Valerie Steele on Fashion Greats
Valerie Steele (Ph.D., Yale University) is Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She has curated more than 20 exhibitions in the past ten years, including Love & War: The Weaponized Woman; The Corset: Fashioning the Body; London Fashion (which won the first Richard Martin Award for best costume exhibition from The Costume Society of America); Femme Fatale: Fashion in Fin-de-Siècle Paris; China Chic: East Meets West; and Form Follows Fashion.Editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture (Berg Publishers), which she founded in 1997, Dr. Steele is also the author of numerous books, including The Black Dress (Harper Collins, 2007), Ralph Rucci (Yale University Press, 2006); The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2001); Paris Fashion (Oxford University, 1988; revised edition, Berg Publishers, 1999); Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now (Yale University Press, 1997; Paris; Adam Biro, 1998); Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power (Oxford University Press, 1996); and Women of Fashion: 20th-Century Designers (Rizzoli, 1991).
She was editor-in-chief of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Scribners, 2005.)Her latest book and publication are both titled Gothic: Dark Glamour (Yale University Press in conjunction with FIT, 2008).
Dr. Steele lectures frequently and has appeared on many television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Undressed: The Story of Fashion. After she appeared on the PBS special, The Way We Wear, she was described in The Washington Post as one of “fashion’s brainiest women.” Often quoted in media, she was herself the subject of a profile in Forbes (1992): “Fashion Professor,” and in The New York Times (1999): “High-Heeled Historian.”
Question: Who has the smartest eye when it comes to style?
Valerie Steele: I think a lot of designers have a really smart eye about fashion because that’s what their life is about; it’s trained to look for new trends. A lot of buyers also are very knowledgeable. But I think a lot of ordinary consumers have become more and more visually intelligent about fashion because they’ve been so deluged with images. I think everyone has an amazing mental rolodex of fashion images that goes through their mind.
I’m in a strange position when I go to fashion shows because I am not looking for the new trend like the journalists. I’m not looking for what I think people will buy, like the department store people. I’m looking for what might trigger something for a new exhibition. Something that will start an idea. For example, when I was working on a show called, Love and War, the Weaponized Woman. I was at the Dior-Couture show a couple of summers ago. And Galliano sent out all of these women in kind of samurai armor, and I was just jumping up and down in my seat going, “That’s my show!” I can’t believe it- I felt so validated that Galliano was doing this which is exactly what I have in mind. And so I called his PR and I said, could I borrow something. And she said, “But Valerie, this is the new show. We have to release the new collection; we have to show this to buyers.” And I said, “You don’t understand, this is my show. It’s so perfect. I have to include something from this collection.” So that was really exciting.
Or, when I worked on my show, Gothic, Dark Glamour. And I started tracking down not just kids who were Goth kids, but a wide variety of designers who were inspired in one collection or another by something gothic. That was really thrilling to track down how the gothic sensibility appealed to different designers in very different ways.
Question: Who do you think of as the all-time fashion greats?
Valerie Steele: Well, if you think in sort of historical terms, all time fashion greats would be people like, Chanel, or Madelyn Vianna, Balenciaga, Charles James, Halston. Today, I think you would have to mention people like Karl Lagerfeld, and John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Mucha, Prada. There are a number of people who are extremely influential on fashion. And that, I think is a big part of what it means to be important in fashion. And one of the things we look at as we run a fashion museum is to try and think what kind of fashion pushes fashion forward? It’s not just enough to do something which is a beautiful version of the current fashion; the important designers push it forward to something new.
Question: Which designers are breaking new ground?
Valerie Steele: In American fashion, I think that the Melevy sisters that Rodarte are extremely creative, and we’ve been buying some of their work for the museum. It’s like buying contemporary art. It’s kind of an educated guess. We don’t know for sure whether they’ll turn out to have an influence in fashion, but they seem so creative and so different and I think what they do is so beautiful, we’re placing bets that we think they’ll be important in fashion.
Recorded on September 24, 2009
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