Christian Dior Couturier du reve Paris
Christian Dior Couturier du reve Paris

Brand Heritage as Art in Museums

A Jacket, a Skirt Suit and a Trunk In Between History and Current Story, Between Myth and Worldly Power 

By Long Nguyen

“Mr. Dior was a supreme architect of a pattern. He could construct something so perfect, and yet he would often throw in a gesture on purpose to break that perfection,” Raf Simons said of his thinking at the time of his debut fall-winter 2012-2013 haute couture show in July 2012 for Dior. Simons envisioned displacing elements of the spring 1947 Corolle or the shape 8 line of round shoulders, cinched waist, and full skirt silhouette that he showed as a black gabardine single breast jacket over long slender matching pants as the opener at his much-anticipated start. 

Simons’ streamlined approach to Dior’s architecture shapes propelled a unique rendition of the Bar jacket in its bearing purity with nothing extra added. 

“Couture is not only about working on the shape, the attitude, and the colors in a new way. The haute couture collection is also about working on new forms with the industry related to couture as a whole, working with them in a new way. It is an established industry with craftspeople that are beyond compare. Still, it is not just about reaching for a typical satin duchess, silk, or tulle but the development of new fabrications and new forms with them,” Simons said. A new way to express heritage in gestures and clothes. 

Christian Dior Designer of Dreams V&A

Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s artistic director for women’s collections, took her audience to an imaginary maze garden built inside a tent at the Musée Rodin decorated with imperfectly shaven topiary and dead leaves laid along the pathways of a secret garden labyrinth as a metaphor for her debut Spring 2017 haute couture show for Dior featuring elaborately embroidered floral motifs trapped within layers of mauve and pink tulles. Chiuri envisioned her work at the house, blending iconography with new meanings and new clothes.

“Memory is the driving force shaping a new story that rewrites the House’s lexicon, translating it into shapes and cuts that are the imprint of the silhouettes, dreams, and desires for today’s women,” Chiuri emphasized in January 2017. By ‘memory as a driving force,’ Chiuri, Raf Simons, and John Galliano before them all meant working within the heritage and the lexicon DNA codes of the Dior house created in the decade 1947-1957, fabricating collections within this historical framework imaginatively, but not entirely imprisoned by the past. 

“The Bar jacket is deconstructed and reinvented, even as a cape,” Chiuri said of the 1947 jacket in her Spring 2017 haute couture show. Then, Chiuri transformed the Bar into a softer jacket with multiple ruffles layers at the hips and a long pleat black sheer tulle skirt, adding more feminine accents into the clothes.  

Christian Dior couturier de reve Paris MGChiuri HCSS2017 Reve infini

Monsieur Dior himself updated his 1947 original Corolle pleated shape padded jacket and skirt in his subsequent seasons. For spring 1949 Trompe l’oeil line with a black Acacias skirt suit, in the fall-winter 1949 Milieu de siècle line as a charcoal grey Unesco skirt suit and in the Spring 1950 Vertical line a black Premier Avril skirt suit. 

By memory, too, Chiuri meant the heritage of Dior in history, integrating all the accouterments surrounding Dior’s fashion creation – the peripheral cultural and artistic associations were part of the founder’s life and the fashion he created. Then and now, making the collections involves this wider embrace of arts and culture to fathom the brand’s meaning. 

More specifically, by memory, Chiuri meant the exhibition ‘Christian Dior, couturier de rêve’ – the most extensive museum retrospective ever mounted in conjunction with Dior for the seventieth anniversary of the brand at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The museum show opened on the day of Chiuri’s second haute couture show for fall 2017. The mannequin wearing the 1947 ecru cinched hip jacket paired with a long black skirt – the Bar suit – greeted guests at the entrance to this exhibition, merging fashion and culture, then and today with over 500 garments along with the founder’s personal effects. 

“Christian Dior was not to be a revolutionary. He was looking to the more distant past when Paris was the center of good taste, to restore beauty, femininity, and harmony after the war,” the historian and co-curator Florence Müller said in a preview of the Paris exhibition at the time. The show treated successive designers as creative designers of equal caliber with spaces dedicated to each. The Trapeze collection under Yves Saint Laurent, the series of black Bar pantsuits by Raf Simons Fall 2021 couture, the tulle dresses with floral insets by Maria Grazia Chiuri Spring 2017 couture, and red embroidered satin ball dress by John Galliano from Fall 2004 couture.

Christian Dior, couturier de reve, Paris

“The goal of the exhibition is to show the source of creation and the breath of culture that Christian Dior and the designers succeeding him possessed. They explored the history of art. Dior, and the others, made a point of bathing in culture,” Müller explained the rooms devoted to Dior’s interaction with artists as a gallery owner. The designers who succeeded him – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and now Maria Grazia Chiuri – posit their fashion for the house at each new intersection within the historical signatures on display. 

The line, the silhouette, and the identity of the idea of Dior fashion remain constant over the years despite the new incarnations of designers’ visions. The exhibition allows audiences to peek at the creative processes and the ideas from each designer related to translating the Dior legacy for their times. 

Having traveled from Paris to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in February 2019 and the Long Museum West Bund in Shanghai in July 2020, ‘Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams’ will arrive at the Brooklyn Museum opening on September 10, 2020. The Brooklyn show will have additional photographs, sketches, and garments from the museum’s collection added to the mixture. The Brooklyn Museum holds the feminist artist Judy Chicago’s ceremonial The Dinner Party in addition to hosting the 1949 ‘Two Centuries of French Fashion Elegance’ of costumed dolls that inspired Chiuri’s film Le Mythe Dior premiered for Fall 2020 couture season. Chicago collaborated with Chiuri on creating the installation The Female Divine for the Spring 2020 haute couture show. 

Dior From Paris to the World Dallas

But this retrospective now coming to the Brooklyn Museum isn’t the only Dior’s heritage in exhibitions in the past few years. 

Dior From Paris to the World’, composed of 200 haute couture dresses and supporting archival materials, premiered at the Denver Art Museum in November 2018, then traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art in May 2019. 

Currently on view until the end of September 2021 at the Musée McCord or officially the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montréal, ‘Christian Dior’ examines the Dior decade, 1947-1957, with 51 haute couture looks. 

The museum-style exhibition brings the heritage into an immersive experience, extending the brand legacy beyond the realm of seasonal drops into the arena of a permanent cultural establishment. Heritage luxury brands don’t just want to impress but to press an imprint of their legacy on audiences experiencing these exhibitions physically or now also available via virtual tours. 

What Maria Grazia Chiuri, Virginie Viard, or Nicholas Ghesquière refer to their fashion collections as heritage and DNA codes can now be seen at museum exhibitions in numerous iterations traveling across the globe. These brand art exhibitions are visiting both major capitals and regional growth cities. Within these galleries is the interconnectedness and transformation narrative at the center of these luxury brand fashions. Amidst the richness and splendor of the clothes, there are displays of personal items – a handwritten note, an old photograph – making the vast heritage more human in scale. 

These exhibitions are like rites of elevations, putting brand heritage onto the stage of museum art. It is not just about the original dress on display but the methodology and the thinking that created that dress or that travel trunk. Competing for prestige is not just the surfeit of legacy but for the identity of luxury brands. Today only a few houses can tout heritage. 

In the recent decade, giants luxury brands like Dior, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton have thrown substantial resources into expanding and maintaining their respective heritage framing their legacy within these art exhibitions. No doubt there will be plenty of future iterations altering the immediate themes slightly but keeping the principal items on display familiar to audiences. A Dior exhibit will always have variations of the Bar suit, a Chanel show will always have a range of the classic skirt suits, and a Louis Vuitton show will indeed have new transformations of the trunks and the Keepalls. 

Virginie Viard, the creative director at Chanel, recalled her discovery of “these portraits of Gabrielle Chanel dressed up in black or white 1880s style dresses, that I immediately thought about tableaux. Works by Berthe Morisot, Marie Laurencin, and Édouard Manet. These are impressionist-inspired dresses, skirts that look like paintings …” Her Fall-Winter 2021-2022, shown in early July in the courtyard of the Palais Galliera, was a fine rendering of the essentials of Chanel against the literal backdrop of a comprehensive exhibition inside the Galliera Museum. 

Inside the Palais Galliera is the first retrospective exhibition devoted solely to Gabrielle Chanel’s fashion oeuvre in multiple galleries of flawless, simple dresses or lightly ornamented ones and the powerful long gallery display of the range of the cardigan jacket skirt suit. ‘Gabrielle Chanel Manifeste de mode’ is comprehensive in displaying archival garments and even the first bottle of the No. 5 fragrance, offering viewers an up-close examination of the fashion signatures from the classic suits to the range of dresses. 

Chanel Gabrielle Chanel Manifeste de Mode

Viard’s latest Fall 2021 haute couture collection shown just outside the museum courtyard resembled in spirit and garments with the historical precedents on mannequins within the display galleries. Camille Hurel wore a light grey and light pink wool tweed, round neck cardigan jacket, and knee-length skirt paired with the pale pink tweed buttoned midriff camisole.  Hurel’s skirt suit is a direct descendent of the original skirt suit introduced by the founder in the early 1920s as a hybrid between sportswear and menswear. One gallery of the Gabrielle Chanel exhibition is devoted solely to these suits over those earlier years. 

At Chanel, like at Dior, besides this retrospective of Gabrielle Chanel that will sure to see the opening in other major global capitals, the brand has, over this decade, curated smaller exhibitions that also travel to different regional locations. At the same time, massive in scale, this retrospective of Chanel’s career is one of the continuous roll-outs of special exhibitions focusing on different aspects of the brand. Chanel’s Little Black Jacket, the Chanel Little Black Dress, and the Mademoiselle Privé had all made world tours in the past few years.

In October 1926, Chanel created the simple black wool jersey dress belted at the waist that stark contrast to the more fanciful and highly embellished clothes trending during the great war years known as the Jazz Age. Against the grain and mood of the time, the garment became a firm staple of women’s dress dubbed the Little Black Dress for its revolutionary direction that Vogue magazine described as the Ford Model T as in the then-popular car.  

The eighty black dresses within ‘The Little Black Dress’ aka LBD exhibition premiered at SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia in the fall of 2012 aren’t all by Chanel. Most aren’t. Instead, the show demonstrates the power and influence of this Chanel garment as a charismatic icon of modern dressing along with black dresses from a range of designers, including Julien McDonald, John Galliano, Giles Deacon, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Madame Grès. 

LBD visited Paris at the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art & Culture in August 2013, the Missouri Historical Society in St Louis in March 2016, the Washington State Historical Society in August 2019, and the National Museum of Scotland in June 2020. At each of these regional visits, audiences could immerse in the Chanel experience intellectually and via the physical display of garments. 

Chanel LBD Paris

In centering on the impact of Chanel’s original black dress on modern fashion, the show expanded on how Gabrielle Chanel had changed the idea of clothes, cutting through impediments of class through cheaper jersey fabrics and of gender through incorporating masculine wardrobe staples.  

‘Little Black Jacket’ – the other focused exhibition of 100 large black and white photographs of favorite muses Vanessa Paradis, Kanye West, Daphne Guinness, Georgia May Jagger, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin – all taken by Karl Lagerfeld opened at London Saatchi Gallery in October 2012. The photo shows this classic Chanel black jacket first seen in 1916 of Tyrolean origin in uniforms worn by men at the Baron Pantz Hotel in Austria had visited many major cities around the world, including Shanghai, New York, Dubai, Taipei, and Hong Kong. 

‘Mademoiselle Privé’ – started in London in 2015. Seoul in 2017, Hong Kong in 2018, Shanghai in April 2019, and Tokyo in October 2019 -showcased the creative forces at Chanel from the founder to Karl Lagerfeld with the show title taken from the sign on the door at the third floor at the rue Cambon headquarter. This exhibit comprises three pillars of creativity at Chanel – fashion, high jewelry, and fragrance.  

Nicolas Ghesquière, the Louis Vuitton artistic director for women’s collections, often mentioned the idea of travel, not just about the physical, but also the symbolic and across time eras, as a fundamental point of departure for his Louis Vuitton collections. The French designer is fundamentally creating fashion collections that defy momentary adherence to any specific style of particular epochs. Within this framework, his fashion collections can rely on the Louis Vuitton heritage of travel. In essence, each new fashion collection is another creative simulacrum of the heritage legacy termed as DNA codes. 

Travel is intrinsic to the history, and the heritage of Louis Vuitton, founded in 1854 with an innovative flat top trunk in lightweight Trianon canvas allowing the trunks to be stacked. The Damier Canvas pattern was first introduced in 1888 with the ‘marque L. Vuitton déposée’ logo as a trademark. Today’s LV monogram gained worldwide patents in 1896. 

Time travel across different eras has been an aesthetic directive in Ghesquière’s recent collections, principally his spring 2018 show inside the Louvre’s Pavillon de l’horloge in the museum’s lower level one a moat for a fortress. A light grey silk brocade embroidered 18th-century style frock coat paired with soft blue silk running shorts and massive white sneakers heralded a flattened timeline from past to present without interruptions. 

“A dialogue of wardrobes that transcend Time,” Ghesquière said at the time. 

Ghesquière’s latest Cruise 2022 collection, shown last May at the Axe Majeure sculpture park by the artist Dani Karavan outside of Paris, was also a destination show without moving. The designer conceived garments comprising the futurism of science fiction with the handiwork of the atelier making mini dresses with parachute pleats and space-suits worthy padded quilts. 

Travel across time and horizons was the principal theme of the giant backdrop with a cast of a hundred wearing an assortment of mixed costumes representing centuries apart at the Fall 2020 women’s show in Paris, the last live show before the global lockdown. 

Opened at the massive Grand Palais in Paris in early December 2015, Louis Vuitton Volez Voguez Voyager was nothing short of a comprehensive visual history of the Louis Vuitton brand from inception to designs by Marc Jacobs and Nicholas Ghesquière. Curated by Olivier Saillard from the Palais Galliera museum, VVV was a thematic journey visualized by objects and documents from the house’s archives from that famous malle trunk in the late 1890s. Then, onto the Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince Keepall to Marc Jacobs, all final black collection for Spring 2014 to Nicholas Ghesquière debut women’s collection for Fall 2014 as a defining moment a new era for the French brand. 

LV’s VVV made various stops globally, arriving in Tokyo in mid-2016, Seoul in 2017, New York in late 2017, and Shanghai in late 2018. Each destination had a specified focus. For example, the Tokyo stop included an entire gallery showing the earliest connection to Japan that included trunks from artisans from Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto and Japanese customers like political leader Taisuke Itagaki. 

Each local VVV exhibition adapted to the local flavor. For the New York VVV, a mockup in light grey of a New York City MTA subway train stood at the former American Stock Exchange Building entrance in Wall Street. 

See LV,’ the latest exhibition, recently opened in Hangzhou, a metropolis south of Shanghai in Zhejiang province in May. Recent men’s and women’s fashion collections from Virgil Abloh and Nicholas Ghesquière sat alongside a diverse range of Steamer trunks, Keepalls, and Speedy bags in all sizes. Inaugurated in Wuhan in 2020, See LV immersed audiences in digital and artificial intelligence experiences with an eye towards the future rather than a look back. 

To celebrate Louis Vuitton’s range of collaborations over the past two decades was the focus of the ‘Louis Vuitton &’ Tokyo exhibit in March 2021 connected LV with the Japanese artists and designers. They have worked with the brand over the years. The designer Kansai Yamamoto worked on the Cruise 2018 collection shown at the Niho Museum in Kyoto, the artists Takashi Murakami for Fall 2002, Yayoi Kusama for Fall 2012, and Nigo and Hiroshi Fujiwara. Along one wall were assortments of monograms bags reworked by artists Cindy Sherman, Zaha Hadid, Richard Prince, and Arata Isozaki. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons made tote bags with holes for the Monogram Project in 2014. 

Fashions shows have yet to travel, although this is beginning to change with the small seasonal cruise shows. But brand fashion museum exhibitions have been on the road for over a decade, hitting every primary and secondary global city intrinsic to each brand’s commerce. 

Chanel has for several seasons showed the Cruise collection to various markets around the globe. The brand has just announced the cruise 2022 filmed show in May as a live presentation in Dubai this coming November. La Pausa; the Cruise 2019 show first staged in Paris in early May 2018, was again shown in Bangkok in the bank of the Chao Phraya River in late October 2018. The Louis Vuitton men’s Spring 2021 show in the physical form of giant painted shipping box containers premiered digitally in Paris in late June 2020 on the Paris show calendar, then traveled to Shanghai in early August 2020 and followed Tokyo in early September 2020 with live physical shows. The fall 2021 digital runway show saw a live version early this July in Seoul with the new ambassadors – BTS – as models. 

Heritage fashion houses like Valentino also touted their lasting legacy by mounting exhibitions. In late 2011, Valentino launched the Valentino Garavani Virtual Museum with immersive 3-D technology. The idea was to bring the archives to life comprising 180 fashion shows, dresses, 5000 original sketches, and celebrities in the clothes spanning fifty years, aiming to secure the designer’s heritage and fashion DNA legacy. Still active today, the museum website provided an unhindered and un-curated view of the archival history, allowing visitors to browse the categories of their interests. 

Valentino Garavani Museum

But the virtual museum space is but one aspect of extending this Roman house fashion language and history. In the summer of 2007, Valentino celebrated the 45th Year in Rome with a big fashion show, gala, and an exhibition of his haute couture creations at Rome’s Ara Pacis museum. Others Valentino expositions followed all with the express purpose of showcasing the vast influences of the designer’s couture work in fashion, like the 2012 ‘Valentino: Master of Couture’ show at London’s Somerset House. 

Valentino 45 Years Ara Pacis Rome

“Valentino, themes and variations” opened at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) in Paris in June 2008, merely five months after Valentino Garavani retired from his brand with a farewell haute couture show earlier that January. Curated by Paris’s MAD based on the original 2008 version, “Valentino, Retrospective Past/Present/Future” visited Singapore in late December 2020 after its premiere opening in Brisbane, Australia in fall 2010 at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art after.  In early January 2020, there were rumors of a potential Valentino retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. 

Fashion brands, though, are not the exclusive planner of all initiatives for single-brand museum exhibitions. As fashion exhibitions become a draw for new audiences, big or small, various global museums mounted their curate shows, often focusing specifically on a particular designer due to historical contributions. 

Alaia et Balenciaga Schulpteurs de la forme

The ‘Balenciaga, l’oeuvre au noir’ opened at Paris Palais Galliera in 2017 at the Musée Bourdelle, the ‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ at the V&A South Kensington in 2018, and the ‘Balenciaga: Master of Couture at the McCord Museum in Montréal later that year were museum curated shows placing the historical significance of the designer’s contribution to the advancement of fashion. From January 2020 to February 2021 at the Alaïa Foundation in Paris – ‘Alaïa et Balenciaga, Sculpteurs de la forme’ – explored how each designer work in sculptural shapes with a video tour at the foundation’s site. 

One of the most successful shows was ‘The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to the Catwalk’ originally curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal in 2011. The exhibition then traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art in late 2011, the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in mid-2012, the Brooklyn Museum in late 2013, and Paris’ Grand Palais in spring 2015. Similarly, Matthew Yokobosky, the senior curator of fashion and material culture, organized the ‘Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion’ at the Brooklyn Museum in mid-summer 2019. Or the Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garcons show at the Met. 

Margiela/Galliera, 1989-2009’ retrospective show was the most potent fashion exhibit in recent years, looking closely at the supremely influential Belgian designer spanning his entire 20 years from spring 1989 to spring 2009. Margiela’s oeuvre profoundly altered the construction and fabrication of garments and the making of the fashion system. As the most visited exhibition in Canada in 2019 at the Musée des beaux-art Montréal, ‘Thierry Mugler Couturisime’ will open at the Musée des arts décoratifs in September 2021 with special digital performances followed by the Kunsthal Rotterdam and the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftug in Munich.

In the strategic thinking of luxury corporate titans, fashion is about the dream before the products.

Exhibitions are at the apex of the brand universe and, perhaps, the most elitist form of public representation hoping for a sophisticated and intellectual audience than one bend on the vagaries of trends. The substance remains constant even if the titles vary in keeping the dream alive. 

Just a handful of luxury brands have both the heritage and financial resources to mount these elitist-level single-brand exhibitions that convey a sense of art. Inside these globe-trotting exhibitions are collections of symbolic conventions – the backbone of the intellectual resonance – that have come to represent the essence of each brand more so than the frequency of fashion shows that offer references to the particular DNA codes of each house. 

Communicating the foundational essence of history and legacy within an academic setting far apart from the commercial inklings of the fashion shows is serve as periodic reincarnations of updated brand legacy. Far from the bustling of blockbuster runway shows, these quiet art shows immerse the audience within a continuous frequency of brand legacy with a strong visual language that current designers continue to deploy for their newest collections. 

Undoubtedly, fashion exposition is now big business for museums globally. The Metropolitan Museum Anna Wintour Costume Institute will open a new two-parts show on American fashion on September 18 with the hope of restarting fashion after the brutal effects of the pandemic. 

Museum brand shows are super storytelling on a more massive scale, exposing and connecting to new audiences and consumers in particular regions. These fashion exhibitions as art aren’t just about trafficking in fantasies but served as reinforcement of brand values and heritage on a longer-term, more intellectual basis than the seasonal fashion shows. These ongoing mobile exhibitions validate brands as a generator of culture. A Bar jacket has that ‘more than a ‘jacket’ meaning or a Keepall weekend bag is much more than something to stuff things into for a rapid get-away. 

Fashion shows last for minutes, but museum shows can last for months at one location then travel to another and another in different manifestations. In addition, bigger museum shows like Dior in Brooklyn spawn auxiliary ancillaries like hardbound coffee table books to extend the exhibition’s life after it closes. 

Of course, the Dior book is a particular version specifically made for the Brooklyn Museum.  

Stay up to date on news, analysis, real-time runway coverage, campaigns, trends, store design and more. Join our newsletter today.

Newsletter sent Mon - Fri 1:30 AM EST