Clothes Make The Man

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Here are two assumptions being challenged at LACMA:

— Men don’t care about clothes.

— Fashion is frivolous.

Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715 — 2015 is a new exhibition looking at 300 years of men’s fashions. And what it shows is that men have historically been as much, if not more, fashion-conscious than the ladies. And that today — the age of jeans, sneakers and t-shirts — menswear is having a renaissance.

Punk fashion on display (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It also shows that fashion never exists independent of cultural, political and economic trends.

Kaye Spilker is curator of costumes and textiles at LACMA and told DnA: “It’s not just fashion. We are very interested in the economy of the period because if you don’t have any money you don’t have great clothes. Although, all of the really innovative things that come up from the streets come up without money; for example that great punk jacket was do it yourself and anti-fashion.”

So the exhibition places all the items of clothing within a context of their time — zoot suits with hugely baggy pants which defied the rationing of fabric at the time; outrageous clothing worn by groups of men called “the incredibles” on the streets of revolutionary Paris in sync with the instability of the period; Burberry trench coats that became a mainstream fashion item following the First World War.

IMG_4290And it juxtaposes the classic pieces with works by avant-garde designers of today who look to the past for inspiration.

Alongside a mannequin of one of the “incredibles” wearing tight, extravagantly cut tail coats and cropped pantaloons, you find for example, an amazing tailored orange frock coat and skin-tight leather trousers by contemporary Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck.

It is important to note that this show is not interested in dressing down. The items it shows are men at their most flamboyant — then and now.

One of the donors to the show is San Francisco-based Ricky Serbin.

He deals in vintage clothes and is a walking advertisement for his passion, so much so that he was photographed by the New York Times’ Bill Cunningham and thus discovered by the curators.

Vintage fashion dealer Ricky Serbin (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

While modeling his own Walter Van Beirendonck, featuring a complex plaid centered on hexagons planted squarely over the nipples, he explained what attracted him to menswear in particular: 

“I think dandies in general are fearless. They have a lot of confidence and they probably dressed, like myself, this way from infancy. I was always resplendently dressed and couldn’t care less what anyone thought and I have pieces now that the museum wants.”

Another donor is Cameron Silver, who wandered through the show pointing out pieces from his wardrobe: Pucci, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Philip Lim.

Other contemporary designers include Johnson Hartig for Libertine, Jeremy Scott, Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood and Kean Etro.

So the exhibition appeals to people interested in history and culture — and to people who simply want to see men when they dress at their most fearless.


Decades owner Cameron Silver (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

While touring the “Revolutionary and Anarchy” section of the exhibition we ran into Roman Alonso and Steven Johanknecht, partners at the design collective Commune, darlings of the fashion, food and art cognoscenti. They designed the installation, an apt commission given that they started their careers at Barneys in the 1980s.

They were  tasked with creating an installation that would focus the eye on the clothing while reinforcing the curatorial themes.

To this end, they put the mannequins on raised podiums against a painted wall, each a different tone for each theme, though all intended to be masculine and strong. And around the walls at picture rail level, they installed over-scaled, mannered cornices echoing Memphis, Michael Graves, even Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library.

The goal is to direct the eye down, but the device also plays with history.

“Postmodernism felt like the right period to look at,” says Johanknecht, and Alonso adds that this cornice incorporates a nod to the punk fashion in the room: a relief of exaggeratedly large studs.

Roman and Steven
Roman Alonso and Steven Johanknecht of Commune (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

We also asked for their favorite item of clothing in the show; they both chose a kaftan designed by Rudi Gernreich: “As you get older you find any excuse to put less stuff on,” said the youthful looking Alonso. “Seriously, I’m looking forward to a wardrobe of just a kaftan or a onesie.”

Robert Mapplethorpe

After seeing men at their finest you can see them with nothing on.

Located on the same floor of BCAM is Perfect Medium, LACMA’s exhibition of photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

Listen to DnA’s interview with senior curator Sharon Takeda: