At the end of the 19th century, writer Émile Zola devoted passages of his essay, “Au Bonheur Des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise),” to the windows of the grand department stores that had recently been born in Paris. “It was like a riot of color, a joy of the street bursting out there, in this wide open shopping corner where everyone could go and feast their eyes,” he wrote of the displays. Since then, window dressing has become an art form, enticing women—and men—into the grand “commercial cathedrals” that today line the polished thoroughfares of New York.
For the month of June, Barneys will devote its windows to the exhibitionof site-specific installations by five artists from differentdisciplines: art design partnership M/M, photographer Juergen Teller,designer-turned-artist Helmut Lang, poet Patrizia Cavalli, and filmmakerAthina Rachel Tsangari. Organized by Dakis Joannou, founder of the DESTE Foundation of Contemporary Art, in collaboration with Barneys Creative Director Dennis Freedman, the destefashioncollection sums up a project started by Joannou in 2007. “Every year, we invited one of the five artists involved in the project to curate five pieces from fashion collections, which were either given to us, or were purchased,” Joannou explained. “Then they interpreted the pieces through some kind of artwork. I waited until we had a critical mass before I found a way of showing the resulting collection.”
Freedman, who has been involved in the project as an advisor since its conception, was the first to suggest the Barneys windows in New York as the first venue to exhibit the works. “None of the artworks come from collections in the store,” Johnson said. “It’s just a way to involve one of the great art collectors in the world, as well as interesting artists, into dialog with Barneys.”
Each of the participating artists were given free range over their choices, choosing items that range from a silk dress from the wardrobe of Louis Bourgeois, to a Azzedine Alaïa belt worn by Michelle Obama, to a golden collar designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton. Across the street from Barneys on Madison Avenue, the window displays look unremarkable. Up close, they reveal some of their charms.
The installation by M&M is the most literal, including drawings of the objects the duo chose—a felt hat from the Marc Jacobs Fall/Winter 2007-2008 collection, a pink nylon dress with a bunny hat by Comme des Garçons, and injected plastic stilettos by Balenciaga, to name three—which hang above a pastel Perspex grid that looks something like a three-dimensional Mondrian painting.
More abstract are the works by Helmut Lang and Juergen Teller. Lang’s installation looks like a still from The Matrix, and consists of five white folding chairs, culled from his last show, in a brutalist concrete box. They stand in attention, as if they are waiting for VIP guests to come back to watch the impromptu fashion show taking place on the street. Missing entirely are the five items Lang chose, which include a black crocodile Birkin bag by Hermes, the aforementioned Louise Bourgeois dress and Michelle Obama belt, and a white plaster cast of the first jacket made by Maison Martin Margiela for the Spring/Summer collection in 1989.
Initially, Teller took photographs of the five items he curated, including a portrait of Dakis’s daughter wearing Helmut Lang; an image of model Daisy Lowe, bare-chested, spread-eagled in the desert, wearing shiny red American Apparel Spandex; and the Texas-born collector Amy Phelan in her home holding a Louis Vuitton handbag designed by Richard Prince. When he found out that he couldn’t use the Lowe image in the window because she was half-naked, he decided that rather than exhibiting the whole collection, he would only display a single photograph of Yves Saint Laurent, who died in the same year—2008—as he curated the exhibition. “He looks traveled and sad and rather confused,” Teller says of the work. “I thought that it would make the most impact on Madison Avenue.”
The photograph, which is 12 feet high, is printed on a poster, and pasted on wooden bolt boards that cover the entire shop window, as if it is under construction. “It’s done in the way you illegally advertise a concert on the street,” said Teller, whose photographs for Céline were posted all around the city earlier this year in a similar manner. “Only it’s legal, because it’s Barneys.”
The poet Patrizia Cavalli, who curated the 2010 collection, chose to write a poem and a story for each item she chose, including a Diane De Clercq jacket and the infamous Lady Gaga Alexander McQueen platform heels. For the Barneys window display, she focused on one piece—a diaphanous seafoam green Viktor & Rolf dress, which hovers over the space like a malevolent, but beautiful, angel. The accompanying poem, “Detachment Dress,” (“Tute-countertutu/Matter-antimatter”) is printed on the back, left wall. In the center of the installation, an Epson printer churns out single words on white copy paper.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the display by the young Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari, which looks like a futuristic beehive made out of sheets of mirrored metal. Upon it is projected a film, “The Capsule,” which Tsangari filmed on the Greek island of Idra. It consists of seven women, dressed in the fashion objects that the artist chose—incredible wearable sculptures by emerging designers that include a white linen dress that lights up like a sea anemone by Ying Gao and a biomorphic black cape by Isabelle Vigier—wandering around the surreal spaces and incredible vistas of the island. “I was thinking about how I could really make my mark for the collection by picking stuff that could suggest a different direction,” Tsangari stated. “Not necessarily haute couture, but also not from the famous fashion houses. Because I come from cinema, I really wanted to make something that had the kind of fun effect people feel when they go to the movies.
Displayed on the beehive, the film almost looks kaleidoscopic. “From each direction, you see two different movies,” Tsangari said. “It’s an illusion machine.”
“The whole thing was conceived as something that in a way merges old fashioned with high tech,” she continued. “The idea of the body as a sculpture. Of clothing that responds to environment or temperature of the body. It’s a complete new way of looking at fashion.”
In Zola’s world, women were “defenseless victims” to the allure of window displays, which were made for the express purpose of enticing them inside the store. At Barneys, the installations have the opposite effect—they encourage people to see the façade as a sort of open museum, a place where fashion, detached from price tags, becomes a form of high art.