Nestled in amongst the decadent architecture of the 16th arrondissement, with a front row view of the Eiffel Tower, sits the Mona Bismarck American Centre for Art and Culture. A small but stately museum, the Mona Bismarck is dedicated to fostering cultural ties between France and the USA. Recently, the centre put on a glorious exhibition, curated by Vogue’s André Léon Talley and organised with the Savannah College of Art and Design, entitled The Little Black Dress. No prizes for guessing the theme of the show.
I usually write my reviews solo, but this time around, I had somebody to help me. My friend Michael-Birch Pierce, artist and fashion designer extraordinaire, was flown across the pond to prepare the exhibition’s stunning dresses. I therefore pass you over to Michael-Birch for an insider’s view of The Little Black Dress exhibition.
The LBD is one of those classic wardrobe staples. Why do you think the Little Black Dress is so universally appealing?
It’s appealing because black looks good on everyone. It is elegant, classic, versatile, and comfortable. It’s necessary for any wardrobe because the right LBD is appropriate for every occasion. It transitions well from day to night, cocktail to black tie, garden to gala. A lot of dresses are worn once but the perfect LBD is one that a woman comes back to again and again, like an old friend.
The collection spans decades, continents, seasons and styles. How did this gorgeous array of dresses come together?
André Leon Talley is a member of our Board of Trustees at SCAD. He has donated a lot of time, energy, and money to building our fashion programs into the world class departments they are today. When the SCAD Museum of Art opened, the school named a gallery after him and dedicated it to fashion exhibitions. On his first tour of our costume collection, he pulled his favorite looks. What resulted at the end of the day was a rack full of little black dresses. The idea started there and progressed as he reached out to his friends, couture customers, celebrities, collectors, and designers themselves to donate or loan looks to the exhibition. What I love about that is how André has a personal story behind almost every piece in the show.
At lesmuseesdeparis, we love all Paris museums, but especially those dedicated to less traditional expositions (from ceramics to perfume to bones). Tell us a bit about what it’s like to prep and display dresses as art.
Installing this exhibition was a monumental task. We had dozens of mannequins shipped over from Savannah and had to carry them all over the beautiful Mona Bismarck. The dresses were all prepared for install in a dedicated work room where they had to be unpacked from their storage boxes, carefully labeled and hung, and steamed to bring the fabric back to life. Some of the pieces were very old (the Fortuny is from 1907) and had to be handled very delicately. Everyone wore white gloves and I had to ensure that certain ones were never steamed, that loose beads were reattached, that holes in well-loved pieces were mended seamlessly. Some of these gowns are worth over $300k. It’s daunting to handle so much exquisite couture. Then there was the task of helping André tell a story in the galleries. The challenge with costume exhibitions is that the mannequins begin to interact with each other and the dresses all take on their own character. We worked tirelessly to create dialogues between the dresses. For instance, in gallery 3 there is a large black bench the mannequins are all imagined at a night club, sitting along the wall and gossiping. The girl on the far left in the Valentino has been a bit of a bitch and is being shunned by the others. André was very particular in this process and it was exciting to learn from him and get to make my own contributions. For instance, it was my idea to place the Ralph Rucci gown in front of the large mirror and French windows to create a dramatic moment.
What was your favourite piece in the exhibition and why?
My favorite piece is a Givenchy couture dress and jacket by Ricardo Tisci. As an embellishment artist, I’m naturally drawn to pieces with immense amounts of hand work. I love the way that it is so delicate and so hard at the same time. He contrasted chiffon and crystals with heavy metal spikes and beautiful cut leather. I actually had to take the jacket from that look and attach it to the mannequin’s hand. André wanted it to look like she had removed the jacket at a party and was just holding it next to her. I had to stitch monofilament right through the neck seam to avoid damaging the jacket.
You made your own LBD for the exhibition’s opening night. Where did you get the inspiration for your own personal masterpiece?
I was inspired in part by Marc Jacobs’ Comme des Garçons shirt dress from the exhibition. He wore it to the 2012 Met Gala. It made me want to wear a dress of my own for the opening. The design itself was inspired by some of the incredible embellishment work in the exhibition, Art Deco, and by black and white images of shadows and chain link fences.
Pierce, in own design, with Talley.
The Little Black Dress exhibition is sadly over, but it’s always worth checking out what the Mona Bismarck is showing. You can find out more about Michael-Birch and his work at www.michaelbirchpierce.com.