Richard Martin has long been associated with the formal presentation of fashion for contemplation. Less recollected, perhaps, as former editor of Arts magazine than as past director of the galleries at the Fashion institute of Technology, his endeavors have always been as firmly situated in an appreciation of cultural nuance as in more overtly esthetic analysis. Hoping to balance as well as to challenge received notions of what distinguishes the vulgar from the vaunted, Martin has assumed the mantle of the legendary Diana Vreeland in curating the Costume institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were given the occasion to spend the afternoon with him during the run of "Haute Couture," the Costume institute's winter show (the opening of which is traditionally a significant event of the social season in Manhattan).
Meeting with him in the trustee's dining room at the Met, I was accompanied by Judy Linn, a conversationalist (and photographer) of rare observational gifts. As sheets of rain cascaded between us and the fog-bound park, our discussion careened from failing face-flat in hobble-skirts to Gianni Versace's intellectual aspirations; we ranged from Barbie to Balenciaga before our host bore us into the bowels of the museum to be entranced by 350 years of closet space.
DARRYL TURNER: How did fashion come to be your primary focus? RICHARD MARTIN: I lost my way, ended up losing art and gaining fashion; it was a seamless thing for me. But I don't consider myself outside of art. I've probably never made a sufficient distinction between the two. DT: Was there some point where you said: I'm equally interested in what Gaultier and Ashley Bickerton did last season? RM: I'm interested in those things that surpass the white cube, that have some impact outside the enclave of art and its conventional reception. So, not to put down Bickerton, but I'm probably much more fascinated by Gaultier, because I'm interested in the fact that kids in clubs are taking him up, that people are actually buying his stuff. I think the evolution of Gaultier's work is incredible. He'll move from a collection that's faux Hasidic to another that's about tattooing and scarification, to another about the exaggeration of gender. An artist who does a show once every other year evolves, but the fashion world goes through ineluctable change every six months. JUDY LINN: What strikes me about fashion is its adequacy to the moment - you can't do something that will continue to look terrific 20 years later. RM: I agree. I think artists desire museum walls - the sense that one day you may share the same wall with Cezanne. Karl Lagerfeld has always said he doesn't really approve of museums for fashion - because he believes fashion is entirely derived from, and contributes to, the immediate time of its presentation. He's really driven by the sense of the moment.
But to get back to your question, when people have asked me the "why fashion?" question, the answer I give is: I'm interested in art and issues of body and gender - so what more appropriate form could there be? DT: I once asked a woman high up within Rei Kawakubo's organization how she started working for Rei. She said: I was interested in researching major contemporary female Japanese artists - that's why I went to Japan. I said: And there were none, right? She said: Rei Kawakubo, that's who there was. RM: I was struck when I saw "Scream Against the Sky" - the exhibition on Japanese art since 1945 - that the curators decided not to include fashion. It would have been so easy to interpolate both Miyake and Kawakubo into that show, since they address the same issues as other Japanese postwar artists - particularly those associated with any kind of vanguard. DT: Within the commercial fashion community, she's not really dealt with either. Most of her business has nothing to do with either Europe or America, although she outsells Miyake or Yohji Yamamoto two to one. I used to work for Women's Wear Daily, and [editorial director] John Fairchild wouldn't cover her collections. …