MoMA: Is Fashion Modern?

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is currently hosting the exhibit, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” So, what is modern? Back in 1944, the MoMA asked, in an exhibition titled, Is Clothing Modern? in the hope of inspiring museumgoers to, “reconsider their relationship with the clothing they wore.” Today, MoMA asks: Is fashion modern? to provoke thought about the world’s relationship with fashion and to examine how and why it is made. In this exhibition, we see fashion born out of creativity and necessity; created by man and machine. The museum’s elevation of both the evening gown and the flip flop illustrates society’s multifaceted relationship with fashion, clothing, and art.

The curators walk you through the history of fashion, using fashion as a lens through which to view and analyze culture and society. Upon entering, I was pleasantly surprised. The galleries, sparsely but carefully filled, teased visitors with vivid colors, sounds, textures, and interactive displays. The exhibit progresses chronologically and also practically, by starting with base layers like undergarments, switching to classics like the little black dress, then working toward wardrobe fundamentals such as pants and later on, accessories.

Underwear starts out not to be a simple thing. Brassieres, stockings, and then jumpsuits pique visitors to contemplate form, function, and aesthetic. Subsequently, the exhibition moves to khakis, trousers, and collared shirts. This casual wear showcase also highlights how pants have evolved for women. With images of a pants-clad Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Mary Tyler Moore in capris on the Dick Van Dyke Show in the 60’s, the exhibit’s wall labels provide gender-charged commentary on how pant suits became socially acceptable for women.

The exhibit moves forward to a survey of the quintessential little black dress. Just within the exploration of the little black dress, one can see the evolution of fabrics, design, class, and social custom. This collection contains a range of dresses from Christian Dior to Thierry Mugler; starting with a modest Chanel evening dress from 1925 and ending with the controversial, close-fitting Versace cocktail dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley in 1994. The exhibit even highlights the relationship between technology and fashion by including a 3-D printed dress designed via a form of classical mechanics and motion called, kinematics.

Next, fashion is studied as an extension of culture. The collection exalts prints, fabrics, and silhouettes from all over the world, showcasing an anthology of Indian saris, Cuban guayaberas, Ghanian gowns, Brazilian jumpers, and Dashikis inspired by Nigerian prints, yet made right in Harlem.

Flanking one side of the exhibition is a spotlight on men’s suits. The stylistic progression goes from the zoot suit to the power suit, and even a double-breasted pant suit by Ralph Lauren for women. The wide range of tailoring, fabric, and shape is also a reflection on style, age, and class.

After covering each major piece of clothing, the exhibit moves on to highlight accessories. What some may consider superfluous or merely decorative additions, the accessories prove to be staples on their own. This collection looks at show-stopping shoes, handbags, hats, furs, and jewelry. The curators even established a small homage to the famous Hermès Birkin bag and Alexander McQueen’s platform armadillo boots, as worn by Lady Gaga.

But wait: there’s more. The exhibition has small fashion asides where one can find a biker jacket derivative made from polymers and LED lighting, and a textile designed through a computer-programed knitting machine.

“Items: Is Fashion Modern?” is indeed a modern take on fashion. After examining the entire 111 items, it is impossible to walk away uninspired and unprovoked. The curators do an excellent job of covering a wide range of subject matter, addressing the fundamentals of fashion, and examining where fashion is purely aesthetic and less functional, yet nonetheless enthralling and important. The exhibition demonstrates the complexity of fashion, as it can serve as adornment, a reflection of culture, or counterculture. If modern is to reflect the present and recent times, then yes, fashion is modern.

The Museum of Modern Art exhibit, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” runs through January 28, 2018.

Credit:  Candace R. Arrington

Candace Arrington works in Phillips Nizer’s Intellectual Property, Corporate, Fashion, and Entertainment Law Practices.

The World’s Worst Accessory

I used to think that accessories add style in greater proportion to their expense and relative size. Then came three bouts of sciatica (due in part to too much sitting in one place on intercontinental flights in the service of fashion), meniscus surgery on the right knee and the doctor’s assurance that the left knee will soon need it as well. In all cases, I was on a cane until things sorted themselves out; as temporary as those experiences were, they have convinced me that a cane is absolutely the world’s worst accessory. Guys—if you must have a cane, wear a jacket and tie as often as possible and try to keep an erect posture. Doing that at least got me the occasional compliment of looking “distinguished,” which I learned is actually a euphemism for “a man past his prime who manages to keep up appearances.” And don’t ever accept the standard-issue hospital cane. Formerly, a cane was indeed a fashion accessory. When I was young, my parents, who could walk just fine, had an antique cane collection—as a décor item, I suppose. I bought my cane at a midtown Manhattan tobacco shop. The handle is shaped like a mallard’s head. It became known to my small boy as “Daddy Ducky,” and he would take to stomping it around the foyer, saying, “Quack, quack, quack,” until Daddy could gently get Daddy Ducky out of his hands.

Why is a cane so bad? Consider this incident, which is not atypical: I was standing in the Lexington Avenue bus, on my way to work. (When cane-less, I prefer to walk, and quite briskly at that.) An attractive, stylishly dressed woman seated nearby saw me and smiled. The bus came to its next stop. Her accessories defined her style: Her Hermès scarf seemed to carry her up like angels’ wings. As she rose onto her blue Ferragamo pumps, the MK medallion on her handbag swayed, and the air was spiced with her perfume. She smiled at me again with what I could see now were blue, alluring eyes—and politely offered to give up her seat to me and stand until she reached her stop.

Distinguished my ***. If there is indeed a next time for the services of Daddy Ducky, I’ll take cabs.

Credit: Alan Behr

License to Kill (Your Business)

Licensing represents an opportunity for a fashion brand founded on one or a small number of product lines to stretch into almost any clothing, jewelry, beauty or accessories category—and beyond.  Moving into a broad range of products and services has been an especially successful strategy for luxury brands.  Consider that Ralph Lauren started as a maker of men’s neckties and that Hermès began as a maker of harnesses for carriage horses.  Although you sometimes hear the saying that, “No one ever got rich licensing a brand,” licensing can be a useful, even necessary tool to build brand awareness among both old and new classes of customers.  When you leap into categories that have specialized production requirements, unique distribution methods or simply just high barriers to entry—consider timepieces, fragrances and eyewear—licensing is about the only sensible way to make it happen.

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But what is a legal article without a warning about pitfalls?  (Just as designers are paid to create and merchants are paid to awaken and satisfy customer desire, lawyers are paid to worry.)

  • For the licensor, a key concern is that its licensing agent or licensees themselves may prove unmotivated or unable to bring the brand’s image to new product lines.  A licensor can find itself devoting an inordinate amount of time to servicing the product development needs of its licensees—to the point that, in extreme cases, the licensor can start to feel as if it is working for its agent or licensees.  On the other hand, licensees’ successes may kindle the temptation to over-license, risking dilution of the brand.
  • For the licensee, pitfalls can include disapprovals of products by the licensor that result in missed shipping dates, lost markets or revenue, confusing or incomplete branding direction or support (especially after a change of control at the licensor), and all the potential dangers that come from devoting your business to enhancing the goodwill of someone else’s brand.

Any one of those concerns can cause serious—and in extreme cases terminal—problems for participants in the licensing game.

In subsequent posts, we will review the ins and outs of licensing in more detail.  As with a good story, where the art is in the telling, with a good license, the art is in the drafting.

Credit:  Alan Behr