Technology within the realm of the fashion industry is seldom appreciated from an artistic perspective. Instead, it is synonymous with churning out standardized sheets of fabric, lacking the charm and value inherent in handmade garments.
Andrew Bolton, curator of The Costume Institute, is hoping to change that with Manus x Machina, a daring new fashion exhibition at the Robert Lehman Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Director of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture New York, Shohei Shigematsu, led the exhibition design working alongside the Met’s design department.
Featuring more than 170 ensembles, spanning the 1900s to the present, Manus x Machina seeks to identify the role technology has played in the fashion industry since the emergence of haute couture in the 20th century. Shigematsu said he was wary of representing the difference between man and machine literally. Instead, his team sought to create a “neutral, themeless” environment that could be used as a platform for discussion about the exhibits themselves. “It’s all about people paying attention to detail,” explained Shigematsu.
Shigematsu’s design also offers a sense of ephemerality, juxtaposing the permanence of the Met’s stonework with scaffolding and a translucent screen—a “theatrical material that has different properties of translucency and transparency depending on the light,” said Shigematsu. “You can see the structure through the scrim,” he continued. “You have the classical language of the arches and domes, but it has a very contemporary material and a sense of temporality that doesn’t exist within the Met. It’s a fresh internal space.”
When walking into the exhibition, visitors enter into what appears to be an all-white church. Despite avoiding any theme when developing the exhibition design with Bolton, Shigematsu said, religious themes arose. One of the main exhibits, chosen by Bolton, is an ornate Karl Lagerfeld–designed Chanel scuba knit wedding dress. “We [Bolton and Shigematsu] noticed that the pattern on the dress was really beautiful, so we thought to project this pattern onto the dome, almost creating the feel of the Sistine Chapel. We really inspired each other to make it look like a church.”
“We had to block out a lot of natural light because there are a lot of sensitive garments. So we basically decided to create an inner shell—then that started to look religious because of the existing structure’s spatial configuration,” he added. Interestingly, the entrance to this “religious” wing only has one entry point—a medieval exhibition currently on display that “already looks like a religious room,” said Shigematsu. “We thought that we could extend that world, but in a completely different material, creating a sense of classical continuity… I thought that this tension between the classical and the contemporary was quite interesting,” he continued.
He also opined that the exhibition was a good opportunity for OMA to alter its image. “Our firm tends to be known as focusing too much on the intellectual side,” he continued. “I really would like to change that culture… I think that this exhibition was a great realization for us to do something very pure and also maybe ‘romantic.’”