How do you properly tell the story of a city—any city—but specifically New York, a 320-square-mile sprawl of layered histories and singular attitude? Make it an ode to clothes.
“A Matter of Style”, a pop-up fashion museum opening September 9, is an exploration of New York’s sartorial legacy, framed through the vast photo archives of Fairchild Media Group, whose portfolio includes the stalwart style-spotter Women’s Wear Daily. (WWD is owned by Penske Media Corporation, the same parent company as ARTnews.) The museum, on view at AG Studios in Manhattan, will present exclusive illustrations, vintage fashion, immersive experiences, and photography in tandem with New York Fashion Week.
Fairchild, founded by John Fairchild in 1910, owns one of the most significant fashion photography archives in media. It includes candids of quintessential New York personalities alongside images of ordinary people whose daily dramas unfold outside the spotlight.
There’s Jackie Kennedy, slipping out of her regular lunch spot La Grenouille. Downtown luminaries like Andy Warhol and Patti Smith appeared in its pages. Epochs in American history unfold in front of the photographer’s lens: the stiff skirts synonymous with the nuclear family; the beaded, fringed height of the hippies; and the dapper power uniform of the Black Panther era. “Style is a language and reflects history just like any other sort of visual medium,” writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis once told WWD.
“A Matter of Style” comes during a fruitful time for fashion exhibitions. Possibly owing to the enduring popularity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, clothing has entered the art institution—not always a seamless process—where its historical weight is given consideration. Right now, a survey of the work of late artist and designer Virgil Abloh is on at the Brooklyn Museum. And the Costume Institute’s last big outing also centered American fashion, though with a greater emphasis on its relations to European haute couture.
The Fairchild Museum’s New York–specific focus is a nice deviation. It should offer some insight into how the personal and the political intersect on our garments.
To learn more about the show, ARTnews chatted via phone with its curator, the visual culture historian, archivist, and design educator Tonya Blazio-Licorish. A condensed version of the conversation follows below.
Can you talk a little about your role as an archivist?
My work here revolves around the archival content for all Fairchild brands. I came to PMC as a visual culture historian. And so, I use my background in fashion history to bring a storytelling element to how I look at the Fairchild archive, which is just an incredible amount of information. Really, this is a well-deserved moment for Fairchild, who has been there to capture what, exactly, fashion has been saying over the course of decades. It celebrates its 112th anniversary this year. It captures the history of fashion, which spans designers, runways, celebrities, music, art—no part of our culture is untouched. This show will specifically focus on the story of fashion in New York City.
And how did you settle on a story to tell about New York?
I’ve focused on the people, places, and things that made it a global fashion city, but also made it unlike any other fashion city. This is about creating a context: what was happening in that moment, disguised in what New Yorkers were wearing. I mean, just think about denim—consider the effect of that photo of James Dean in jeans and a white tee. You are instantly transported to that moment in time.
And New York—America, really—evolved differently from the European capitals; its fashions were more democratic. Denim and other fashions reflected America’s drive to form its own cultural zeitgeist. Think about the youthquake of the ’60s, the Black Panther uniforms of ’70s. Every generation was trying to say something.
How do you think WWD set itself apart from similar fashion publications?
The exhibition focuses on how WWD has in continuum captured fashion as the essence of culture and gives the viewer access to its intimate connection with not just the fashion industry but all the interconnected spaces that it inspires and vice versa. John Fairchild saw fashion as a conversation, WWD’s advances could predict the trajectory of the next trends as they spoke to the zeitgeist. From its early beginnings, WWD has captured fashion in conversation with everyday lived in moments, in its street style photo essays “They Are Wearing.” There was also “The Ladies Who Lunch” another trademark of the daily journal — dedicated to the fashionable ongoings of the social scene and the socialites of the day. In a way, this was all an early form of social media.
As a visual historian, what do you think of the “is fashion art” debate?