Stepping into the Gund Gallery at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, a visitor faces the work of Yohji Yamamoto. Mannequins, draped in slouchy menswear-inspired suits, stand in a line. All but the first are turned forward, their sides to the viewer. It's a runway processional that seems meant to lead you further into this display of high-end fashion. Nearby is a looping video of the runway show from which these clothes were plucked.
The idea behind "Fashion Show: Paris Collections 2006," an exhibition running through March 18, 2007, is to offer a runway-side glimpse of cutting-edge fashion, fresh off the Paris catwalks.
By unveiling its fashion show, the MFA is capitalizing on a moment when "the democratization of fashion" – and public interest – could hardly be more rampant. "The exhibit is a reflection of people's current fascination with fashion," says Tina Sutton, fashion writer for the Boston Globe Magazine. "People are much more obsessed ... and constantly wanting to know what's new, what's next."
Today, discount stores such as Target and H&M instantly distill trends, bringing into the average shopper's closet affordable pieces by Isaac Mizrahi and Stella McCartney – whose designs retail in department stores for thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, the hit TV show "Project Runway" has made a household name of designer judge Michael Kors. And complete collections can be instantly viewed on the Internet at Style.com.
Still, few outside the fashion industry ever will land a seat at a Paris show. And so the architecture of the runway experience has been replicated here – if not its energy or chic frenzy.
"The runway shows have changed a lot over the last 10 or 20 years. They're evolving so that they're theatrical events. This is one way of bringing that runway to the public," says Pamela Parmal, curator of the museum's textiles and fashion department.
The 10 designer tableaux are modeled after their real Parisian counterparts: sultry red mood lights and reflective surfaces at Dior, disco balls and scattered carnations at Lacroix. The "looks" on each "runway" were worn by models during Paris fashion week earlier this year.
Anyone who has attended an actual runway show would quickly point out how far the MFA's simulacrum is from the real thing, how very much it has the feel of a museum interpretation. Nonetheless, "Fashion Show" makes it possible for the uninitiated to come breathtakingly close to exquisitely crafted and incomprehensibly expensive clothing. (The show combines one-of-a-kind, handmade haute couture with slightly less costly ready-to-wear pieces, shown in Paris between January and March.)
Viewers stand at eye level with a Yamamoto corset top, horizontal black boning revealing slivers of mannequin flesh. There are the playful, if confusing, deconstructed creations (some with multiple armholes) in voluminous proportions that the avant-garde designer has become known for.
In truth, the reason the mannequins are turned sideways is not to better convey the sense of a march down the runway, but because the designer loves the back of clothes, says Carla Wachtveitl, a Yamamoto representative on hand for the press preview. He likes to reveal the back first, then the front. So "you don't give it all away right away."
It's a detail most museumgoers will never hear. There's little by way of explanation or history at "Fashion Show" – setting it apart from other exhibitions held in fine art settings.
Meant to capture and convey a brief moment in contemporary fashion, the MFA show elevates clothes over context. "It's a snapshot of what's going on today," says Ms. Parmal, the show's curator.
Viktor & Rolf – the latest designers to create a line for H&M – are known for over-the-top displays that verge on performance art, the brief curator's note tells us. Their exhibit here is nothing of the sort. Though '50s-inspired full-skirted dresses plated in real silver are beautiful, with the mannequins' faces covered by netting, just as models' faces were during the show at the Jardin des Tuileries.
Museums have collected and exhibited fashion for a century. "The real interest," however, says Valerie Steele, chief curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology's museum in New York, "came with Mrs. Vreeland's blockbuster shows at the Metropolitan in the 1970s." Diana Vreeland, after editing Vogue magazine, worked with the Met's Costume Institute.
To some purists, who see fashion as ephemeral and therefore the antithesis of enduring art, these exhibits are purely commercial – and questionable. But as museums have continued to expand the definition of fine art – last year the MFA hosted Ralph Lauren's car collection; a few years before that, guitars – fashion has remained a regular feature. (In 2000, the whole of the Guggenheim was overtaken by Armani.)
Yet most shows have offered either retrospectives, tracing one designer through time, or thematic looks at a particular fashion element (a military theme now at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology) using multiple designers.
What makes the MFA show unique may also be a weakness. Ms. Sutton, the fashion critic, says the snapshot comes at the expense of the "complete picture."
"Truthfully," she says, "if we lived in New York, you could go to Barney's [department store] and see all these clothes on the rack."
Perhaps, although two of the more successful displays work wonderfully in a museum setting.
Feathery coats (one made of black goat fur, another of white Mongolian lamb) by Azzedine Alaïa are shown on headless, bodiless mannequins, rendering them even more sculptural.
Maison Martin Margiela's work, displayed from within a white box with cutouts, is constructed of found objects: a dress of artificial red flowers, vests made from bottlecaps and playing cards.
In the end, this exhibition is for the public, those people whose closest contact with designer fashion may come through television or Style.com. And they will enjoy it most – both the immediacy and the simple fact of being close enough to touch a Chanel dress that took a thousand hours to sew.