A Primer for Tonight’s Gala

I remember my very first reaction upon hearing the news many months ago, that this year’s blockbuster Costume Institute Exhibition would be called “Manus x Machina”. I think I said, “Huh? And apparently, I was not alone. Any question about the exhibit’s contents and objectives, would have assuredly been cleared up by now thanks to all the pre publicity surrounding it, and of course the attending gala, which has gotten bigger and more publicized each year. For the first time, E! will be covering the red carpet arrivals, giving it the same importance as the Academy Awards.

But if any confusion or questions remained about the exhibition, they certainly would have been cleared up after this morning’s jam packed press preview. Coincidentally, I walked in with Thom Browne, Andrew Bolton’s significant other, and told him I enjoyed reading the entertaining article about the creative duo’s Sunday rituals (and their beloved dog) in yesterday’s The New York Times. Thom also told me he had created a dress for Amy Fine Collins to wear at the gala, as he did last year. Another designer I spotted was Mary McFadden who had three of her iconic pleated ready-to-wear dresses on view. They were across the aisle from 6 pleated Fortuny haute couture gowns.

In a nutshell, Andrew Bolton, the Met’s Curator in Charge, has sought to explore the creative process and illustrate the way designers have reconciled the handmade with the machine-made. Most importantly, he has put to rest any preconceived notions about handmade vs. machine made. His contention is that one is not inherently better than, or preferable to the other; there is a continuing blurring of the lines between the two (so much so that it’s often hard to tell which is which); and quite frankly, they are perfect together. A fashion match made in heaven.

This is successfully supported by the approximately 120 pieces of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear exhibited in both levels of the Robert Lehman Wing. Included are designs by Gilbert Adrian, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Boue Soeurs, Miuccia Prada, John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela, Madame Grès, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, Noa Rvaiv, Raf Simons for Jil Sander and Christian Dior, Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy and threeASFOUR.The first floor gallery examines the métiers of embroidery, feather work, and artificial flowers. The ground floor examines pleating, lacework, leatherwork, pleating and innovative processes such as 3D printing, laser cutting, thermos-shaping, ultrasonic molding, computer modeling, and more. It is very dramatic and visually arresting- almost like Theatre in the Round.  My only criticism is the heavy and somber music. It is VERY serious. They might have wanted to lighten it up a bit.

The press preview was called from 10 – 1PM and at about 11AM, everyone convened in the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court to hear remarks made by Thomas P. Campbell, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Jony Ive, Chief Design Officer, Apple (the exhibition is made possible by Apple with additional support provided by Conde Nast); and Andrew Bolton, Curator in Charge.

Mr. Campbell noted that “Andrew Bolton’s ambitious new exhibition fits perfectly with a museum dedicated to the what, how, and why things have been created over the past 5000 years. The space within the museum was transformed by OMA New York architect Shohei Shigematsu. Our incredible MET team literally created a building within. A cathedral of sorts. A central platform built across the atrium holds one of the highlights of the exhibition: Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel wedding ensemble. It’s a perfect melding of hand and machine and one of Andrew’s inspirations for the show. Andrew’s carefully crafted vision for this exhibition is yet another example of his expansive mind and rigorous intellect.

Mr. Campbell continues: 

“I would once again like to thank Met Trustee Anna Wintour. Tonight for the 18th time, she will work her magic at the Costume Institute Benefit. Conde Nast has also provided generous funding; further demonstration of its continued support. Of course, this project would not have been possible without the generosity of our sponsor, Apple, and its visionary chief designer, Jony Ive. Apple’s commitment to excellence in design and its mission to please the eye as well as the hand and the mind impacts us all. And it’s now my pleasure to introduce Jony (Ive).”

Jony Ive continues: 

“Good morning. We are thrilled at Apple to bring to life, “Manus x Machina”: Fashion in an age of Technology. When Anna and Andrew first talked to me about the exhibition, I was particularly intrigued that it would stimulate a conversation exploring the relationship between what is made by hand and what is made by machine. That it would challenge the preconception held by some that the former is somehow inherently more valuable than the latter. With the design team at Apple, we do share some similar preoccupations and goals with the designers whose work you will see here today. Many of us believe in the poetic possibilities of the machine while in equal measure, we have tremendous respect and admiration for what is made by hand. Our goal has always been to try to create objects that are as beautiful as they are functional. As elegant as they are useful. Our physical designs are informed by our passion for materials and processes. Based on my experience, surprisingly fewer and fewer designers regardless of their particular design discipline seem to be interested in the detail of how something is actually made. My father was a fabulous craftsman, so I was raised with the fundamental belief that it is only when you work the material with your hands that you come to understand its true nature. Its characteristics, its attributes, and I think very importantly, its potential”.

“Watching the exhibition evolve, it has been exciting to see craftsmanship considered not only the context of today, but also the future. The Chanel dress which was Andrew’s inspiration for the exhibition is a wonderful example of artisan like craft executed with the deepest consideration made possible by the latest technology. I am humbled by the innovations of the past in the same way I’m humbled by the work that we can see here today. All craft was at some point new and it challenged convention”.

“Fundamentally though, that most important part of this discussion is the notion of care. Whether something is made in the smallest volume as a one of couture piece, or in large quantities, deep care is critical in determining authentic, successful design. It’s the great care, and resultant beauty that I recognize in every piece I see here today – whether it’s being made by man or machine. It is creation led by great consideration. It’s the amount of care invested, whether machine made or hand made that will transform ordinary modest material, to something extraordinary. Technology and craft are not at odds and much like beauty and utility, they go hand in hand. One makes the other more powerful”.

Last but not least was Andrew Bolton. Highlights of his speech: “The initial idea for the exhibition came when I was looking at Saint Laurent’s iconic ‘Mondrian’ dress from his fall 1965 couture collection. In examining its construction we discovered that it was sewn almost entirely by machine. In fact, the only presence of the hand was the hem and zipper. I was surprised because traditionally, the distinction between the haute couture and pret-a-porter has always been between the handmade and the machine made respectively. In fact, the Chambre Syndicale specifies handwork requirements in its rules and regulations.”

Mr. Bolton continues:

“Manus x Machine questions the dialectical relationship in which the hand and the machine are portrayed as discordant instruments in the production of the haute couture and pret-a-porter. And it proposes rethinking of the haute and cout re and pre a porter, especially in light of the fact that the technical separations between the two are becoming increasingly more ambiguous, and that the quality of pret a porter is becoming increasingly more sophisticated”.

“Our intention is to liberate the handmade and the machine made from their usual confines of the haute couture and pret a porter and releases them into the hands of fashion designers for whom they serve as expressions of creative impulses rather than the exigencies of the fashion system”.

“As the exhibition demonstrates, designers of either the haute couture or pret- a- porter seldom discriminate against the hand and the machine in their design process. For them, the hand and the machine are creative- rather than contradictory- tools that help to refine, perfect, and advance their craft. The hand and the machine work in combination to assist and enhance the design process, enabling highly imaginative inventions that might be impossible without such a thesis.”

“Introducing the exhibition is a wonderful example of this confluence between the handmade and the machine made- a wedding dress by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel fall 2014 couture collection, which was one of the main inspirations for the exhibition. The design on the train was sketched by hand and then manipulated on the computer to give the appearance of a pixilated “baroque” pattern. It was initially hand painted with gold metallic pigment, then machine printed with rhinestones, and finally hand embroidered with pearls and gemstones. In total, the train took 450 hours of workmanship” (when I heard this, I couldn’t help but think it sounded like something Sarah Jessica Parker would have loved to get her hands on for the gala tonight lol).

“Each piece in the exhibition has been dissected – metaphorically speaking – to determine its “genetic” makeup and clarify its position on the hand/machine continuum. The results of the “DNA” testing are stated beneath every garment, almost like a medical record.”
“The show is structured around the métiers of dressmaking as outlined in Diderot’s “Encyclopedia of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts.” Published in the mid-18th century, it was one of the most controversial publications of the French Enlightenment. The métiers defined by Diderot remain at the center of the haute couture today and provide the organizing principles of the exhibition which has been meticulously designed by OMA to stand as a temple to the beauty and artistry of fashion. The exhibition  unfolds as a contemporary adaptation of Diderot’s Encyclopedia.”

“Ultimately, the show attempts to present an alternate reading of fashion, one that’s more in keeping with our “Age of Technology.” In this age, the technical separation between the haute couture and pret-a-porter is diminishing through the shared usage of hand techniques and mechanical technologies. Through the marriage of the handmade and the machine made, a new aesthetic is emerging- one of exacting beauty and unfettered imaginings.”

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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