Press Preview: “China: Through the Looking Glass”

Upon entering the Metropolitan Museum of Art (on 5th Avenue and 83rd Street), to attend the Monday morning press preview of “China: Through the Looking Glass” (May 7th – August 16th), I was almost immediately transported from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to the Far Eastern side of the globe. And that is precisely the goal of this multi-disciplined exhibition which purports to explore the way in which the rich Chinese culture has impacted Western fashion, fueling the imagination of the world’s most highly influential designers, including Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Margin Margiela, Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Roberto Cavalli.

Curator Andrew Bolton

Staged in both the Chinese Galleries and the Anna Wintour Costume Center, there are more than 100 outfits (haute couture and ready to wear) and accessories, by over 40 designers, along with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, films, and other forms of art. The museum’s Costume Institute Staff (headed by curator Andrew Bolton) enlisted the help of Maxwell Hearn, who heads the museum’s Department of Asian Art, along with Wong Kar Wai (for artistic direction). It is indeed a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the senses. Just about the only thing missing is a lavish Chinese Banquet (speaking of which, I found myself inexplicably craving Chinese food upon leaving).

The line outside the museum

By the way, members of the press had to wait on a rather long line, just to get inside the museum (though it did move quickly). Just as someone was asking if it was in fact, the press line, the legendary 92 year old Henry Kissinger got out of a town car and quickly made his way inside (naturally, he did not have to wait). His attendance was quite symbolic and fitting, given that Mr. Kissinger, as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President Nixon, played a prominent role in U.S. foreign policy between 1969 and 1977, and it was he who orchestrated the opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Henry Kissinger

It’s probably not coincidental that the well-attended press preview also seemed bigger than ever, just like its attending exhibition and evening gala, and many of those who showed up, took the Chinese theme to heart in their sartorial choices. Designer Thom Browne, dressed in his signature shrunken suit, was one of those taking it all in. He will not only be attending the Met Ball later in the day, but he told me he made dresses for two women: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Emily Rafferty (the first woman to be named president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Amy Fine Collins (which he described as being black and white with hits of color).

Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas P Campbell,
Trustee Anna Wintour, Financier Silas Chou, and curator Andrew Bolton
(Photo: Getty Images)

At 11 a.m. there was a presentation in the Temple of Dendur, with speeches by Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Marissa Mayer, President and CEO, Yahoo (an exhibition sponsor); Maxwell K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Chairman, Department of Asian Art; Andrew Bolton, Curator, The Costume Institute, and Wong Kar Wai, Exhibition Artistic Director.

Photo Randy Brooke
(Click image for larger view)

Mr. Campbell described the exhibition as a “stunning achievement”, “a heroic effort”, “an inspiring mix of cultures and ideas”, and “the biggest exhibition we have ever undertaken”. He observed that it’s perfectly timed with the “Centennial of our Asian Department”. He also made note of “the exceptional support of Anna Wintour”, (this is the 17th time she has been at the helm of this event he observed). She herself did not speak but was seated in the front row (just like one year ago, when the Costume Institute was renamed in her honor, during the course of a ceremony lorded over by Michelle Obama).

Photo Randy Brooke
(Click image for larger view)

Every year, the spring exhibition AND particularly, its attending gala, seem to get bigger and more high profile (if that’s even possible). There is no doubt that her muscle, focus, passion, and tireless single minded energy has created an event that has not only served as a major fundraiser for the Costume Institute (approximately $12 million was raised last year and $145 million has been raised thus far) but has become so prestigious and high profile, as to be almost unparalleled in this universe (perhaps only the Academy Awards even comes close).

Photo: Randy Brooke
(Click image for larger view)

There is no question that it is truly all about Anna. She, and ‘THE EVENT’ were even front page news in Sunday’s The New York Times. (And not the “Sunday Styles” Section, but the prestigious front section: the ‘real’ news pages). Written by Vanessa Friedman, the article, “It May Be Called the Met Ball, But It’s Anna Wintour’s Party”, was a testament to the “unmistakable power of the 65 year old editor of Vogue and artistic director of Conde Nast”. (With all due respect to Anna, who is certainly well deserving of all the praise and accolades, I find myself wondering at what point the ring kissing will begin LOL).

Photo Randy Brooke
(Click on image for larger view)

Mr. Hearn, who spoke a little bit in Chinese, described the exhibit, (a synthesis of “200 years of fashion and several millennia of Chinese History”) as “landmark”. “It’s all about the creative process” he offered. Wong Kar Wai also spoke partially in Chinese as he told the audience that it represents a “remarkable journey for myself and everyone on the team”. He also hailed it as celebration of “fashion and cinema.” Indeed, according to curator Andrew Bolton, “each gallery contains a film or series of films that relate to its theme and content which is key, since it was film that helped shape western designers’ perceptions of Chinese culture. In addition, the exhibit is called “Through the Looking Glass”as homage to Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there”. In Alice’s make believe world, everything is distorted and topsy turvy. “Like Alice’s make believe world, the China reflected in the fashions in the exhibition is a fictional, fabulous invention, offering an alternate reality with a dreamlike, almost hallucinatory, logic.” (Speaking of cinema, apparently, there will be a movie made about the Met Gala. How about calling it “A Night at the Museum 4” and have Ben Stiller make a cameo appearance?)

Photo: Marilyn Kirschner

Mr. Bolton also explained that while the exhibition (which was two years in the making) started out “modestly”, “as our ambitions grew, so did the show’s footprint, which came to incorporate all of the Chinese Galleries on the second floor of the museum. The final imprint, at approximately 30,000 square feet, is almost three times the size of our usual shows”. When I asked him what the exhibitions’ highlights are for him, he quickly answered: the Yves Saint Laurent pieces (which are grouped in one room), and John Galliano’s fantastical dresses. They are indeed exquisite, and along with several Maison Martin Margielas and one or two costumes, seem to be floating on water in an equally dream like and exquisite room complete with a pagoda.

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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