Classified in 111 items, or typologies, the exhaustive list considers the present, past and future in over 300 objects, as some of the items are shown in different forms. Items explore cultural shifts that revolutionised how we dress, the fashion industry production processes and ethics, the establishment of beauty standards and gender issues, multiculturalism and appropriation, East and West, haute couture and street fashion.

DAMN° played the numbers game and asked Paola Antonelli, MoMA Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, 11 questions about her current exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern?

Installation view of Items: Is Fashion Modern? The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1, 2017-January 28, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck
1. This is the first fashion show at MoMA in 73 years – the last one was Bernard Rudofsky’s 1944 exhibition, Are Clothes Modern? Why now?

Paola Antonelli: For quite a while now I have been thinking about the MoMA collection and the idea of design, and the idea of modern design. And it’s always been quite clear to me that doing or writing a history of modern design without fashion or without garments is wrong. Also, lately we have been adding so much to the collection – video games, typefaces, information design, film titles… So, at this point, it would have been really glaring not to have garments.

Aran sweater interpreted for Items: Is Fashion Modern? by Catherine Losing. © 2017 Catherine Losing. Image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
A few years ago […] I made a list that I used to call ‘Garments that Changed the World’…The director of MoMA knew about it and at some point, he told me, ‘I would like you to consider doing a fashion show.’ That’s how it happened, very organically, as it often happens for my shows. They are never arbitrary. They always come from something that has been boiling for a while. Whether they are about design and communication, or design and science, or about fashion. I say fashion, but truly, it is about the design of fashion and the design of garments. Still, very much a design show.

2. The exhibition is framed around 111 items, as a survey exhibition, instead of a blockbuster, dramatic fashion exhibition focusing on a famous designer or a glamorous label, as we are more used to see around. What is the difference between curating a fashion show at MoMA?

Pencil skirt interpreted for Items: Is Fashion Modern? by Bobby Doherty. © 2017 Bobby Doherty. Image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body collection by Comme des Garçons interpreted for Items: Is Fashion Modern? by Catherine Losing. © 2017 Catherine Losing. Image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
PA: One interesting way to look at it is to look at the ecosystem of fashion in museums. Just in New York, you have several museums that do fashion: you have The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art), with the Costume Institute; you have the Fashion Institute of Technology; the Jewish Museum; and occasionally, the Museum of Arts and Design and the Cooper-Hewitt do fashion shows. There is already an ecosystem of museums dealing with fashion in NY, but they all do it in different ways. For example, The Met, at the Costume Institute, usually does grand fashion exhibitions that are either monographic or biographic, like Prada and Schiaparelli.

Or about movements or moments, like punk. But they are these grand exhibitions about the spectacle of fashion. And that contributes a lot to the general knowledge of fashion.

So, how does MoMA enter this landscape and ecosystem? Well, by being MoMA. At least in the department of architecture and design, where mostly, the design shows we tend to do are thematic shows. That addresses themes using objects as the foundation for discussion... If you think of Juliet Kinchin’s show Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000, and my shows Design and the Elastic Mind, Talk to Me, Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design, one after the other, they were all thematic shows. Except for two monographic shows I did: Achille Castiglioni, because every single object that he did is really like the basis for a teaching of design. Then I did a small, two-three people show with the Campana Brothers and Ingo Maurer, Projects 66. But otherwise, it tends to be ideas supported by objects.

3. I thought this was more your style, than MoMA style…

PA: No. Even before me, if you look at the 1960s with exhibitions like Design for Sport, or another one called The Object Transformed that was about objects and art; and of course, Machine Art.

It is not only me. But I am much more comfortable with these kind of shows, because I like to talk about ideas, and I’m less interested in talking about personalities. This is my comfort zone.

Even the past exhibition about fashion, which happened in 1944, was not about objects in the sense that there were hardly any bona fide fashion objects in the show. There was lots of – you can call it this – visualisation design. Rudofsky, together with a team of graphic designers and sculptors, was showing the absurdity of the fashion of that time […] So, I believe it is a MoMA tradition.

4. Let’s talk about this list. How did you get down to these 111 items that changed the world of fashion? And this number… So Kabbalistic!

PA: The number, well, the number is because I like it! [laughs] We started with 99. Then it was not enough. Then I said, if it is not 99 then it will be 111. Because, yeah, I happen to like numbers that can be divided by three. That’s my thing.

But how did I get to these items? If I were to try and reconstruct the process to get to this 111, I would not be able to. I can’t even remember. It is really organic. I bet you if you started, if you sat down and started making a list you would probably get to two-thirds of the list that I have. Because you are also white; because you are also Latin; because you have spent time in similar parts of the world; and you have not spent time in the parts of the world that I have not spent time in. It is nature and nurture, right?

Our list is really partial. Because Michelle Fischer [curatorial assistant], who is my right-hand person, is Scottish, living in New York, then the other people who came on board progressively, like Stephanie Kramer, is from NYC and she is Jewish, Anna Burckhardt is from Colombia, living in NY…

Initially, our list was too long. Then we started cutting. As we were cutting we were listening to our advisory committee. We invited a great advisory committed to guiding us through this process. And then when it all came together, the last object we added was sunscreen.

5. Sunscreen?!

PA: Yes! That was the very last. It has been really fascinating to create this list. The most important thing is: whenever you make a list, people want to make their own. I am just really hoping that people will just write to MoMA and ask, ‘Where is the Pareo?’ ‘Where is the corset?’ So I have to explain: I am sorry, it is not that important in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is so interesting!

6. In this exhibition, you are also expanding the notion of fashion design?

PA: Yes, yes. We also have tattoos. I am thinking of the ones that are not proper garments… We have the tattoo, we have the sunscreen, we have the YSL Touche Éclat, or the concealer, the red lipstick, the manicure – these are things that you apply to your body due to fashion. These are the most important non-clothes on the list.

7. Fashion is already a very broad subject, and you are expanding the notion of it even more in this show. Were there any criteria to select the objects on the list? What is the structure of the exhibition?

The exhibition is organised around this concept of stereotype, archetype and prototype.

- The stereotype: the whole idea is that there are items that were really influential in the world. At least in my world. Western world. Western World with curiosity and open-mindedness. Items that were influential in the 20th and 21st century. The stereotype is the version that made this particular garment influential.

- The archetype: is what came before the stereotype.

- The prototype: when it happens, it is a new interpretation or a new version, that takes into account the evolution of the world, of technology, of sociology, and of aesthetics, since the time of the stereotype.

paola antonelli
Installation view of Items: Is Fashion Modern? The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1, 2017-January 28, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

So to give you an example: chinos. The stereotype that we’ve picked is from the 1980s, because that’s the time when chinos’ manufacturers were sending pamphlets to HR departments, in various companies, promoting casual Fridays.

But the prototype will be made by this collective from Johannesburg called Sartists. What is really interesting is that they tend to reinterpret Western style into really fascinating ways. So fascinating, that then the Western brands reinterpret them. It becomes this cycle, you see. We thought they could deal with normcore very well.

Or Pia [Interlandi] and the idea of the little black dress. The little black dress has always evolved. We won’t have one stereotype; we are going to have 10 of them, of course, from Chanel to Rick Owens. And her prototype is a whole reinterpretation of the idea of the little black dress, right?

Pia Interlandi is an Australian designer and she does garments for people who are dying. She spends time with them, decides together how they want to be dressed and whether or not it should be biodegradable, and so on. That is the ultimate black dress.

DAMN: Oh, Wow!!!

I know! [laughing] I am so proud of that!

paola antonelli
Installation view of Items: Is Fashion Modern? The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1, 2017-January 28, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

8. I can’t help but ask you about Italian fashion. Since you are an Italian curating a fashion show, was that influential in your choice of items? Did you make sure to include Italian fashion designers in the exhibition?

Only when they were necessary. Giorgio Armani was necessary to discuss the suit, to discuss the evolution of the suit. Who else do I have that is Italian? A brand, not a designer: Marinella for the ties. Let me see what else… (laughs) See, I haven’t thought too much about nationality… I told you we have Francesco [Risso, the new creative director of Marni, who is reinterpreting the Mao jacket], Ray Ban – as the company is Italian right now. But you see, there is not a lot of… It is certainly not an Italian fashion show. Oh, wait, there is Versace, with the famous dress with the safety pins…

9. You went to India, Bangladesh and Africa on research trips for this exhibition… Can you tell me which items in the show were picked from these places and why?

Well, the reason for going to Africa and to India and Bangladesh was not only to research items, but also not to be ignorant of those places.

Since the beginning, Michelle [Fischer] was the person with me there, and we were wonderfully ignorant in fashion. She is an architecture historian and now working in design curating, I am an architect by training, but I have always done contemporary design, and we do not know about fashion. So we started hiring people to the team to bring the knowledge, like Stephanie, who is a fashion historian, and Anna, the same. They had the knowledge. But still, I felt we needed more first-hand experience…

My trip to India was not only for the items but also to see factories, craftspeople, to understand more about the supply chain. And Michelle went to Africa; to understand the influence that Africa has right now on fashion and on design in the world, and also the fact that it will become an enormous market at some point. Right? Also, Africa is part of the supply chain because it wears so much fast-fashion, and it gets reused and reinterpreted by people like Sartists.

In terms of items, as she was there, Michelle studied more in-depth the Kente cloth and the Dutch wax. I focused on the sari, on the Salwar kameez, and on the Kashmir shawl – those are three of the items. I did not go to Kashmir, but I did visit a really good Kashmir shop.

DAMN: You mean like the pashmina?

Yes. The idea is that this pure object coming from Kashmir – that had also the shahtoosh version, you know? –has in the course of only a few decades, become a $5 thing you buy at the street corner, and it’s been completely bastardised, misunderstood and misinterpreted. It is interesting to see how an idea, an archetype object becomes corrupted by the wrong type of merchandising and marketing.

10. So, the whole process was, as you previously described, very organic? You made a huge list of 500 objects or more, then it was too much and you started crossing things out of your list, then you got to a number you did not like or was not enough, then you added a few more. Is that it?

[Laughs a lot] Yes, exactly!

DAMN: You make it sound so easy. But of course, we know it was not as easy as that… You worked for over three years to put this exhibition together, with a selected advisory committee, and a superstar all-female curatorial team with you!

: Yes, of course! It was a tremendous team effort, and I want to make sure to mention the whole curatorial team: Michelle Millar Fisher, Stephanie Kramer, Anna Burckhardt and Kristina Parsons. I really want to give them credit for this.

paola antonelli
A-POC Le Feu, by Issey Miyake and Dai Fujiwara, from the Issey Miyake spring/summer 1999 collection. Photograph by Yasuaki Yoshinaga. Courtesy A-POC LE FEU, 1999 Spring Summer ISSEY MIYAKE Paris Collection. Photo: Yasuaki Yoshinaga

11. My last question. I would like to know which was the oldest object in the list, and what was the first one to make the cut?

The first one that entered the list I don’t know. The oldest in terms of date is the harem pants. The newest one is probably the burkini, from last year. Of course, not talking about the prototypes, which were developed for the exhibition.

As Paola said, the moment you see a list, you want to create your own. What would item 112 be on your list?