"It started with a cold call from someone representing a collector," said Sharon Takeda, senior curator and head of LACMA's Costumes and Textiles department. "Would we be interested in a 20th century couture collection? It was all very anonymous." She and fellow curator Kaye Spilker were recalling the long and involved process of acquiring their latest find, a group of 158 examples of couture designs dating from 1880 to 2008. Nearly fifty important fashion designers are represented, including Coco Chanel, Madame Grès, Madeline Vionnet, Jean Dessès, Jeanne Lanvin, and Alexander McQueen.
The mystery soon began to lift and the two curators discovered that the collector in question was Dominique Sirop, a French haute couturier who in addition to running his own atelier in Paris has also published books on fashion history. "When we learned that the pieces were collected by a haute couture designer we felt that meant the selection would be good. The list of names were a 'who's who' of fashion." said Takeda. When the two curators arrived at Sirop's studio in Paris they were pleasantly surprised. "It was all in a database system with photographs, which isn't always the case with collectors. They (Sirop and his collections manager) had done quite a lot by the time we got there."
The curators were also mostly pleased with the condition of the pieces, which took nearly four days to examine. "Couture isn't always pristine," said Takeda. "Sometimes things have been altered by different owners. Can this or that be reversible? Is the integrity of the initial design there?" Sirop, who had not dealt like this with a major museum, paid close attention to how the curators worked. "I had to kind of educate him" said Takeda. Spilker added, "the people selling the objects don't always think about the museum's costs. There are also multiple steps (once the powers-that-be at the museum approve the purchase) including cataloging, labeling, tagging, and shipping."
Not only were the curators negotiating with a relatively inexperienced seller, they also had to raise the money to buy the collection. Enter philanthropist Ellen Michelson, a member of the LACMA Costume Council who has helped with the purchase of two previous collections, including the one which contributed to LACMA's major 2010 exhibit, Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915. Michelson began her relationship with the department about six years ago during a tour in France with Takeda. A collector of vintage clothing and children's books, Michelson elicits high praise from the two curators. "She is absolutely the best donor one could hope for because she's so generous, and it's no strings attached," said Spilker. "She respects the professional staff and doesn't try to influence us. She likes our scholarship and the time we take with it."
"I think she enjoys learning from us," said Takeda. "She will come down for the day (Michelson lives in Atherton) to visit. We want her to understand what we do. I recently overheard her telling someone that 'getting involved with LACMA and these collections has changed my life.'"
After nearly two years from that initial phone call, the collection finally arrived at LACMA four months ago. Before being introduced into the museum's storage areas the objects were put through a freezing process that ensured the elimination of any unwanted critters (Takeda's term), which might include moths, silverfish and their eggs. The items have since been cataloged and photographed. Luckily for the department's conservation team, the pieces are considered mostly exhibit ready. "These pieces will form the impetus for a show on twentieth century couture," said Takeda.
As excited as Takeda and Spilker are for the public to see the new collection, that will have to wait. The curators are currently focused on their next exhibit , "Reigning Men: From the Macaroni to the Metrosexual," opening in January 2016. It could be a few years before the couture show opens. As they told me, "stay tuned."
Lower photos: Madame Grès evening gown (1987), middle, and Alexander McQueen evening dress (2007.) Click images to enlarge. Courtesy of LACMA.