Gabrielle Chanel: her Fashion Manifesto – could this be the finest Chanel exhibition yet?

Awaiting Mademoiselle Chanel: the couturier would watch her fashion shows from the stairs at rue Cambon

It has been a long, tantalising wait, but finally the Palais Galliera has announced that it will re-open on 1st October with a brand new show dedicated to Gabrielle Chanel and her Fashion Manifesto.  This promises to be a feast for the eyes and an extraordinary insight into the career of one of France’s greatest businesswomen and couturiers.  It is also a suitably ambitious return for one of the greatest fashion museums in the world.  The Palais Galliera has been sorely missed since July 2018 when it closed for a renovation project to create a new basement exhibition space.  The work was supported by Chanel and the new galleries created will be named for Gabrielle Chanel herself. 

The Palais Galliera holds a mighty collection of some 30,000 pieces of clothing, 35,000 accessories and 85,000 photographs and artworks. 

Since opening in 1977, it has forged a reputation for creativity and thought-provoking displays, many staged outside the walls of the Palais in venues chosen to complement perfectly the clothes on show- the 2010 exhibition of Madame Gres’s exquisite draping and pleating alongside the sculptures of Paris’s Musee Bourdelle was unforgettable.

Now, with more space we’ll have a whole year to view items from this permanent collection, that will trace the development of costume from the eighteenth century to the present day.  As well as the new Gabrielle Chanel exhibition galleries there will also be a study suite and a new bookshop.  I suspect I may never leave.

Back to the new Chanel exhibition though, which promises to match in its scale the scope of Chanel’s own vision and ambition. She left her creative imprint on fashion, fragrance, accessories, theatre and a whole lifestyle for women emancipated from Edwardian restraint.  Her empire celebrated both her iconoclastic spirit and her practical elegance. More than simply beautiful clothing, this was a manifesto for change. 

Galliera promises an exhibition divided into two parts, showcasing over 350 items.  This first is an exploration of Chanel’s life and career, the key features of her signature style and classic allure – the mariniere, the little black dress, Chanel No 5.  It shows the low points as well as highs: the closure of the couture house during the war and its re-surgence to provide a relaxed alternative to Dior’s corseted New Look. 

The second part highlights the signature aspects of the Chanel style – the tweed, the colour combinations, the toe-capped pumps, the iconic 2.55 handbag.  Over one hundred years since Chanel started her fashion business, her creations have not only remained in style in a famously fickle industry, but have acquired the status of classic items, universally recognised for their practical and aesthetic allure.

This is not the first time we have had a major fashion exhibition devoted to this extraordinary innovator, but with the combined forces of the house of Chanel and the Palais Galliera, it may well be the finest.

Gabrielle Chanel, Manifeste de mode, du 1er octobre 2020 au 14 mars 2021, Palais Galliera 10 Avenue Pierre 1er de Serbie, 75016 Paris www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr/

Is this a shop or a party?

Townhouse shopping, courtesy of Ralph Lauren

Recently I gained a glimpse into the life of the elite shopper.   One of Net-a-Porter’s Extremely Important Persons (EIPs) invited me to join her at one of NAP’s private viewings in a suite in a luxurious London hotel.  For a shopper more accustomed to rummaging for my goods in car boot sales or vintage fairs, this was a new experience but not a totally unknown quantity.  Recently, the Financial Times’ How to Spend It magazine featured Les Suites in Paris that works on a similar principle, offering high end fashion in what feels more like a beautiful home than a shop and offering a limited and highly curated selection of goods to a clientele that feels more like a social clique than a census category. It enables the seller to get closer to the customer (especially an online one) but is it satisfying to the customer?  The answer, as ever, depends on what you are looking for.

Entering the hotel from the London rain we were escorted to the suite, wading through carpets waist-deep, breathing air heady with scented candles and bowls of roses.   On arrival we were greeted like guests to a party –  coats taken, ensconced on sofas and coffee brought as my EIP’s personal shopper talked and then walked us through the treasures on offer.

First, fine jewellery: exclusive, unusual pieces that may never see the light of the website, reserved for clients by private appointment.  I was interested to note that some of the most sought-after pieces by females were the watches – many of them large and masculine in look. 

Then there were the racks of clothes.  Not an excessive amount – perhaps six or seven rails of 10 pieces each with a broad range of labels represented to offer a range to satisfy all tastes and styles, from lavishly embellished Gucci and Balmain, to minimalist knitwear from Khaite or The Row and even the conceptual with a truly extraordinary trenchcoat by Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garcons (of which more later). There were no basics, no ‘athleisure’, no simple white shirts.  This was not a practical, capsule wardrobe, these pieces were stars in their own right and displayed for their individual tactile and visual appeal.

Each piece was present as a single item which meant that trying on was fruitless unless it happened to be your size.  This I found highly frustrating.  When I’ve attended shopping parties in vintage boutiques the whole enjoyment is that it is the ultimate dressing up box: a playpen for the fashion follower.  The selling opportunity works as people bond over trying the clothes and styling each other, customers helping to sell the stock.  By comparison, this felt oddly sanitised and staid. 

That said, I’ve always been an emotional and romantic shopper – the pieces that catch my eye echo stories, hollywood glamour, half-forgotten dreams that tap directly into a vein of desire.  This is not how everyone shops.  My EIP was in her element.  As a confirmed internet shopper, this was an enhancement of her experience, the perfect complement to the online browse.

This form of selling will appeal to a certain kind of shopper, especially those already acquainted with the range of labels on offer and those short of time who may need professional help in finding clothes for specific need.  If you are a browser and a rummager like me, delighting in the hunt for the rare and unusual, it is less satisfying – the work has been done, the prizes presented, the answers are at the bottom of the page.

Was I tempted?   The Junya Watanabe trench caught my eye on the rack and, though it was too big, was still something I could try on.  It was a genius piece of design, the back a swirl of sunray pleats (welcome irony in a trenchcoat) and it was reversible with a zingy lime green interior.  It was a ‘forever’ piece and an item of pure joy to pull out on the dreariest of days.

Would I go again?  Undoubtedly.

The stories our clothes tell

Rita Hayworth smouldering in The Lady from Shanghai wearing Jean Louis

Recently I read that Patou now sells clothes with a QR code for the customer to scan to discover the story behind the item. I am clearly not the only person who enjoys a tale with my threads. Commercially this has to be a good move. On a practical level, it can help to satisfy our concern to live sustainably by assuring us about how our clothes were made and who made them. But the urge to tell stories about our clothes runs deeper than that to questions of not only how but why.

As a long-term vintage shopper, I have become accustomed to conducting my own research into the stories of clothes I buy. The last dress I bought was a consigned Miu Miu piece that I traced to the A/W 2011 collection. Vogue called this collection ‘a modern vintage collection that transported us back to World War II era Paris’ and ‘one of the most elegant Miu Miu collections.’

The collection was featured in UK Vogue in a sublimely beautiful shoot, styled by Lucinda Chambers, modelled by Kate Moss and photographed by Mario Testino. I clearly remember seeing these images when they first came out and being deeply affected by the elegance of the clothes.

This recent acquisition prompted a 1940s film binge: Now Voyager, Laura and then The Lady from Shanghai in which I found Rita Hayworth wearing an ensemble that was strikingly similar to some of the catwalk images from that Miu Miu collection (see top image). Was this the source of the inspiration? The costume designer for the film was Jean Louis who worked with Hayworth on Gilda and on Pal Joey.

So my recently acquired dress seemed to have come to me from 1940s Hollywood, via Milan. Having been captivated by the Miu Miu collection on sight, back in 2011 I had finally found my dream item nine years later and it is one of those pieces you instinctively recognise as being ‘you’. Discovering the context of its original presentation within a Miu Miu collection and a possible source of the inspiration for that collection, only go to make a lovely dress even more special to me.

There are powerful commercial reasons to tap into this vein but there’s something else here too. The more special we feel our purchases are, the more we will value them, cherish them and use them. The more we all do this, the less need we will have to discard badly judged and unloved items. Many items in my wardrobe are decades old and I fully expect this dress to measure its lifetime with me in a similar frame. Rita Hayworth knew a good thing when she saw it and who am I to argue?

Bright young things, old bags, exotica and erotica – a year of exploration

Spring is in the air and this means (amongst other things) some enticing new exhibitions in London and Paris. 

Top of my list is the long-awaited re-opening of the Palais Galliera, Paris’s museum of fashion and perhaps the greatest of its kind in the world.  If, like me you have been following the tantalising glimpses of the basement refurbishment on Miren Arzalluz’s and the Galliera’s own instagram, then you’ll be champing at the bit to know what delights they have in store.  Watch this space.

Meanwhile, back in London I’m looking forward to comparing the arcane monochrome drawings of Aubrey Beardsley with the equally monochrome early portrait photography of Cecil Beaton.  Beardsley’s drawings were considered shocking in the late nineteenth century and still pack something of a punch today.  Similarly Beaton’s early work was influenced by surrealism and, even whilst documenting London’s social whirl in the roaring twenties, his anecdotes teetered on the edge of wicked wit, always managing to stay just the right side to deliver teasing flattery.  Aubrey Beardsley is at Tate Britain from 4 March until 25 May and Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things is at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 March until 7 June.

I’m intending to try to see both on the same day as I think it will offer an interesting comparison.  I might also try to fit in a third show to complement Beardsley’s orientalism as the V&A are mounting a show about the kimono.

This garment offers an interesting perspective on fashion as one of the occasions when an article of national dress, and not a terribly practical one at that, has become embedded in mainstream fashion.  Anyone who saw Elizabeth Debicki in The Night Manager will remember the beautiful kimono she wore (sourced from the glorious Fuji Kimono) as beach apparel, but it remains a form of dress that continues in use in its original form.   

This show spans the kimono in all its incarnations and promises to be a fascinating cultural insight.   See Kimono: Kyoto to catwalk at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 29 February to 21 June. 

Who doesn’t love an accessory? The Fashion Museum Bath offers us a whole year of shoes with their Shoephoria from 28 March 2020 until the 31 March 2021.  If I were a Bath resident, I’d be tempted to enjoy a daily dose of shoe love for the whole year.  With a collection of over 3,000 pairs and dating back to the late seventeenth century, this promises to be a show that will tug on my heartstrings and require some serious restraint to keep me from bursting through the glass.

Staying with the theme, the V&A will offer us Bags: inside and out from 25 April until 31 January 2021.  I have high hopes of this one as the V&A seem to be interested in tapping into the mystery of the handbag and its contents as well as its aesthetic and practical design.  All life exists (sometimes literally) in a handbag and this makes them endlessly fascinating.  From Ernest Worthington’s infant abandonment (‘A Handbag?’) to Grace Kelly’s famous adoption of the Hermes handbag to hide her pregnancy, they are with us every step of the way.

Finally, if the clash between fashion and culture of the 1960s and 70s is more your thing then you will be pleased to know that London’s Fashion and Textile Museum is offering Beautiful People: the boutique in 1960s counterculture from 3 July until 4 October.  If you can’t wait until then, Paris’s Musee Yves Saint Laurent is offering a glimpse of just one of those beauties with a show focusing on YSL’s muse, Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent feminin singulair from 3 March until 11 October.

The endless fascination of fashion is the way that we all use it to communicate and express personality, or as Beaton himself put it, ‘we all have enough of the peacock in us not to be able to dismiss it entirely.’  These shows promise to hold up the looking glass to ways in which fashion has shaped and been shaped by society.  There is an exciting year of discovery ahead.

Dressed for the Occasion

Normcore has a lot to answer for.  For at least a decade, this relaxed, dressed-down style has had us in its grip.  Its combination of preppy, peppy vigour with the essential comfort factor has made it almost irresistible.  What could be easier in the morning than to combine a pair of chinos with grey marl and gold sneakers?

Easy, for sure but when you walk out of your house and find that everyone else in the street had the same idea, then perhaps its a signal to change tack.

My wake-up call came recently and it came in the shape of a Vilshenko cape.  This garment is the opposite of ‘normcore’ in its purest form.  Where chinos and sweatshirt telegraph simplicity and practicality, an embroidered cape signals gratuitous joy in every stitch.  It won’t protect you from a snowstorm.  You can’t wear it to cook or do anything practical really.  It doesn’t have pockets.  

What it does have is instant impact.  Whenever I wear it I am suddenly conscious of eyes on me – even more so when I pair it with a Maison Michel fedora.  It never fails to attract comment and the very best kind of comment: those that remark on personal style rather than an overt enquiry about where something came from.

Clothes like this promote a different bearing.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford knew the power of a pair of sharp shoulders to draw up the posture and streamline the silhouette.  They showed us the transformational power of a hat – even a simple beret: witness Bette in full Orry Kelly splendour, peeling off her gloves on arrival at Cascades in Now Voyager.  It is an unforgettable sight.

So goodbye normcore.  It was comfortable while it lasted and my feet are certainly grateful but now I need something more inspirational.  Let’s hope it doesn’t snow this year.

Dos a la mode – back in fashion at the Musee Galliera

Yohji Yamamoto RTW AW 96/97

The Palais Galliera is back (in all senses of the word) at the Musee Bourdelle for another thoughtful and inspiring exhibition, showing statuesque ensembles inside a sculptor’s studio. This time the theme is the back of the garment: for the most inventive designers the perfect place to show off virtuosic dressmaking and for the wearer the ultimate in making an exit. From the formality of court and bridal trains to structures that seem animal or bird-like, the Galliera considers the back from all angles.

The show mixes dress from the eighteenth century to the present, shown alongside stone and bronze sculptures that echo or contrast with the lines of draped and seamed cloth. 

The genius is in the mix: a Maggy Rouff bridal gown alongside a Jean Paul Gaultier ‘trench coat’ evening dress; Yohji Yamamoto’s deconstructed black and white felt dress (see top image) alongside an antique gold embroidered court train. It is thought-provoking and awe-inspiring. Some of the most interesting exhibits are slightly unsettling: two antique straight-jackets are displayed alongside a Jean Paul Gaultier lace corset (see below).

Some of the pieces on show defy photography – a Martin Margiela jumpsuit/gown is so sculptural it has to be seen in 3D to be appreciated. Also notable was the preponderance of black in the show – with clothes this structural, colour and pattern seem superfluous. Without doubt the piece I would take home with me if I could was an Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture (SS 2001) jumpsuit ensemble, featuring a fierce black leather corset from which emerged a pair of opulently embroidered – what? Fins? Wings? You decide. A truly stunning piece.

Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture SS 2001

It is another tour de force from Musee Galliera: sensual, thoughtful, artistic, disturbing and atmospheric. I left feeling gorged on beauty, my head spinning with ideas about my own wardobe and clothing choices. I’ll think carefully about the clothes I put on my back in future. 

See Dos a la Mode at Musee Bourdelle, 18 rue Antoine Bourdelle 75015 Paris and at http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr #BackSide until 17 November 2019.

Drawing on Style – fashion illustration from heaven

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Jane Bixby Weller (1926- ) Balenciaga Hat

Drawing on Style is a gorgeous celebration of fashion illustration and specialist gallery Gray MCA’s contribution to the London Fashion Week schedule. It sets work from some of the masters of twentieth century fashion illustration – Christian Berard (1902-1949), Rene Bouche (1905-1963), Rene Gruau (1909-2004) – alongside beautiful pieces by today’s artists, Bill Donovan, Jack Potter and Conrad Roset and work from Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio.

Most striking of all is the way these drawings all add a context to the clothing they depict. Whether it is creating an atmosphere of languor, glamour or serenity; or whether it is communicating energy and verve through the brevity of a brushstroke, they transport the viewer into another existence.

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Carl ‘Eric’ Erickson (1891-1958) Paris 1948

The image above is a perfect example of the power of fashion illustration. We see a female wearing a plain green jacket with a long checked skirt and some very sensible looking shoes. The outfit itself is unremarkable, even dowdy. It is unlikely that this lady would attract our attention in the street. As an illustration though, it draws the eye as she hitches up her skirt into a waterfall ruffle, revealing a well-shaped leg. She is calm and satisfied with her look, relaxed with the air of a person who does not know they are being watched, and so we have the sense of spying on an unguarded moment.

If illustration can do this for a nondescript skirt and jacket, what can it do for truly fabulous clothing?

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Rene Bouche (1905-1963) Red Suit, Conde Nast January 1950

Rene Bouche and Rene Gruau will be forever associated with the titans of post-war haute couture, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Lanvin and, for Gruau, Christian Dior and the New Look.  These pictures ignite as much desire today as they did for a post-war world, exhausted with austerity and rationing.

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Christian Berard (1902-1949) Model in Evening Dress

It is also very exciting to see a work by Christian ‘Bebe’ Berard. In her memoir, ‘DV’, Diana Vreeland noted his enormous design talent: ‘Where he put his hand was like the golden touch’ whether that was scenery and costumes for the theatre or fashion illustration for Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Patou and Nina Ricci.  His work also appeared regularly in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.  Most touching is Vreeland’s amazement that her maid had identified him in a New York street having never set eyes on him before: ‘But, madame, he is just as you described him – a little man, a dancer, with pointed shoes, and his face turned toward heaven.’ And isn’t that exactly what each of these gifted illustrators do for the fashion lover – turn our faces heavenwards, just for a moment?

If you’re in London before 20 September don’t miss this wonderful show: 10am-6.30pm at Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street, St James, London.  A daily talk on the history of fashion illustration takes place from 1.30-2.30pm and you can see the whole collection at www.graymca.co.uk

Peacock and Vine

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Fortuny Delphos gown, Musee des Arts Decoratifs Paris, Fashion Forward, 3 Siecles de mode (1715-2016) Exhibition

 

 

A perennial fashion question is whether male designers really like women. Some clearly do. In Wim Wenders’s splendid 1989 documentary about Yohji Yamamoto, Notebook on cities and clothes, the Japanese designer speaks direct to camera about how, through his design, he is asking women “How can I help you?”. Yves Saint Laurent made similar comments in interviews and is remembered now as the designer who made trousers for women widely acceptable as a glamourous option, not just workwear.

It is a 20160817_193833strong theme in Peacock and Vine, A.S. Byatt’s eloquent and beautiful book about the work of William Morris and Mario Fortuny: both designers were powerfully inspired by the women in their lives. The two make an interesting contrast. Morris, a left-leaning Brit, was inspired to create stunningly beautiful applied arts by a childhood of forest-exploration that led to a lifelong love of nature. Fortuny, an aristocratic Spaniard, whose family moved to Venice because of his childhood asthma, derived his natural inspiration from light and its reflection and refraction.

Any fashion fan will associate Fortuny with the Delphos gown – the sublimation into apparel of light itself through a still-undiscovered silk pleating technique that caresses the female curve, flattering and highlighting as the light hits it. The gowns still occasionally come up for auction and are as wearable today as they were when they were first patented in 1909. What is really fascinating in this book is the insight into the scope of Fortuny’s amazingly inventive mind: textiles and clothing were just one aspect of a range of art, craft and technological skill focused almost obsessively on capturing and transmitting light.

There were other influences too. Greek mythology and archaeology influenced the classical and sculptural style of the Delphos gown. Fortuny’s travel in Greece and North Africa inspired painted and etched patterns in velvet and silk featuring lush forests of leaves, fruits and flowers. These are the exotic counterparts to Morris’s very British honeysuckles, thrushes and willows.

The women? Morris’s story was a sad one. He is said to have commented of his beloved wife, Jane, “I cannot paint you, but I love you”. Jane loved Morris’s contemporary and sometime collaborator, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the two conducted an open affair, causing Morris great pain. Fortuny’s marriage to Henriette came later in his life (due to family disapproval) but seems to have been happier and more stable, Henriette working alongside him in the workshop. His mother, Cecilia de Madrazo came from a family of artists and architects and amassed an enviable collection of antique textiles. One can easily imagine a young Fortuny marvelling at medieval embellished velvets and silks, storing away memories for later use.

This lovely book will give you a new perspective on two profoundly influential designers but it is also an exceptionally beautiful read in itself. I’m already re-reading it and it has gone straight into my list of the greatest fashion books ever written (see it here).

Shortly after reading this, I came face-to-face with a Delphos gown at Paris’s Musee des Arts Decoratifs during their recent exhibition, Fashion Forward, 3 siècles de mode (1715-2016). It shimmered as if it was its own light source, so tactile that it was almost impossible to resist reaching out to stroke it. With the light that shone from its curves, it was also transmitting an air of relaxation, comfort and quiet but powerful confidence. What greater help could a designer offer to a woman?

Royal milliners on the big screen: Frederick Fox

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Diana Rigg demonstrating advanced hat insouciance in Evil under the Sun

 

Walking around Buckingham Palace’s excellent ‘Fashioning a Reign’ exhibition of the Queen’s wardrobe, I was particularly struck by the variety of hats on show.  A long display case arranged chronologically, charts the evolution of the Queen’s style with changing fashions and changes to the Royal Warrant holders over the decades.  There are some really stunning hats on show but my personal favourites were some of the earliest examples, made by Aage Thaarup in the 1940s and 50s and those from the 1980s made by Frederick Fox.

Aage Thaarup was a Danish milliner, working in London from the 1930s to the 70s.  A talent for styling rather than formal millinery training was the foundation of his success.  He supplied hats to the Queen Mother and then to the Queen herself in the 40s and 50s, gaining his royal warrant from the Queen until 1961.

Frederick Fox was an Australian who had begun designing hats from his early childhood before becoming established as a couture milliner after his move to the UK in 1958.  His Royal Warrant followed in 1974 and became one the queen’s longest-serving milliners, supplying around 350 hats for the queen as well as for numerous other members of the royal family, including Diana, Princess of Wales. 20160806_220327

 Both milliners produced hats for films and their very glamorous and sometimes flamboyant styles really appealed to me.  It also sent me back to watch, again, the 1982 film of Agatha Christie’s ‘Evil under the Sun’ for which Fox designed the hats.  Though I’d never thought of it before as being a ‘fashion’ film, it is a movie that displays some amazing 1930s style and virtually no scene in which hats don’t take a starring role.

F20160806_204232ox shows himself to be the master of a swooping-brimmed capeline, a jauntily-angled trilby, and a super-glam beach turban.  There is also a beautiful range of men’s straw hats on show, with James Mason elegant in a classic boater, Denis Quilley in a dashing panama and Peter Ustinov matching Poirot’s Edwardian spats with a chronologically-appropriate up-turned brim style Panama typical of that age.  A great visual treat for all sorts of reasons.

Costume designer for the film, Anthony Powell 20160806_204803won a well-deserved Oscar in 1979 for his work on ‘Death on the Nile’ but inexplicably not for this film too.  If his work and name looks familiar, then it may be because he is the cousin of Sandy Powell, who recently delivered the incredibly beautiful wardobes for the film Carol.

Missoni Art Colour!

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London’s Fashion and Textile Museum is currently hosting a rather interesting show celebrating the relationship between Italian textile titan, Missoni and modern art.  Missoni Art Colour runs until 4 September so if you find yourself in London before then, be sure to check it out.

What makes it interesting?  First there is the industrial concept here.  Italy prides itself on its manufacturing quality and artistry, especially in the fashion industry.  Missoni’s founders, Ottavio and Rosita Missoni worked very much in that tradition, creating textiles inspired by 20th century fine art, whilst also being deeply rooted in Italy’s industrial heritage. The result was the creation of a highly individualistic label, immediately recognisable and distinctive to anyone in world of international fashion.

It is also interesting to see the textiles and the clothes displayed alongside the art.  I had never before appreciated the relationship between a Missoni zig-zag knit piece and abstract art of the mid-twentieth century but in this show, the connection is clear.   See below left, artwork by Ottavio Missoni, ‘Untitled’ 1973 and right, Missoni textile sample.

It boasts fashion over a period of 60 years, from 1953 to the present, with paintings by Sonia Delaunay, Lucio Fontana and Gino Severini, as well as textile studies, paintings and Arazzi by Ottavio Missoni.  Some of the art has come from the Missoni collection and some from the MA*GA Art Museum, Gallarate and from private collections in Italy.  Most have never before been exhibited in the UK.

The very best fashion exhibitions cause you to stop short and find a new perspective on a designer or piece of clothing.  This show certainly did that for me and I’ll be seeing Missoni, both new but especially vintage, in a new and highly artistic light.  See this at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum before 4 September.