By Richard Schultz, December 2016 Issue.
Phoenix Art Museum’s latest fashion exhibit, “Emphatics: Avant-Garde Fashion 1963-2013,” represents a major tour de force by securing the entire contents of an influential boutique from Pittsburgh.
The Museum acquired the entire, intact archive of visionary U.S. retailers James and Karin Legato, which includes selected works from more than 400 pieces of clothing and accessories by Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, John Galliano, Romeo Gigli, Christian Lacroix, Alaïa, Claude Montana, Jean Paul Gaultier and others.
The story of “Emphatics” began in 1963, when James founded an upscale hair salon in Pittsburgh. Six years later, he expanded into designer women’s wear to service his clients with head-to-toe looks. With wife and business partner, Karin, on board, the couple’s chic oasis in the Steel City relocated to One Oxford Centre downtown in the early 1980s. The white plaster and Italian marble setting crowned with a 15-foot, vaulted dome ceiling resembled a theater of fashion.
The exhibit, “Emphatics: Avant-Garde Fashion 1963-2013,” picks up at this point to celebrate their long-term joint commitment to runway style and ends with the store’s closure in 2013.
“We’ve always considered and appreciated fashion as art and seeing this exhibition materialize at Phoenix Art Museum has proven to be the most authentic expression of our commitment to the art of fashion,” Karin said about finding the right fit for the archive after James passed away in 2015.
Though located far from Paris, London and Milan, Emphatics was at the forefront of European fashion. The store was the first point of sale in the U.S. for Jean Paul Gaultier and Maud Frizon.
“The Legatos have supported me since the very beginning. Emphatics was just one of a handful of retailers in the United States to embrace and support emerging avant-garde designers in the 1970s and 1980s,” Gaultier said, acknowledging Emphatics as a stateside pioneer for a new movement in fashion design. “Their taste was exceptional, and their loyalty was unwavering. Working with the Legatos was a rare and treasured experience in my career, and I am delighted to learn that Phoenix Art Museum is celebrating the legacy of Emphatics and the visionaries behind it.”
Of the approximately 100 ensembles in the exhibit, there are a flaming bustier from Mugler’s Fall/Winter 1987 collection; velvet
and lace ensembles from Gigli’s Fall 1989 collection inspired by Byzantine mosaics, and Miyake’s “A Piece of Cloth” (A-POC), an innovative technical process that eliminated pattern makers and decreased fabric waste in 1998.
“It really was a landmark to acquire this collection,” said Dennita Sewell, the Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design for
Phoenix Art Museum. “These are a group of designers who are change makers in fashion and what they did ranges from being avant-garde to classic. Their designs are smaller in circulation and didn’t have as wide of a distribution. It’s much [more] difficult to get such fashion forward apparel that was fewer and less available than other designers.”
The exhibit contains much more than just these designs, however. Sewell explained that the ephemera preserved by the Legatos are just as rare.
“The owners had a business for 50 years and went to all the fashion shows in Paris,” she said. “They brought back and saved all the brochures and videos because they appreciated their value as art.”
Designed like a reverse runway, the exhibit’s mannequins flank related, multimedia ephemera including personal photographs often taken in showrooms and at fashion shows by the Legatos from three decades of attending fashion weeks worldwide.
“It’s a very dynamic multimedia installation by exhibit designer Richard Jensen who has put the ephemera center stage,” Sewell added.
Sewell emphasized that prior to the 1960s, couture led the way.
“In the late 1970s and early 1980s, ready-to-wear blossomed and that generation led to the rise of the celebrity designer. These forward designers were pushing boundaries. The hippie presence in the late ‘70s gave way to designers like Gaultier who were edgy and streetwise. Those all black designs lead to a harder core look for the ‘80s.”
The Emphatics archive also includes rare, limited-edition accessories such as Alaïa belts, Gaultier corset collar neckpieces and Mugler satellite-shaped brooches and earrings.
For the LGBTQ community, this exhibit chronicles an important change in fashion and the world.
“These designers, like McQueen, Mugler and Gaultier, were allowed to be the first to be openly gay,” Sewell said. “They were edgy and out there especially Gaultier who embraces everything from gender bender skirts on guys to pants on girls. These designers embrace life and brought forth influences from other cultures as well. They caught the moment and reflected the period.”
Additionally, Sewell said she hopes the show may eventually tour to other museums in the future. “Emphatics: Avant-Garde Fashion 1963-2013” is on display in the Phoenix Art Museum’s Steele Gallery through Jan. 16.
“Emphatics: Avant-Garde Fashion 1963-2013”
Thru Jan. 16
Phoenix Art Museum
1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix