries over the last 20 years and am always happy to see it. This is also very positive if it ends the debate about whether style “deserves’ to be displayed in the hallowed spaces of major art institutions. It’s a debate that has been raging for far too long. It tends to ignore the importance of fashion in terms of culture, society, economics, and, yes, even intellectually.

A word of caution. Fashion should not be reduced solely to spectacle. This is a danger. The funds raised by these blockbuster shows should encourage museums to sponsor more intimate, analytical exhibitions. This balance is important for all museum programming and not just fashion-focused ones.

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