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Boston Tries To Be Fashion-Forward

By Claire J. Saffitz, Contributing Writer

“Red is the new Libertine. Platinum is the new Marie-Antoinette. Leather is the new luxury. Veiling is the new seduction. Dior is the new Erotica.” Written on a wall in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), designer John Galliano’s words sound more like one of Will Ferrell’s lines in “Zoolander” than an artistic credo.

But Galliano’s words—shown next to his spring 2006 haute couture collection for iconic fashion house Christian Dior—are displayed with sober seriousness in a new exhibit at the MFA. Galliano is one of ten designers from the world of Paris fashion whose latest creations are on display in the MFA’s “Fashion Show,” which is on display now and runs through March 18, 2007.

Organized by Pamela Parmal, the museum’s curator of textile and fashion arts, the new exhibit is a first for Boston and the first of its kind.

Whereas most fashion exhibits in museums are retrospectives of a single designer or fashion house, “Fashion Show” features ready-to-wear and couture looks from ten top designers.

Although the variety of designers is impressive, it comes at the expense of the exhibit’s ability to offer a coherent vision of where fashion is today.

Haute couture, to make the distinction, is the name given to a one-of-a-kind, hand-made garment that can cost tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ready-to-wear clothing, on the other hand, is manufactured in all sizes and available for retail purchase.

A strength of the exhibit overall is the fashion show footage playing alongside each designer’s collection. Seeing the clothes in front of you move down the runway is a nice addition to the exhibit, even it is sometimes more engrossing than the clothes themselves.

The most cutting-edge of all the designers featured in the exhibit are Martin Margiela and Jenny Meirens, the Belgian design team behind the label Mason Martin Margiela.

Their “artisanal” collection—featuring unique garments such as a waistcoat made of the same material used for sandals—is undeniably avant-garde, but hardly seems worthy of couture status.

The transition from artisanal and avant-garde to the highly wearable—such as pieces by Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens—is a bit confusing.

In the next room lies the fantastical world of true Paris couture, with pieces from designers Azzedine Alaia and John Galliano. These are the clothes that no one would ever wear, save the misguided celebrity or mega-rich socialite.

Case-in-point: a voluminous black coat of brushed Mongolian goat fur and leather bustier by Alaia. Galliano’s French Revolution-inspired collection for Dior is even more theatrical: Dramatic red coats with oversized collars and giant belts stand against a mirrored red background.

The last room of the exhibit is the only one that truly delivers, featuring three heavyweights of the Paris fashion world: Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and Christian Lacroix.

Unlike Galliano, Valentino’s clothes are not conceptual; they focus instead on feminine details like ruffles, bows, and beading.

Chanel, the epitome of Parisian fashion, appropriately stands center stage. In a nice touch, each piece includes a note on how many hours of labor went into handcrafting each garment.

One evening dress of silk tulle and ostrich feathers with a hand-beaded bustier and bolero required 980 hours of embroidery alone.

Lacroix, another couture icon, is a wise conclusion to the show. His Spanish-inspired collection featuring confections of tulle, sequins, and lace is what haute couture is all about.

Boston has never been a fashion Mecca like New York, so the decision of a world-class art institution like the MFA to devote its main space to fashion is significant, as is its move to feature new collections from multiple designers.

However, an exhibit that combines ready-to-wear with couture clothing raises painfully unanswered questions about where the overlap between fashion and art ends. Certainly, a couture gown by Dior falls into the category of performance art, but should a simple, well-made suit by Rochas? The fact that many of the ready-to-wear clothes will likely end up in the closets of more than a few lucky women seems to contradict the idea of putting them in an art museum.

The MFA’s “Fashion Show,” while visually stunning, lacks the coherence of, say, a retrospective of a single designer. The point of the exhibit may be to comment on the state of high fashion today, but that point is too broad, and certainly cannot be contained in an exhibit with only ten designers.

The exhibit needs a stronger sense of vision—a problem that would be helped, though not entirely solved, by showcasing only haute couture.

If you don’t want to think about it too hard, though, the exhibit is nothing if not a pure pleasure for the simple beauty of the clothes. “Fashion Show” is a special opportunity for us laypeople, who have neither the money nor the confidence to ever wear such clothes, to get as close as possible to the cutting-edge of fashion.

So if you love fashion, stop watching reruns of “Project Runway” and see for yourself what a $200,000 dress really looks like.

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