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Shoptalk: Illuminated by Manus x Machina

Manus x Machina kicked off in the month of May at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showcasing the craft of making clothes by hand and by machine.

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Photo, courtesy of the Met Museum.

With a backdrop of translucent scrim, draping the setting into a ghostlike cathedral, the show exhibits garments from various couturiers and fashion houses. These pieces highlight the usage of both hand and machine applications, used interchangeably in solving creative problems.

I had just finished reading Dana Thomas’s fascinating Gods & Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, and while walking through the show, I couldn’t help but count the number of Galliano vs. McQueen pieces. I lost track.

The book follows the trajectory of their careers from simple beginnings to becoming creative directors–of Givenchy for Lee, Dior with Galliano–and their own respective labels, until bottoming out. Their evolution simultaneously traces exactly when fashion houses consolidated to a few key players, transforming into the conglomerates–LMVH, Kering Group, OTB group–we know today.

McQueen is represented, with several pieces by current head designer Sarah Burton at the helm, as is Galliano for his time at Christian Dior and his current post at Maison Margiela.

This is not to say the show is about them. The rooms, organized by techniques explored in a couture workshop—embroidery, feathers, flowers—were followed by tailoring and dressmaking, and another floor dedicated to pleating, lace and leatherwork.

Machine applied metal sequins twisted into croissant-like shapes and

The best of both worlds: Machine applied metal sequins twisted into croissant-like shapes, then hand painted to take down the shine. Nicholas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton.

There were pieces from Chanel, Fortuny, Madame Gres, as well as more recent contributors, Gared Pugh, Iris Van Herpen, Miyake, Prada, Proenza Schouler, and Yamamoto. The finely pleated Mariano Fortuny silk pieces, weighed down by glass beads and lacing, is worth the price of admission, and I predict, a trend that will be presented to the masses in many seasons to come.

Raf Simons for Dior.

Issey Miyake’s origami pleating from the 80’s and Raf Simon’s more recent collection of hand-pleated ribboned skirts on tulle for Dior were next to each other, and one couldn’t help but marvel that they’re created 100 years apart from Fortuny.

To see Hussein Chalayan’s pieces was especially a treat. In his explanation, “Remote Control” machined fiberglass dress exists aside the hand-sewn tulle “Duck” dress, because “One (technique) doesn’t have more importance or more significance than the other.”

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“Remote Control Dress”, Hussein Chalayan.

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“Duck Dress”, Hussein Chalayan. Closeup.

With the exhibition shedding light on the inspiration of craft, it’s hard not to consider man and machine in the context of designers and their industry.

Alexander McQueen committed suicide while John Galliano left Dior as a result of being fired over an anti-Semitic rant, both most likely triggered from the pressures of designing over 12 collections a year. Manus x Machina demonstrates the balance between man and machine. Couture becomes precious solely with hand applications, while an over reliance on tech robs a garment’s soul.

Creativity is human which enables hand and the machine. When man (including women)—with little time to nurture supportive environments and interests outside of fashion important to their well-being—become machines, churning out designs non-stop like robots in the interest of expansion, creativity suffers burnout and creatives much like Galliano and McQueen—and sadly more recently, L’Wren Scott—will break down. And a society that lacks creativity is not a livable one.

Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from May 5, 2016 through August 14, 2016. Let me know what you think of the show!

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