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Robert Gober’s Angsty Minimalism Hits MOMA in October

Coco Chanel may seem an unlikely muse for Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, the first American retrospective of the New York-based artist, which opens at MOMA in October. But we can imagine at least one Chanel aphorism suiting exhibition organizer Ann Temkin, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture.

See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index

Chanel wisely counseled that a woman should remove one accessory before walking out the door. For Temkin, who is tasked with orchestrating Gober’s enigmatic sculptures and room-sized installations exploring themes of domesticity, childhood, religion, sex, and death, restraint guides her approach to the 130-odd works that span the artist’s career, from student days to the present.

“In planning the rooms, every time we took one thing out, it would be like, ‘Now the room’s really great,’ ” Temkin says. “So if we put nothing in this show, it’ll be the best show of all.”

Temkin’s quip has its truths: When installed well, a Gober holds a room. But many of his deceptively simple works, especially the signature sinks, the neo-minimalist children’s playpens, and his eerie, lifelike wax legs (complete with human hair), pose challenges to museums. The problem is how to ensure that things like body parts jutting out of walls avoid taking on the aspect of a surrealist joke. Hey ma, don’t trip on that dude’s leg!

“The work is not really the two feet by three feet that it occupies,” Temkin says. “It’s that, plus this psychic force that it requires around it. If that psychic force isn’t afforded by the available space, the piece can risk silliness, or decorativeness. So one of the big concerns is to leave a lot of space, literally, for the viewer.”

Those concerns mean that MOMA galleries that normally house up to 20 paintings will contain just a few Gobers each. There should be plenty of room for his painstakingly crafted sculptures, many of which look like readymades but aren’t, plus his more recent multi-sensory room-sized installations. MOMA will also recreate several of his other large-scale works, including a 1992 Dia Art Foundation exhibition featuring wallpaper printed with a dense forest and the artist’s signature sinks and prison bars.

Since coming to prominence in the mid 1980s, Gober, 59, has enjoyed exhibitions across the United States and in Europe. He represented the U.S. in the 2001 Venice Biennale and was the subject of a major retrospective in Switzerland in 2007. But this is his first hometown show.

Though Gober started off studying to be a painter, and his MOMA show will include his touchstone work, Slides of a Changing Painting, from 1982 to ’83, he ultimately found his voice in three dimensions.

Gober and his generation — including such sculptors as Charles Ray, who started off minimalist but turned to hyper-realism — mark an important shift in the history of the art form. They returned to sculpture a sense of human experience — for Gober, that meant references to childhood, religion, and homosexuality — that the Minimalists before him, like Richard Serra, Carl Andre and Donald Judd, had eschewed.

“For Gober, coming of age in the early ’80s, the potential of sculpture for—it’s a bad pun, it’s unintended—carving new territory was rich,” Temkin says. “For a couple of generations at that point, abstraction had really dominated sculpture. So there was a whole lot of room to delve into this territory that once again could include imagery, whether it be things or bodies.

“Today we take for granted that sculpture can be something that is representational or figurative and can have a narrative,” the curator continues. “But 30 or 40 years ago, that would have been quite unthinkable. If it wasn’t Judd or Andre or Serra, if the terms weren’t dictated by them, it just wasn’t modern.”

Though Gober seemed to reject the ideology of that earlier generation, he was well aware of his predecessors. Many Gober works—such as his variations on children’s playpens, which are clean wooden objects that might pass for Sol LeWitts—can be read through a minimalist prism. They just happen to also include a frisson of childhood drama—of vulnerability, imprisonment, and irrationality. Gober’s is an angsty minimalism.

The artist’s images of fragmented bodies, birth, and androgynous figures, which might give a Freudian pause, are deeply indebted to the feminist artists of the 1970s and ’80s. Gober was well versed in the work of Yvonne Rainer, Jenny Holzer, and Louise Lawler, all of whom inserted autobiography and social commentary into their artwork.

In recent decades, Gober has produced ever more ambitious and encompassing installations. Many are total sensory experiences, and several include an unusual element: running water.

One example is an untitled work that debuted in a 5,000-square-foot space at Chelsea’s Matthew Marks Gallery in the spring of 2005 and is now part of MOMA’s collection. It includes a bronze crucifix with water pouring from Christ’s nipples and two figures soaking in bathtubs with running water. The uncommon liquid prerequisite has led Temkin and her team to hang the show on the second floor instead of the museum’s sixth-story special exhibition spaces.

“On the second floor, if there is some kind of disaster, the only thing it’ll ruin underneath is the lobby,” Temkin says of her show’s location. “You don’t want any plumbing problems to happen over a Picasso.”

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Sleek and Spendy, Beautique in Midtown Knows Its Target Audience

By design, New York’s hidden restaurants don’t give diners much to look for. There are the unmarked doors, often festooned with peeling paint or graffiti. Some façades are windowless, some have no signage, and some, like La Esquina and Luksus, require entry to a first restaurant in order to reach a second, more coveted destination. Sardined into a small foyer next to the Paris Theatre, the entrance to Beautique, midtown’s newest posh restaurant, could be mistaken for a modern art installation. A bouncer guards an unmanned piano in an empty room — we never saw any ivories tickled.

It looks like the lobby of the fanciest walk-up (or -down) apartment in town, but downstairs you’ll find a dimly lighted, subterranean complex that’s trying very hard to appeal to the tony neighborhood with décor inspired by Coco Chanel, which edges toward the comically baroque.

Frank Roberts, former GM of the Rose Bar in the Gramercy Park Hotel, has tapped Le Cirque vet Craig Hopson for the project. The Australian chef rose to fame in New York working under Terrance Brennan (Picholine) before a brief stint at One If by Land, Two If by Sea, and was most recently listed as the consulting chef for an Upper West Side wine bar. He cooks visually appealing, often expensive food.

The list of 13 tipples, all priced less than $20 — which is to say: all priced precisely $19 — was developed by renowned bartender and brand ambassador Charlotte Voisey. Her talents are obvious in quaffable concoctions like the “Lady Eloise,” which swirls lemon juice and pisco with mirto, a Sardinian liqueur fortified with myrtle berries and leaves for a flowery, tangy sip.

Beautique bills its fare as American, but Hopson’s best work derives from his French training. Burgundy snails are hit with whiskey and pancetta, delicate Comté cheese dumplings swim in verdant spring pea soup dashed with mint oil, and a salad of rabbit meat and fava beans enjoys the tart complement of verjus vinaigrette. When the menu globe-trots, things can get dicey. I won’t be returning for lemon spaghetti hiding salmon roe, smoked broccoli, and strips of smoked salmon. After the first forkful, the components lump together at the bottom of the shallow bowl. A special of hamachi crudo topped with cubes of melon pulled off the feat of being both boring and unwieldy, the diced fruit flopping off the thin strips of fish, which needed salt and more of the promised chipotle chiles.

Scallops with foie gras sabayon might be the most straight-forward seafood entrée, the sweet, meaty surf dragged further into turf territory with shiitake mushrooms.

Just as enjoyable is a brick of king salmon, confited and served with lively buttermilk vinaigrette, dill pickles, and potato chips. Carnivores should seek
out the lamb mixed grill, which allocates bacon, sausage, chop, loin, and breast
to pair with a minted olive relish and roasted tomatoes. In a progressive touch gone awry, the seared duck breast with peaches harbors a scattering of cocoa crumbs, which tasted like a grain-based energy bar.

Desserts are the work of Jiho Kim,
who comes to Beautique from Gordon Ramsay at the London. His creations nearly eclipse the main courses, with impressive technique and attention to detail. Black Forest cake is arresting, a
nest of chocolate brownie holding three Chantilly-cream dumplings, accented with cherry-blossom ice cream and crumbles of green tea sable cookies. Whereas some of the savory items don’t live up to their price tags — $15 to $20 for appetizers, $30 to $40 for main courses — Kim’s desserts feel like a steal at $12.

Perhaps those accustomed to slapping down a Jackson for a cocktail won’t bat an eye at paying for water. Our server didn’t even bother to mention tap as an option, instead toting up an $18 charge for a single bottle of Evian. (Note to
self: Caveat quaffer.) We were also encouraged to try a $135 Australian truffle tasting menu because “the chef
is from Australia.” But if a chef from Down Under wants to showcase native delicacies, why not choose main ingredients rather than exorbitantly priced garnishes? On the other hand, the staff will cheerily erupt into a cacophony of the “Happy Birthday” song if you tell them it’s yours, and I’m pretty sure they don’t charge extra for that.

Like many restaurants geared toward well-heeled clientele, Beautique already has a built-in audience, and between Hopson’s and Kim’s food, they’ll likely do well in this neighborhood of high-rises and fancy hotels. Whether that appeals to you depends on your affinity for businesses that champion dollars over diners.

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THE GREAT PRETENDER

No one loves playing dress up more than Cindy Sherman, and for her latest solo show at Metro Pictures, she has gathered quite a wardrobe for herself courtesy of Chanel. Decked out in everything from early haute couture pieces from the 1920s designed by Coco Chanel to more recent Karl Lagerfeld collections, the artist photographed herself without makeup in front of a green screen and used Photoshop to manipulate the images, aging her face by painting on wrinkles and inserting rugged landscape photos she took mostly in Iceland for her backdrop. The result: some of her most intriguing work to date. But before you hit the gallery, you should (if you haven’t already) get caught up on her entire career since the mid ’70s at her acclaimed retrospective at MOMA (11 West 53rd Street, 212-708-9400), which ends June 11.

Thu., June 7, 10 a.m.; Fri., June 8, 10 a.m.; Sat., June 9, 10 a.m., 2012

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Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky Gets It On

Coco Chanel. Igor Stravinsky. Two iconoclasts whose contributions to their respective artistic fields left an indelible mark on the 20th century. Did you know they used to bone? After a lengthy staging of the disastrous 1913 premiere of “The Rite of Spring” (the sole sympathetic set of ears in the audience belonging to the youngish Chanel), Stravinsky jumps ahead a decade. Lacking love, hot shot Coco (Anna Mouglalis) turns workaholic like a proper rom-com heroine; Igor (Mads Mikkelsen), an unpopular genius, is living in squalid exile. She invites him, his sickly wife, and offspring to move in to her country estate, and soon the two artists are furiously humping on the piano. “Your music has more passion,” sneers Mrs. Stravinsky, willing to accept the dalliance if it’s good for the canon—up to a point. Lit like a David Fincher music video and shot with a gliding camera approximating a wandering eye, Stravinsky strains to convince that its lascivious pleasures have historical import. In the film’s 1:1 correlation between erotic indulgence and creative innovation, hot, home-wrecking sex is justifiable only if it directly leads to the invention of Chanel No. 5. Stravinsky is the second corset-ripping French-language romance about the legendary fashion designer to hit American screens in seven months. Here, Coco’s cast as a femme fatale who preys on a helpless nebbish—the Audrey Tautou–starring Coco Avant Chanel was much more fun.

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Chanel Hagiography Is So Last Season in Coco Before Chanel

Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel gives us Belle Époque Coco, opening in 1893 with a grim scene of the 10-year-old waif and her sister being unceremoniously dumped at an orphanage, and ending around World War I, a few years before the Chanel empire is launched. Jan Kounen’s moldy Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, which premiered earlier this year at Cannes and was also bought by Sony Pictures Classics, picks up essentially where Fontaine’s film ends. Both stop well short of the most shameful era of the designer’s life: Coco When She Was Sleeping With the Nazi Spy. The Coco of Fontaine’s project—which she co-wrote with her sister, Camille, freely adapting Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book L’Irrégulière: ou, Mon itinéraire Chanel—can be described as courtesan before couturiere. Or, more cynically, Coco after corporate synergy: Audrey Tautou, who performs adequately in the title role, recently replaced Nicole Kidman as the spokesmodel for Chanel No. 5. (The lush TV spot is directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who gave Tautou her most syrupy role in Amélie.)

The life of fashion’s monster sacré has been assayed many times before: Katharine Hepburn in the 1969 Broadway musical Coco, Marie-France Pisier in the 1981 biopic Chanel Solitaire, Shirley MacLaine playing her as an old broad last year on Lifetime’s Coco Chanel. Demi Moore is said to be attached to yet another Coco project. The fascination with Chanel is best explained by Judith Thurman’s typically spot-on assessment in a 2005 New Yorker piece: “Her own rules of the game, distilled over the decades, were a core of beliefs that were as much about womanhood and its paradoxes as about clothing.” Fontaine’s film attempts to dramatize the most fundamental contradiction—the proud peasant who would liberate women from suffocating corsets, pounds of extra material, and hats that looked liked “meringues” was able to do so by lying in the beds of rich men.

Millionaire racehorse owner Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) first meets Coco in 1908 Moulins, where she works as a seamstress and a singer in a saloon with her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain). The enterprising young woman shows up at Balsan’s house unannounced, soon to be his pet, hidden when the swells come over. Despite wan protests of “All I need is a job,” Coco seems content with the arrangement, which gives her the time to make hats for Balsan’s former conquest, the actress Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos, excellent as always, and the only cast member capable of having any fun with her role). More money—and encouragement—will come from Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), an English industrialist and polo player, who asks his pal, Balsan, if he can “borrow” Coco for two days for a trip to Deauville, where the fishermen’s striped sweaters will inspire more androgynous fashion from Coco. Capel’s death sparks an interest in how to do things with black.

Coco Before Chanel concludes with an anachronistic coda: An older Coco, in a signature high-contrast black-and-white suit, sits on the famous steps of her couture house as contemporary models march past her, wearing Chanel’s Greatest Hits Through the Decades (recalling a similar scene in Matt Tyrnauer’s doc Valentino: The Last Emperor). The valedictory moment feels completely unearned in a film so strenuously devoted to the years before its subject’s fame—and to avoiding any mention of her unconscionable compromising during World War II (even in the press notes). “Coco Chanel never married,” reads the first of the closing intertitles, which the film seems to honor as the designer’s most significant accomplishment. Aiming to be a tale of self-creation, Fontaine’s film—swaddled in the sumptuous production designs of Olivier Radot (who devised the glorious interiors for Patrice Chéreau’s 2005 movie, Gabrielle, also set right before World War I)—more often plays as a dull romance, Chanel’s role as mistress somehow worthy of noble celebration. The hagiographic treatment of Coco as Legend extends even to Karl Lagerfeld, named creative director of Chanel in 1983, and the subject of Rodolphe Marconi’s documentary Lagerfeld Confidential (2007). Rather than more Coco, before, during, or after Chanel, perhaps the designer’s rival, Elsa Schiaparelli, who collaborated not with the Nazis but Giacometti and Cocteau, and whose life has yet to be told on-screen, would make for a more fascinating biopic.

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JE T’AIME, N.Y. ET  PARIS

It’s in the classic tweed Coco Chanel suit, in Ruhlmann furniture, and in Josephine Baker’s slick ‘do. They’re reflections of the period from 1925 to 1940 that made New York and Paris the epicenters of style and design, and the exhibition Paris/New York: Design Fashion Culture explores the period’s surge of new buildings, films, and art on both sides of the Atlantic. This Art Deco and neo-romantic series features drawings, furnishings, decorative objects, costumes, photographs, posters, and film. Also, for all you Salvador Dalí fans, check out the rare images like a photograph of the Dream of Venus pavilion designed by Dalí for the 1939 World’s Fair; an illustration/advertisement of Hosiery by Bryan for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; and a photograph of Dalí arriving in New York on the Normandie.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Oct. 8. Continues through Feb. 22, 2008

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Sui Generis?

Did the prisoners at Leavenworth consider suing Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel for ripping off the saggy belt-less trousers they wear in the prison yard? Did hundreds of anonymous graffiti artists sue Stephen Sprouse for printing tags on Louis Vuitton satchels?

OK, you’re not going to believe this—but you know Anthropologie, that place where you just bought that thick, knit, flared sweater exactly like the one Dries Van Noten showed on his runway last year? The store where you purchased all those puffy jolie-laide fake Marni dresses in charmingly hideous prints last spring? The shop that currently stocks those ersatz Marc Jacobs jackets with all the military bells and whistles that you’re trying to make up your mind about? Well, that very venue is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Forever 21 for—get this—knocking off Anthropologie clothes.

It’s the season, it seems, for such litigation. More than 20 other designers are also suing Forever 21, including Diane Von Furstenberg—she of the famous wrap dress—who claims that the 21’ers knocked off not just her styles but the very prints she employs: in one example, a rather overwrought pattern of blue-and-white triangles that she calls “scattered stone,” and which actually looks a lot like an old Marimekko design. And in her capacity as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the glamorous Diane has descended on
Washington, attempting to get federal legislation passed that would make clothes-copying clothes a criminal offence.

Anna Sui, who based an entire career on resuscitating, revamping, and rethinking the vintage fashions of the 1960s and ’70s, the decades when she was young, is also livid about Forever 21 ripping off her designs, and she’s suing as well. So incensed is she that for her spring ’08 show (a collection that style.com described in part as “pure Barbara Hulanicki,” citing the designer of the iconic 1970s label Biba), Sui stuffed each gift bag with a T-shirt depicting the owners of Forever 21 on a Wild West–style poster with the legends “Forever Wanted” and “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”

Asked to comment on her pending litigation, Sui’s spokesperson said, “Anna isn’t doing press on this (we gave one quote to the Times only). . . . The shirt is her statement.” (Actually, nobody is very anxious to get back to me about this—repeated calls to Anthropologie were not returned.) It’s easy to see why Sui is so mad—after all, Forever 21 did replicate her stripes-and-giant-roses print. Still, when it comes to fashion, who can claim to be original?

I took a spin recently around Sui’s Soho store to see if this could be a case of a very chic pot calling a fashion-forward kettle basic black. And here is what I found: many garments that appeared to be line-for-line copies of clothes from the ’70s that were clearly purchased from flea markets; a newspaper print that is startlingly similar to one touted by John Galliano a few seasons back; a ribbon-trimmed badge pinned to a sweater exactly like the ones employed by the Fake London brand on its sweaters.

But let’s be fair: Galliano wasn’t the first guy to do a newspaper print either, and lots of designers spend Sundays at the flea market. (They are, in fact, notorious for sweeping through the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show-—the next one is October 12—and buying like wild animals.)

And just a few weeks ago, Marc Jacobs was furious with Suzy Menkes, the critic for the International Herald Tribune, who took apart his most recent runway collection, accusing Jacobs of borrowing rather too liberally from Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela, and John Galliano. Jacobs fired back in the September 13 issue of Women’s Wear Daily:

“I’ve never denied how influenced I am by Margiela, by Rei Kawakubo, those are people that inspire my work; I don’t hide that. . . . Of course there are comparisons to other things. I’m a designer living in this world who loves fashion . . . I’m attentive to what’s going on in fashion, I’m influenced by fashion, that’s the way it is. I have never ever hidden it. I have never insisted on my own creativity, as Chanel would say. I have my interpretation of ideas I find very strong. Jil Sander is influenced by Comme des Garçons, Miuccia Prada is influenced by Comme des Garçons, everyone is influenced by Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela. Anybody who’s aware of what life is in a contemporary world is influenced by those designers.”

Well, all right then! So it’s OK for Marc to rip off Comme, but somehow shady and vaguely reprehensible for Zara to do Prada or Bebe to do Versace or Forever 21 to do practically everybody? It’s telling that Jacobs should invoke the name of Coco Chanel, who had her own personal revelation about copying when she visited the S. Klein department store in Union Square in 1933. According to her biographer, Axel Madsen: “Chanel proclaimed that knockoffs were nothing more than ‘spontaneous publicity.’ It was at Klein’s that she decided that it was hopeless to try and fight it, that piracy was the flattering result of success.”

I hope Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz will be similarly flattered that I am sitting here in my fake Lanvin H&M black smock dress with its jaunty oversized zipper halfway up the back and its $59 price tag. I can assure him that it has generated plenty of spontaneous publicity. Not that owning it will stop me from purchasing an authentic Lanvin full price at Barneys any day now—just as soon as I have an extra $3,500 floating around.

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Dreamy Poirets, the Nazi Chanel, and Other Tales of Paris

We spent last weekend in Paris. Two nights. Didn’t decide to go until Wednesday and left Friday. If you book the flight and the hotel together on expedia.com, you can get a really cheap package deal up to the very last moment.

The reason we wanted to go to Paris so badly on this particular weekend—if we needed a reason—was because a rare cache of Paul Poiret clothes from the early years of the 20th century had just come up for auction. Every high-end vintage dealer, every fashion historian, every costume museum maven was going to be in town to view these mystical, haunting Poirets, and we wanted to be there too. The clothes were on display in Azzadine Alaia’s apartment for a few days before they moved to Drouot, the French national auction house, but since we don’t know Azzy (though we’ve read that his dinner parties are divine) we planned to go to the public exhibition with the other Looky-Lous.

We didn’t intend to bid. Even the soutien gorge (a flimsy cotton bra with a couple of embroidered rosebuds) was rumored to be going for hundreds of euros. We just wanted to see these rare treasures (and since we were in town, maybe do a little shopping . . .).

In fact, we’ve never been too keen on actual auctions, even ones where you don’t have to deal with a foreign currency. Back in the day, we used to occasionally bid on antique clothes at Christie’s or Doyle. We would wimp out when the things we actually wanted went a little bit higher than we intended, and then we would compensate by waving our paddle madly a few minutes later, ending up with something we didn’t want very much in the first place. And, oh, then there was that 10 percent buyers premium, and the sales tax, and the fact that we planned to wear the stuff but hadn’t been able to try it on.

But at least we got to bid in dollars. Imagine doing this in euros, going up against museum curators and other deep-pocketed fashionistas. If that wasn’t enough to scare us off, there is something in French law called the “pre-empt,” short for “faculty of preemption.” A dealer friend I ran into at the viewing (I’m telling you, everyone was in Paris for this thing) explained darkly that if by some miracle a little item—say the soutien gorge—slipped through the cracks and went for a reasonable amount of money, the French government has six months to buy it right out from under you and keep it in the country. Forever.

The morning of the auction the gallery was packed. I broke down and bought the catalog (70 euros)—a massive, exquisitely illustrated tome—and joined the throngs staring at bat-wing–sleeved opera coats, lavishly embroidered tea gowns, embossed velvet capes, and turbans still sporting feathers that looked like they’d come straight from one of Poiret’s famous Arabian nights parties. These were the very clothes that Coco Chanel, the creator of the austere little black dress, was so dismissive of. A famous story, perhaps apocryphal, has Chanel, always anorectically thin and dressed in tiny, dark ensembles, encountering the portly Poiret on the street in Paris. He takes one look at her ensemble and sneers “Who are you in mourning for, madame?” Without missing a beat she sweeps away a hundred years’ worth of frills when she replies, “For you, monsieur.”

Actually, we’ve thinking about Coco a lot lately. Not just because she is the subject of a militantly ahistorical exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute, though the Met is hardly alone in ignoring Madame’s Nazi past. For the record: During the war, Chanel lived with a German officer in a suite at the Ritz. When the war was over, Churchill, an old pal, was rumored to have intervened with De Gaulle to save her head from being shaved and allow her to go into exile in Switzerland. Practically every major fashion magazine has done a piece on Chanel in the last few months, what with the Met exhibit and all, and hardly any of them mention what she was doing with herself between 1939 and 1954, when she crawled back into Paris and started staging fashion shows again. Guess no one wants to risk losing those Chanel ads.

Last weekend was also the 60th anniversary of V-E day, and the television in my hotel room was full of images of the city being liberated, the American tanks being greeted with cheers and tears as they barreled down the Champs Elysee. If you have ever thought for one minute that style has anything to do with money, ask yourself how it was that the Parisian women who flocked to greet those tanks, after years of being reduced to cardboard hats and cork shoes, could look so gorgeous as they leaned up to kiss a GI.

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Geoffrey Beene, 1927–2004

In all the obituaries of designer Geoffrey Beene, who died on Tuesday, no one has mentioned his affinity for the downtown fashion scene. After all, who would have expected that this Southern gentleman, the guy who designed Lynda Bird Johnson’s wedding dress, would decades later make a polka-dot frock for Kim Hastreiter, editor of Paper magazine, when she was honored by the CFDA several years ago?

We’ll never forget when our phone rang and it was Mr. Beene’s office on the other end, saying he liked a piece we wrote (a very mean piece!) about Coco Chanel’s fascist sympathies. Even though we knew at the time that Beene lived in a townhouse in the West Village, we were still a little surprised to find out he was a Voice reader.

Geoffrey Beene didn’t show in the Seventh on Sixth tents. He presented his lighter-than-air architectural dresses, with their distinctive spiral seams, in quiet installations or in makeshift runway shows set up in his midtown studio, an old-fashioned salon with spindly gold chairs and models far more mature than the usual 16-year-old girls. Instead of the booming runway music, the soundtrack evoked an earlier time, when glamour was glamour. We can never hear the song “Oh, Look at Me Now” without thinking of that salon, and those coiffed ladies in the audience, and Mr. Beene himself, too shy to take a bow, peeking out at the end of the show.

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Plus ça Change

“Then is there a vast difference between a Callot dress and one from any ordinary shop?” inquires Marcel Proust’s Swann to his mistress Albertine. “Why, an enormous difference,” she replies. “Only alas! What you can get for 300 francs in an ordinary shop will cost 2,000 there. But there can be no comparison. They look the same only to people who know nothing at all about it.”

As fate would have it, on a recent afternoon we found ourselves, like Albertine, agape with admiration at a group of Callot Soeurs frocks in the mesmerizing F.I.T. EXHIBIT “Fashioning the Modern Woman: The Art of the Couturiere 1919-1939” (Seventh Avenue and 27th Street, through April 10). The Callot Soeurs flapper dresses are hardly the only magical garments in the show, a cavalcade of woman-designed couture that includes a 1939 shocking pink Schiaparelli gown (would that its sparkly black trim were in the shape of bugs, a hallmark of the surrealist Schiap) and a ’20s dress by Jeanne Lanvin that looks slouchy and comfortable despite a wealth of scallops, bead-encrusted hoops, and a vertical scarlet sash. On the other hand, even 80-odd years ago Jeanne Paquin must have strained credulity when she described her oeuvre as meant for “la civilization du metro”; the gargantuan brown velvet Paquin walking suit on display at F.I.T. would take up half a subway car.

In any case, that fusty suit was soon to be relegated to the back of the closet: The revolutionary Coco Chanel, an evil-eyed sprite brandishing an uncomplicated, effortless little black dress, was poised to rewrite fashion history. When the couturier Paul Poiret sputtered that all Chanel had to offer was “poverty deluxe,” Chanel replied, “Simplicity does not mean poverty.”

Inspired by Chanel’s devastating dis, we take the metro to Soho to look into the lairs of contemporary women designing for women. Our first stop is DKNY (420 West Broadway), because after all, Donna Karan, whatever you think of her, was the first to get women out of hideous 1970s dress-for-success suits (remember bow ties?) and into slinky bodysuits and wrap skirts. DKNY is a real space hog in Soho, taking up an entire block, and its tame spirit is really more mid than downtown. Still, we are touched to see that the shop offers an updated version of that original bodysuit, almost as progressive in its time as Chanel’s black dress. These days it’s bright orange, and though it still snaps closed, it also features, for better or worse, a thong.

DKNY may be vast, but with its cement floor and track lighting it is no interior design groundbreaker. We’re a lot happier at BETSEY JOHNSON (138 Wooster Street), where we love the yellowed roses on the wall so much we once quizzed a saleswoman about how their preternatural fading was achieved. (It’s paint over wallpaper.) If the DK woman has a real job in a genuine office, BJ’s gal is a lot goofier: She might don a pale green sweater decorated with a leering red devil—he looks a little like Johnny Dynell ($118)—or a saccharine cardigan crocheted in tea-cozy yellow and pink ($135).

Betsey isn’t the only one who has made her store into a boudoir: At ANNA SUI (113 Greene Street), the guiding light seems to be the historic Biba store in London, a long-vanished 1970s showplace famous for its droopy art nouveau clothes. Sui’s shop is painted lachrymose lavender and there are lots of black lacquer cabinets to hold the mauve nail enamels and MC5 T-shirts. But of course the big draw here is the mod-redux clothes: A shredded plaid dress that appears to have been ruined in the wash is a steal, marked down to $97 from $300.

Unfortunately, JILL STUART (100 Greene Street) seems to share her interior design sensibility with Donna Karan. Her shop, an enormous two-story affair, is militantly plain and full of her own designs at discouraging prices: $315 for a tiny pleated skirt; $95 for a pink undershirt. We fare better downstairs, which is called Jill Stuart Vintage (she’s affixed this enormous label inside old clothes designed by somebody else). Here the monotony is relieved by ottomans covered with piano shawls, and the frothy confections on the racks include, for $85, a pale silk camisole lavished with lace enough to make a Callot soeur weep.