The shock of the frocks

The Guggenheim is mounting a retrospective of fashion by Giorgio Armani. But is it art?
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The Independent Online

The Guggenheim Museum lies on an exclusive stretch of Fifth Avenue known as Museum Mile. But its new retrospective celebrating 25 years of Giorgio Armani might be more at home one block over, amid the high-fashion boutiques that line Madison Avenue. The only difference is that at the Guggenheim, there are no price tags discreetly hidden from view.

The Guggenheim Museum lies on an exclusive stretch of Fifth Avenue known as Museum Mile. But its new retrospective celebrating 25 years of Giorgio Armani might be more at home one block over, amid the high-fashion boutiques that line Madison Avenue. The only difference is that at the Guggenheim, there are no price tags discreetly hidden from view.

It's not exactly what you'd expect to find at this institution, more noted for avant-garde paintings than beautifully-tailored soft fabrics in black or "greige" - Armani's favourite combination-colour. In addition, Frank Lloyd Wright's famous spiral gallery has been carpeted, an effect which certainly keeps the noise down, but makes the atmosphere even more reminiscent of an up-scale department store in Paris.

The show has its share of critics, who accuse the Guggenheim of blurring the lines between art and commerce. Some of New York's art scribes say the museum is shamelessly selling its soul for the money and publicity of high fashion (the exhibition is sponsored by celebrity-studded InStyle Magazine).

"This represents a great blow to the kind of standards that ought to be observed at museums", says Hilton Kramer, the editor of the New Criterion and one of New York's leading art critics.

The Guggenheim Museum, he points out, was founded to promote the understanding of modernist art. An Armani suit, he insists, should not be considered as a work of art.

"It's a very demoralising development for artists, because it demeans their vocation, it makes a hash of any attempt of art institutions to set aesthetic standards, it confuses the public and generally makes a mess of cultural life."

Likewise, cultural critics have also weighed in with harsh words for the Guggenheim. One writer referred to the current trend of mixing fashion and art a "clever muddle of Dadaism, populism, philistinism and commercialism".

When the Guggenheim Museum recently revealed that it had accepted a $15m donation from the Armani Company, some critics said the retrospective was a quid pro quo. But Museum Director Tom Krens defends his institution from such charges of cynicism, saying that the Armani gift was actually made after the exhibition had been announced.

"What am I going to do? Turn it down?" he says. "Things change, cultural institutions need money, governments don't provide it. What is one supposed to do? Go out of existence or continue to programme? I don't see the issues."

The Guggenheim stands by its aesthetic choices in staging the à la mode exhibition. "We wanted to look at fashion the same way we've looked at sculpture and painting and other important artists", says Krens, claiming this is part of the museum's "continuing commitment to an investigation of culture, in all its manifestations".

Harold Koda, one of the exhibition's co-curators, says a strong case can be made for the art in Armani. "I was surprised at where the artistic expression resides", he says. "There's a complexity of imagery and codes embodied in the clothes that's much richer than I had originally thought." As for Armani's donation, Koda says art has always been defended by powerful people. "Do we pillory a Medici portrait because the guy in the painting was a patron? Give me a break."

Whether or not he is a latter-day Medici, Giorgio Armani became a cultural fixture in 1980 with the release of American Gigolo. The movie starred Richard Gere as Hollywood's highest-paid lover, sashaying across the silver screen in a series of Armani outfits (big shoulders, thin waists). This film elevated style over substance and spread the cult of the Italian designer around the world.

Since then, Armani has become fashion's primo ministro and Hollywood's preferred designer. The black-tie opening night party held at the Guggenheim hosted by Giorgio himself was as glitzy as any Academy Award party; an army of stars clad in Armani showed up to pay tribute - among them, Richard Gere, Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Jodie Foster, Madonna and Salman Rushdie.

Indeed, one particular part of the Guggenheim retrospective showcases Armani's film costumes and Oscar wardrobes, with film clips and a spotlight illuminating the collection. Look! There's the three-quarter-length leather jacket worn by Samuel L Jackson in this summer's swashbuckling Shaft, right next to gowns for Anjelica Huston and Tina Turner.

The rest of the Armani exhibition spans all six floors of the museum's rotunda gallery space. Invisible mannequins showcase the Italian designer's most elegant work in clusters, from three-piece-suits to glittering haute-couture evening gowns. The clothes are organised thematically by colour, tone or curatorial inspiration. After all, as one observer accurately asserted, Armani is timeless.

"We pass though monochromatic interludes, but these only heighten the designer's fecund talent for formal differentiation", enthused Herbert Muschamp in the New York Times. "And Mr Armani uses colour, particularly in floral fabrics, with the exuberance of an English gardener."

With all of this purple prose and celebrity hype, there's no doubt this is a show with mass appeal. That's no surprise. Pressure on art institutions to rake in big money with exhibitions of this type is growing. The Guggenheim's biggest hit to date was its 1998 show called The Art of the Motorcycle, which was sponsored by BMW. That exhibition drew 325,000 people in just 66 days - a blockbuster result which the museum would love to repeat.

The Guggenheim isn't the only bastion of culture exhibiting high fashion. In just a few months, the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art will team up with Vogue magazine for a fashion extravaganza. Critics claim New York's Museum Mile is being transformed into one long catwalk.

"Seen in the context of New York, it is absolutely unnecessary for the Guggenheim to put on this exhibition", argues critic Hilton Kramer. "There's more high fashion to be seen window shopping on Madison Avenue than there would be in three Guggenheim Museums. It's cashing in on the current interest in high fashion. This exhibition is not bringing it to anybody that hasn't already seen it or that doesn't already have a curiosity about it. So it's not even performing an educational function, it's just exploiting an opportunity."

New York's major art institutions have long pointed the way for smaller museums around the United States. Success stories like the motorcycle show and now, inevitably, the Giorgio Armani retrospective, demonstrate that blurring high art with mass culture is a commercially creative option.

That's not such a bad thing, says Koda, who admits that there is a kind of blurring at work. "The business becomes part of the process in a post-Warholian way where business becomes art."


To 17 Jan 2001 (00 1 212 423 3500)