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Valerie Steele on Fashion Greats

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

The chief curator of the Museum at FIT names names: which people have had the most influence on fashion?

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