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Fashion Curation: From Master Storytelling to Lifestyle Merchandising

Fashion Curation: From Master Storytelling to Lifestyle Merchandising

In the last few years, the word "curation" has become quite the thing in fashion. Just last week WWD reported Bergdorf Goodman's powerhouse buyer/stylist (and Senior Vice President of Womenswear) Linda Fargo will be opening a store-in-store, Linda Fargo's, and curate a collection of clothing and other items she personally likes, uses, and is inspired by. This boutique will be a reflection of Fargo’s personality and style, and a new way for Bergdorf customers to personally engage with one of the most respected fashion professionals in U.S. One can argue as a stylist, it is specifically Fargo’s job to “curate” - and that this is not a huge diversion from what she has normally done, and done so well. But that might be missing the point in that not only stylists (which can be considered style curators) but everybody in retail that is “curating” now. It seems that we've come to a point where something is special and legit (scientifically speaking) if it is "curated".

Source: WWD, January 26th 2017

Source: WWD, January 26th 2017

Roughly between 2008 and 2013, I pretended to know what “curation” was. And for years I held that secret as close to my heart as I did with loving Hall and Oates (I love Hall and Oates.) In fact, I suspect many people still don’t know what *exactly* curation means - and I will go ahead now and break the taboo and shame surrounding this matter. I don't want anybody to be scared of a word like I had been those long 5 years when I was apparently suffering from the lamest white people problems in the world. 

I mean, it is not CPR. (Which I doubt neither of us know either.)

Curation is basically a sorting and collecting process that most museums do while preparing exhibits. It is in fact an academic field one can study. There is a more technical side to it, and a more cultural/social dimension - the technical part involving handling and archiving of things, and the sociocultural part being the story you tell with the pieces you pick, and the social commentary you make about that particular theme through these artifacts. While curating, there is always a rule, principle or philosophy for picking an item and not the other, and what is left out is almost as telling about the collection as what is selected to be included. That’s why I think most people prefer the term “curation” instead of “addition” - and why we don’t call hoarding "hoarding" rather than a "curatorial practice". (Though I would love to hear somebody in Hoarders come up and argue that they are not hoarding, but curating on a very inclusive basis - and basically flip the bird to the show-runners. That would be pretty fantastic.)

What curation is in fashion is almost the same thing. From a technical standpoint, it really is the same - collecting and presenting clothing and accessories within a defined principle, theme, etc. But curation has additional purposes and meanings in fashion in that it has also become a marketing practice. Since the market is so saturated with options, brands, and products across multiple price points, designers and companies need to communicate and appeal to consumers in a new, more exciting way which will differentiate them from the competition. This is where "curation" ties into "lifestyle merchandising" - namely, providing customers a conscious selection that is made to represent a specific lifestyle that the customers would want to identify themselves with. This is what “lifestyle brands” that many fashion companies from Ralph Lauren to Urban Outfitters try to do - offering their customers not only products, but the experience of a specific kind of lifestyle, and a curated collection of items that will get you closer to living it.

And this works. Most fast fashion retailers like Zara step away from identifying themselves as a certain "personality" - so that they can quickly change what they are, and can become something else that is on trend. But creating a brand experience through curation also works too - it makes shopping an activity that not only excites but also inspires and motivates the customer. It also allows customers to identify with your brand rather than others. This is also why many retailers from Target to Saks have adopted "lifestyle merchandising" recently - providing people not only “things”, but a collection of products within a specific philosophy and way of living that people can take home - and even better, take home as sets. Given there are a gazillion brands and stores doing it, hanging items of clothing on racks is no longer enough. You have to provide the customer a story, a way of putting things together, and a personally meaningful experience while they shop. 

Or as I heard they say in the street, you gotta represent. (I have no first person experience in that. I don’t really know anybody with any sort of street cred.) 

The "Cabinet of Curiosities" from The Met's Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery View of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, 2011 

The "Cabinet of Curiosities" from The Met's Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit

Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery View of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, 2011 

This is similar to what curators of fashion do. They don’t only collect fashion artifacts, but they collect those that create a narrative, a story as a collection. They create relationships between objects, and they create stories from them. In that way they also put clothing in context - and make a social and cultural commentary on fashion. This is why it is no surprise the Met’s Costume Institute head curator (and the man behind the most successful fashion exhibits to date such as Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, China: Through the Looking Glass, and Manus x Machina) Andrew Bolton is an anthropologist, or that many people call him and his predecessor Harold Koda as “cultural mediators” - so much so that Bolton states his approach to curating is asking “what the larger story is”, and that New York Times has called him the “Storyteller in Chief” of the Metropolitan Museum. 

Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute  Photo: New York Times, 2015 

Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute 

Photo: New York Times, 2015 

"Romantic Gothic" from Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Photo:  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery View of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, 2011 

"Romantic Gothic" from Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

Photo:  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery View of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, 2011 

Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery View of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, 2011 

Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery View of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, 2011 

Obviously, the success of exhibits such as Alexander McQueen and China: Through the Looking Glass has a lot to do with the explosion of “curation” in fashion, and the overall proliferation of fashion exhibits. There is in fact “Fashion Curation” MA programs like that of London College of Fashion, as well as fashion curation courses across different schools. It is not unbelievable that good fashion exhibits make money, but it is undeniably one of the foremost reasons why fashion curation is becoming more popular as well. It doesn’t only allow putting fashion in a context, within a story, and let people experience its magic, but it also makes money, period. Exhibits need to make money to keep the practice alive and future exhibits possible - something that Bolton and other curators are also aware of in addition to the artistic and scholarly principles they operate within while creating exhibitions. (This New Yorker piece is a great one on how curators, and Bolton specifically, works within the art-profit push and pull in fashion curation.)  

But what I think is really significant in the popularity of curation is that it shows two great changes in fashion consumption and today’s retail. From the retail perspective, it is getting harder and harder to entice customers within a very competitive market. There is so much abundance of product within the middle market - and most of the product looking alike rather than being so innovative that consumers accept to pay full price for it. What makes matters even tougher for retailers is that as a response to falling sales, they have been operating on a markdown basis - selling most product through markdowns (and further markdowns) rather than being able to move product full-price. To put it harshly, ain’t nobody wants to pay full price for apparel anymore. 

Despite not being more economically powerful, consumers are powerful than ever with regards to information as well - who sells what for what price, whether a product is any good, or whether it is possible to find alternatives cheaper elsewhere is easy enough information to find on a smartphone. Retailers in response try to differentiate themselves through creating an experience, and “curating” lifestyle options for their customers. In a sense, curation is hoped to be the antidote to consumer ambivalence. And from the point of the consumer, it is undeniably a better experience to be inspired by, to follow a story of, and to be able to try first hand, say, Linda Fargo’s style even if you can’t afford to take it home. Similarly, a lot more people can afford to “experience” Alexander McQueen’s wizardry through fashion curation - see those amazing garments not only in real life but up close, see them within the artistic context they were dreamed in, and make a memory for themselves of the time you were so amazed/inspired/jolted by incredible works of fashion.

Such an experience, I would in fact say, might be so powerful that you might decide to change careers and apply to Parsons while being on your way to becoming a Political Science professor.  

But what do I know.

To be perfectly honest, however, despite loving the popularity of fashion curation, and the exhibits that create and feed into it, I also find it annoying that everything can be called “curated” in order to sell it. It is pretty obvious that there is a "curation fatigue" - and it just cheapens the word and the practice. Look, some things are just “collections”, okay? Some things are just “sets”. Some things are just a set of products that have similar purposes or similar aesthetic without having a narrative, a story or offering a meaningful experience to its consumers. Not everything is a “curation”, and not everybody who creates a collection is a “curator”.

And that’s okay.

(I saved the BEST for the last. Here is a video of the McQueen exhibit from The Met, and a TED talk by Andrew Bolton. Please try not to lose your mind the second time watching the McQueen video like I did.)

(Title Photo: Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery View of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, 2011)

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