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Suzy Menkes

Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes is the best-known fashion journalist in the world. After 25 years commenting on fashion for the International Herald Tribune (rebranded recently as The International New York Times), Suzy Menkes now writes exclusively for Vogue online, covering fashion worldwide.

The Fabric of Fashion: How to make a Museum Show Sing

7 Января 2016

Anita Delgado’s peacock brooch, gold, diamonds and enamel, by jewellery house Mellerio dits Meller, Paris, circa 1905 from the The Al Thani Collection
Anita Delgado’s peacock brooch, gold, diamonds and enamel, by jewellery house Mellerio dits Meller, Paris, circa 1905 from the The Al Thani Collection

A modern dress vivid with vinyl butterflies is displayed in front of a flowered red cloth from a Maharajah's palace. A faceted emerald is set in rock crystal — pitting modern design against a carved emerald from the Mughal Empire.

Those are the two images that I had in my mind's eye when I was judging what worked and what flopped in the visual arts at the fashion-oriented museum shows of 2015.

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A view of the tent owned by Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century Indian ruler of Mysore, on display at The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Fabric of India exhibition.

A view of the tent owned by Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century Indian ruler of Mysore, on display at The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Fabric of India exhibition.

Twenty years ago, this early 20th-century cotton appliqué wall-hanging from Gujarat was found dumped on a New York pavement in Brooklyn and now sits in the Fabric of India exhibition

Twenty years ago, this early 20th-century cotton appliqué wall-hanging from Gujarat was found dumped on a New York pavement in Brooklyn and now sits in the Fabric of India exhibition


The Fabric of India at London's Victoria & Albert Museum is about to close. But there are still a few days (until January 10) to borrow a private plane or to take a London bus to see one of the most memorable shows of the departed year.

I believe that the single-focus museum show — particularly one edited (and often funded) by a fashion house — is becoming a cliché of the 21st century. Significantly, the powerful exhibitions of 2015 were those where serious curators used a museum's existing content as a means of explaining and exhibiting contemporary ideas.

The entrance to the V&A’s Fabric of India exhibition
The entrance to the V&A’s Fabric of India exhibition

The China Through the Looking Glass show at New York's Metropolitan Museum was a fine example of blending the existing arts of Asia with designer clothes that had been influenced by the Far East. The result was a thought-provoking and visually stunning show that brought in a record-breaking number of visitors.

Beetle wings embellish this embroidered muslin border, probably Hyderabad, 19th century.
Beetle wings embellish this embroidered muslin border, probably Hyderabad, 19th century.

The 70,000 people who went to the Bowes Museum, the French-style chateau in northeastern England, was a triumph for Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal. Pierre Bergé loaned works from the YSL foundation and the curator Joanna Hashagen interspersed them among the existing collection of historic dress. I had seen just about every YSL garment from the mouse-embroidered jacket to the Mondrian-inspired minidress. Yet the Bowes Museum gave it all a new life by exhibiting outfits with historic pieces of clothing from its own archive.

Wall hanging (detail), cotton appliqué Gujarat for the Western market, circa 1700
Wall hanging (detail), cotton appliqué Gujarat for the Western market, circa 1700

Another exhibition that has just finished stays in my mind because of its depth and variety. That exhibition was Korea Now! at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The section on intense, hyper-modern calligraphy was in such contrast to the smooth serenity of the homeware. But I found the two elements appearing together in the fashion section.

This look from Manish Arora’s s/s 2015 show is on display at Fabric of India using original embroidery techniques on current fashion.
This look from Manish Arora’s s/s 2015 show is on display at Fabric of India using original embroidery techniques on current fashion.

The good fashion exhibitions — and there are too many to list — are dependent, like any other museum shows, on curatorship. When I see the name of Olivier Saillard, of Paris’s Palais Galliera, I know that the work will be thought-provoking. I have been three times to the V&A to see The Fabric of India. The concept of a material world is not the most appealing. But I must congratulate co-curators Rosemary Crill and Divia Patel for making cloth sing.

A few examples illustrating different methods of tying saris
A few examples illustrating different methods of tying saris

The display starts with the power of colour — fiery red, golden yellow and indigo blue — making a vivid statement. Then another aspect is developed in the subtle textures: weave, embroidery and print from bold shawls to tiny princely coats for royal children of the Raj.

Videos illustrating handwork processes sit beside final hand-woven and dyed pieces
Videos illustrating handwork processes sit beside final hand-woven and dyed pieces

This is almost a textbook study of how to bring a fashion exhibition to life. The curators placed video screens among the handwork so that you could immerse yourself in the process, from leaves heaving with silk worms to Indian workers walking through the fields. That might add lush greenery of the landscape to contrast with shawls so fine and pale they look like translucent clouds.

Houndstooth sari by Abraham & Thakore, double ikat silk, Hyderabad, 2011, is on display at Fabric of India
Houndstooth sari by Abraham & Thakore, double ikat silk, Hyderabad, 2011, is on display at Fabric of India

The films draw so much attention when the museum is crowded, that I wondered whether the screening should have been shown separately. Yet I can see the logic of setting the craft among the objects it produces.

A floor spread, circa 1630, painted and dyed cotton, Coromandel Coast
A floor spread, circa 1630, painted and dyed cotton, Coromandel Coast

If that first part of the show can feel too full for comfort, the next stage of the journey — after a whizz through Indian religion from temple cloths through prayer mats to Talismanic shirts — is magisterial.

Carved emerald brooch with diamonds and sapphires, designed by Paul Iribe and made by Robert Linzeler, Paris, 1910
Carved emerald brooch with diamonds and sapphires, designed by Paul Iribe and made by Robert Linzeler, Paris, 1910

The vast tent of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, with its block-printed pattern of scarlet flowers, is an 18th-century treasure that suggests the grandeur of the Mughal era. Its effect is to introduce pattern and handwork which is seen on rugs and robes.

Carved emerald bead, probably 18th century, Mughal Empire
Carved emerald bead, probably 18th century, Mughal Empire

The exhibition then focuses on clothing, in all its fashionable detail, as India spread its visual effects to English ladies' dresses and Japanese male kimonos.

Gold finial from Tipu Sultan’s throne, 1790 to1800, Mysore, South India
Gold finial from Tipu Sultan’s throne, 1790 to1800, Mysore, South India

To help the viewer understand the reach of Indian textiles, a section shows the distant places that the traders reached.

But the power of this show is the fact that it brings history of textiles up to date in a display of 20th-century clothes. The butterfly dress by contemporary designer Manish Arora at the opening of The Fabric of India is followed at the exhibition's end by an iridescent sweater and skirt with appliquéd flowers from the same designer.

Platinum-set brooch with diamonds and pearls, Bhagat, Mumbai, 2014
Platinum-set brooch with diamonds and pearls, Bhagat, Mumbai, 2014

This section shows not only how western creative forces have used Indian cloth, but also an intriguing collection of “saris”. They are developed from the iconic Indian wrap to contemporary garments that have the effects of drapes achieved with western-style stitching. Most striking of all are the images from the street-style photographer, Manou, showing Indian clothes today — one of many gestures that bring the show to life and turn the fabric of India into fashionable clothing.

Hair and turban ornaments heavily embellished with precious jewels, 1850 to 1910
Hair and turban ornaments heavily embellished with precious jewels, 1850 to 1910

Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection (until March 28, 2016) must be one of the most intriguing and striking jewellery exhibitions as a museum display. It takes the spirit of India from a dramatic diamond turban jewel in the Maharajah-era through a striking peacock brooch. It is actually a hair ornament created in the early 20th-century by Paris jeweller Mellerio dits Meller.

Brooch by JAR in gold and silver with carved rock crystal white agate and emerald edged with diamonds and rubies, Paris, 2002
Brooch by JAR in gold and silver with carved rock crystal white agate and emerald edged with diamonds and rubies, Paris, 2002

Sponsored by Wartski, to celebrate 150 years of the British jeweller, the ornate and elaborate Indian pieces are laced by the tastes of Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani, the collection's owner, and of the curator Susan Stronge from the Asian Department of the V&A.

Diamond turban jewel made for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, 1907, remodelled in 1935 India
Diamond turban jewel made for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, 1907, remodelled in 1935 India

The jaw-dropping jewels are striking in their colour, such as the translucent spinels that the Mughals held in higher esteem than rubies. Emeralds are also to the fore, especially after the Spanish colonisation of South America introduced to Europe vividly green Colombian stones. A carved emerald bead from the Mughal Empire period is as stunning in its craftsmanship as is the more lavish jewelled finial — a gold tiger's head set with rubies and emeralds from the throne of Tipu Sultan of Mysore.

Parrot, gold on lac core enamelled with foiled rubies, diamonds and emeralds in Kundan settings, probably Northern India
Parrot, gold on lac core enamelled with foiled rubies, diamonds and emeralds in Kundan settings, probably Northern India

The story of the Indian pieces moves from the early bejewelled creations to the interpretations of the stones by major jewellers of the Arts Décoratifs era in the Twenties, such as the Parisian Cartier.

Dramatic additions to the Al Thani display are three loans from the British royal collection, including the so-called “Timur Ruby”. The historic display is dazzling, both in the jewels and the pictures and photos taken in the time of the Raj. But there is yet another aspect of the exhibition: modern pieces commissioned by Al Thani.

Silk sword sash with jewelled gold fittings, ca. 1900, India
Silk sword sash with jewelled gold fittings, ca. 1900, India

One brooch by Jar in 2002 has a faceted emerald apparently “suspended” in carved rock crystal. Bharat of Mumbai has produced other pieces using traditionally cut diamonds as a centrepiece for modern designs. The result, as with The Fabric of India exhibition, is to bring history up to date and make these pieces breathe new life into old using the V&A's imaginative vision.

Intricately decorated ceremonial sword, gold hilt set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, c.1880 – 1910
Intricately decorated ceremonial sword, gold hilt set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, c.1880 – 1910

The Fabric of India, supported by Good Earth, with thanks to Experion and Nirav Modi, ends in a few days – January 10. www.vam.ac.uk/fabricofindia

Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection, sponsored by Wartski, runs until March 28 at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Jewels from 2010-2012 in The Al Thani Contemporary section of the exhibition by JAR, Cartier and Bhagat
Jewels from 2010-2012 in The Al Thani Contemporary section of the exhibition by JAR, Cartier and Bhagat

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