Sometimes my job puts me in positions that are vastly outside of my comfort zone. Covering a fashion exhibition is one of the times. I’ve heard of Ralph Lauren and Tom Ford, sure, but my knowledge of fashion could not fit Barbie’s thimble. When my wife watches “Project Runway,” I zone out.
And yet, these shows have become, well … fashionable at the top art institutions around the world, so it was inevitable that our own museum would present one sooner rather than later. In this case, the show is titled “IMPACT: 50 Years of the CFDA,” and it features dozens of outfits, dressed on faceless mannequins, created by the Council of Fashion Designers of America over its half-century of existence. The CFDA is the top trade organization in the field, and even fashion laymen like myself will recognize the names of a sizable chunk of the designers on display, each of whom are represented with just one archetypal work: Diane von Furstenberg, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors and so on.
There is no overriding theme – the exhibition’s raison d’etre is variety, to offer a vast cross-section of innovative, gorgeous and at times controversial fashion designs that touch every spectrum of the industry. Thus, you’re treated to everything from the mirth and whimsy of Betsey Johnson’s cherry print dress to Donna Karan’s elegant, black, monotone example of “daywear” that, to my eyes, looks like something one of Bruce Wayne’s love interests would wear to a black-tie charity gala, but what do I know?
Like most recent shows at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, “IMPACT” is tech-savvy, with iPads sprouting from stands bolted to the floor, providing the only background information on the designers (I didn’t see any wall text; the gowns speak for themselves). The work is divided into several categorical clusters along both sides of the main gallery: “Inspired by Exoticism,” “Evening Wear,” “Sculptural,” “Daywear,” “Menswear” and “Emerging Designers,” with the standout section, “Resplendent Gowns” sandwiched between them, in the center, behind a red carpet. This is where you can view a billowing red dress from Zac Posen, a sexy and modern butterfly dress from Marchesa and a black, rippling knockout from Vera Wang. But I was more taken with the “Sculptural” category, which includes an elegant silver-and-black kimono from Josie Natori and a matching kilt-and-scarf combination from B.H. Wragge circa 1950.
Of the more experimental entries, I was impressed with Oleg Cassini’s motley dress, where strings of pearls divide shimmering tableaux of alphabet letters and geometric shapes. Geoffrey Beene’s dress is the kind that is destined to feel forever postmodern, suggesting a ‘70s science fiction writer’s image of the futuristic space woman. And Alexander Wang manages to make hoodies fashionable, with his knit sweater material bleeding into a bold black leather design.
On the other hand, someone will have to explain the appeal of Tom Ford to me. His selection here is a clingy, drapey, unflattering sepia-colored thing that looks like it’s melting off its mannequin. Likewise, Tommy Hilfiger’s example of outback chic did nothing for me. but they both pale in comparison to Thom Brown’s vulgar suit made of chicken feathers, which looks more appropriate for a KFC mascot than an evening on the town.
It dawned on me that perhaps my knowledge of fashion (or even my love of animals) has limited my appreciation for such designs, which might very well be the case. But also, these kinds of reactions justify this exhibition’s place in an art museum; their very divisiveness, and the multiple opinions they engender in museumgoers, provide an answer to that age-old question: “Yes, but it is art?” I don’t know much about fashion, but I know a little bit about art, and this is it.
“IMPACT: 50 Years of the CFDA” runs through April 21 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Tickets are $15 adults, $12 seniors and $8 students. For information, call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.