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Decoding ‘Manus x Machina’

BoF talks to key players at Condé Nast, Apple and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to unpack the meaning of its latest exhibit on the evening of the Met Gala.
(L-R) Thomas Campbell, Andrew Bolton, Anna Wintour, Sir Jonathan Ive | Source: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Joe Schildhorn/BFA.com
By
  • Imran Amed,
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — The term "fashion-tech" may be less than 10 years old, but many of the garments on display in Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology date back to the early 1900s. The exhibit, which opens publicly at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 5, takes a broader view of the interplay between technology and fashion, at a time when tech companies are marketing their devices as fashionable and fashion companies are eager to be seen as tech-savvy.

"Fashion has always been the first to embrace technology, right from the get go," Andrew Bolton, head curator of the Costume Institute, told BoF at an exclusive preview of the exhibit on Saturday afternoon. There was still plenty of work to be done before the evening of May 2, when the exhibition would be unveiled at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala, an annual fundraising extravaganza popularly known as the "Met Ball" and often described as fashion's version of the Super Bowl or the Oscars — take your pick.

Organised for the eighteenth year in a row by co-chair and museum trustee Anna Wintour, who helped raise more than $12.5 million in 2015 for the museum, the event marks the one evening on the social calendar when stage-managed celebrities tend to take true high-fashion risks on the red carpet, often accompanying the designers who have created one-of-a-kind looks for them.

This year, Apple, which is marketing its "wearable tech" device — the Apple Watch — as a fashion accessory, is sponsoring the exhibition. The company’s chief design officer, Jony Ive, has been the connective tissue of sorts between the technology giant and the event. (Additional support comes from Condé Nast, where Wintour serves as both artistic director of the company and editor-in-chief of American Vogue.)

"There was a calm and serenity and gentleness to the overall exhibition that I thought provided a wonderful context to actually consider and think about the pieces that constituted the show," Ive told BoF on Monday, outlining the connections between some of the work on display by designers from Mariano Fortuny to Marc Jacobs. "In our work, we've always tried to design in a way where you're not aware of the problems that we've had to solve. That's the job of the designer: to solve problems and explore, but not really drag you through what all the problems were. I was irritated to have to leave [the exhibit]."

While newfound synergies between fashion and tech are the stuff of headlines, Bolton's show is eager to emphasise fashion's long-standing relationship with the technical. After all, early couture houses like Charles Frederick Worth, Emile Pingat and Jacques Doucet relied on the newly introduced sewing machine to produce garments. A major inspiration for the exhibition was Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian dress, which, created in 1965, was almost entirely machine-made except for the hand-done hemming.

And yet, today, the word "technology" tends to conjure up digital, software-based devices, from iPhones to self-driving cars. But, for some, the term "tech" also carries another meaning: a way of thinking, rooted in the iterative, test-and-learn approach to creativity and innovation favoured by those making the devices. Perhaps this is why so many fashion brands talk about thinking like a technology company. “[It’s about] how fast [tech companies] are, but also how creative they are,” Wintour told BoF in an exclusive interview on Monday morning.

At the same time, technology companies are increasingly adopting the lessons — and language — of fashion. “Regardless of whether we declare an interest in fashion or not, we are making products that are more and more personal… products that you wear and you wear every day,” Ive said. “We’ve not done that before and we’ve got a lot to learn. Just talking to Andrew [Bolton] is hugely informative,” he continued. “I think we have always had a very clear and a very singular approach to how we design products that are more familiar to people, more established in terms of product categories. I think it’s very hard to have that same clarity and singularity when you’re not absolutely confident in your subject matter.”

In some ways, Manus x Machina addresses the growing push-and-pull between technology and fashion head on, albeit through the lens of two processes that have traditionally held different connotations of value for the fashion industry: the handmade (more valuable) and the machine-made (less so). In his introduction to the exhibition book, Bolton cites Fritz Lang's Metropolis as inspiration, in particular, the epigram at the beginning and end of the film that reads: "The mediator between the HEAD and HANDS must be the HEART." Bolton notes that it could have equally read: "The mediator between the HAND and the MACHINE must be the HEART."

With the 170-piece exhibition, Bolton takes a provocative stance, debunking the idea that something that is handmade is necessarily more valuable or more earnest, and insisting that, whether a garment is made by hand or machine, it’s the heart that counts. “I focused on designers who are known for either fetishising the hand or fetishising the machine or combining the two,” Bolton said. “I wanted to challenge the assumption of the hand versus the machine. One always thinks the hand is representative of superiority or luxury, the machine is inferior. Sometimes, a garment produced by a machine is so much more time consuming and complex.”

Wedding Ensemble by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel Autumn/Winter 2014 | Source Courtesy

“I’m fascinated when I look at some of the pieces in the exhibition and you really can’t tell what was made by machine and what was made by hand,” Wintour said.

Perhaps the show's centrepiece, a Chanel haute couture gown from the Autumn/Winter 2014-2015 collection, best exemplifies Bolton's intentions. The gown, moulded out of scuba knit, was dramatically accessorised by an embroidered train, its baroque design first sketched by hand then tinkered with on a computer to give it the look of pixellation. The pattern was then hand-painted with gold metallic pigment, then transfer-printed with rhinestones. Finally, pearls and gemstones were hand-embroidered on to the fabric. A blown-up digitised version of the final result — which took 450 hours to complete — is projected on to a cathedral-like dome. As the sound of Brian Eno's The Ascent fills the air it's a majestic sight to behold.

Bolton organised the exhibition of haute couture and prêt-à-porter by métier, or trade: embroidery, featherwork, floral appliques, pleating, lacework and leatherwork. One room deviates from the métiers, featuring the toiles — known as muslins — and paper patterns used to prototype the garments, and also pays homage to the tailoring and dressmaking ateliers within a single couture house. The structure of the exhibition mirrors Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert's Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, 1751–72), a tome of the French Enlightenment that aimed to give these métiers the same gravitas as the arts and sciences.

“This acts as a compass for the exhibition,” Bolton said, walking BoF from garment to garment as his team in white lab coats continued to assemble each vignette, the dove grey paint on the floor just freshly dry. Even in the final days leading up to the opening, he was still making tweaks as if he was in the final fittings of a runway show, adding a 1960s Givenchy piece to the featherwork section. “It’s changing almost daily,” he continued. “Other curators have the luxury to begin two years out. But I love the speed. It means you can respond quickly. Prada just did a great collection with artificial flowers that is a perfect hand-machine case study, so I was able to quickly pull that.”

But with a tight timeline came roadblocks. “You really have to see the pieces to understand them, and you can’t really rely on the designers to give accurate information. Certain designers are very proprietorial about their technologies. That was a bit of a challenge,” he explained. “When things fall through, you’re constantly navigating those changes. Some designers don’t have [certain pieces] any more, some designers don’t want to give them to you, and some designers don’t want to be next to other designers. There are all of the politics behind that, too. But it’s very few and far between, those designers, to be honest.”

To a viewer, the arrangement — which essentially documents the process of engineering a garment, either by hand, by machine or a combination of both — feels orderly, almost zen-like. “Fashion is going so fast. It’s a bit like a house of cards,” he said. “There is not an appreciation of the artists, designers, the complicated processes that go behind it, so part of it is to slow it down a little bit and make people focus on the making of fashion.”

Bolton — who recently experienced the flicker of fame thanks to his starring role in the just-released documentary about last year's Met Gala, The First Monday in May — sharply pinpointed which designers from the 1900s onward best exemplified the significance of both the handmade and the machine-made. Hussein Chalayan's remote-controlled garments, Issey Miyake's steam-stretch pleats and Iris van Herpen's silicone feathers and 3-D-printed haute couture are well represented. As is the work of Miuccia Prada, Sarah Burton, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Nicolas Ghesquière, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, Christian Dior, and of course, Karl Lagerfeld, whose haute couture wedding gown from Chanel's Autumn/Winter 2005-2006 collection is another standstill moment.

Iris van Herpen Autumn/Winter 2013 | Source: Courtesy

While the centre stage’s train may have taken 450 hours to complete, this high-neck, long-sleeve piece was no less impressive, covered with 2,500 white silk camellias made by Maison Lemarié, a Parisian atelier known for its flowers and feathers. Bolton’s vignettes tend to show the evolution of a process. For instance, in the embroidery section, there is a series of three black slip dresses. First, Chanel’s 1935 haute couture version, which is hand-embroidered with black gelatin sequins; some matte-side, some shiny-side up. Next, Martin Margiela’s ready-to-wear, synthetic-knit version from 1996, which features a digitally printed trompe l’oeil sequin motifs. He has arranged those two inverted pieces with a Ghesquière creation from his Autumn/Winter 2015/2016 ready-to-wear collection for Louis Vuitton, which combines the two techniques.

What isn’t prevalent here is the kind of whizz-bang gadgetry that one might expect from a show with the word “technology” in its title. “I was very keen not to focus on what has become known as wearable technology. It was something that I don’t find very appealing aesthetically,” Bolton said. “Unless it’s someone like Hussein, who is very into concepts and uses technology as a platform to express deep issues about our society and culture. But when it comes to a jacket that tells you that you’re hot, you know how hot you are. You take it off. I was more interested in the quiet technology often hidden from view, like laser cutting or ultrasonic welding.”

3D printing, a technique employed by Van Herpen to create garments that often feel like living organisms, was more exciting to him. “It has the potential to be as revolutionary as a sewing machine because if you get the materials correct, you could 3D print your own jacket or dress in your own home,” he said. “It’s the ultimate couture, because couture is all about the fit.”

While Bolton’s work is a practice in subtlety, those after a glimpse of more gimmicky fashion-tech might have still been disappointed after surveying the crowd at the opening gala. That is, save for a few guests who took the theme to heart, including the actress Claire Danes, whose Zac Posen ball gown was literally lit from within, and model Karolína Kurková, whose "cognitive", color-changing Marchesa dress was designed in partnership with IBM's Watson. There were also a few gentleman sporting LED-piped tuxedos, including marketers Andrew Saffir and Daniel Benedict. "[The organisers] appreciate the effort," said Benedict of the couple's choice of attire.

Indeed, the influence of the tech world was felt mostly in the guest list, which included Instagram's Kevin Systrom, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, and Tesla's Elon Musk. What was also wafting through the proceedings was Apple itself, ever present not only thanks to the company's representatives — including Ive, chief executive Tim Cook and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs — but in the number of guests wearing Apple watches: at least 10 women by our count, and likely more men, although theirs were hidden by jacket sleeves.

To be sure, the Apple Watch has attracted its fair share of naysayers, though its success is difficult to gauge with certainly as Apple doesn't break out sales of the device in its public disclosures. But the company's sponsorship of Manus x Machina comes at a tough time for Apple, which recently reported a year-over-year decline in quarterly revenue for the first time since 2003. (The company's second quarter revenue for the 2016 fiscal year was $50.6 billion, down 13 percent from the same period in 2015. Apple has projected that third quarter sales will be down as well.)

While Ive declined to discuss the future of the Apple Watch directly, he was willing to speak more broadly about his general approach when it comes to the progression of a product. “It’s quite interesting that if you look back at the first generation of the iPod or the Phone — what happens in the next two, three, four years is dramatic. You’d be very surprised about some of the things you would absolutely assume that the first Phone did and it didn’t have,” he said. “Of course, this is a new category for us, one that we think is such a natural one because we think in a very authentic way. It’s not us being opportunistic in the way our competitors are. It’s not us thinking, ‘Well, this is a growing category.’ That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Wintour’s brand, Vogue, and Apple certainly have quite a bit in common. They are often worshipped, occasionally reviled, and seemingly tend to operate under the predilection that the consumer doesn’t know what she wants before she wants it. But in recent cycles, Apple and Vogue have both opened up.

For Apple, this has meant creating an Apple Watch in a way that can be personalised. For Vogue, it's meant embracing the Internet and creating more varied content to serve a broader audience online. But whether their brand power will keep them on top through the next cycle of media and technology remains to be seen. “We have a wonderful past to draw from, but we’re also very interested in moving into the future,” Wintour said, regarding what brands like Vogue, Apple and Hermès — another Apple collaborator — have in common. “From our own point of view at Condé Nast, I think that we have always believed in tradition and quality and reaching out to audiences in as many ways as we can and now, through companies like Apple, we just have so many ways to do it.”

For any brand, iteration is essential to staying ahead in today's ever-changing world. "I personally love products when they're at this level of maturity," Ive said of the Apple Watch. "You know we can't talk about future products, but if you look at what we typically do is that we don't make something and stop." What Manus x Machina shows it that this has long been the case for many of the world's most influential clothing designers.

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