On a Pedestal: Fashion in Public

Like so many of his peers, Tommy Hilfiger looks to the visual arts when seeking inspiration for his clothing collections, saying in a recent interview, “For me, fashion and art go hand in hand.” But recently, the designer was tasked with looking at art from the other side. Hilfiger and 29 other designers—including Kenneth Cole, Donna Karan, Betsey Johnson, Isaac Mizrahi and Michael Kors—have each created an “outfit” for an iconic Ralph Pucci mannequin, as part of “Sidewalk Catwalk,” a public art exhibition presented by New York City’s Fashion Center.

As generic as mannequins are supposed to be, Pucci’s versions will be instantly recognizable for their sleek style and streamlined figures, positioned as if strutting down a catwalk. They will be scattered throughout the Fashion District’s public plazas from 35th Street and Broadway to 42nd Street and Broadway, beginning June 24. Because the mannequins will spend months outdoors, the designers had to clothe the them in garments that could stand up to the elements all summer long. “We have had to keep re-emphasizing that these are going to be outside,” says Jerry Scupp, deputy director of the Fashion Center. “We wanted to steer the designers into thinking of them as sculptures.” The results are varied in terms of both concept and execution-a parade of fiberglass fashionistas clad in plastic, metal, rocks, and even plants.

Hilfiger said he experimented with different materials and settled on sheets of torched resin to drape his form in the American flag, a motif already closely associated with his 25-year-old fashion company. “The mannequin symbolizes moving forward into the future,” he says. “I found it an irresistible challenge to merge art, the American flag, and fashion.” Student teams from the Parsons The New School for Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology also created two mannequin ensembles. After the exhibition closes, the artworks will be auctioned to benefit the nonprofit Materials for the Arts.

Scupp says he sees “Sidewalk Catwalk” as an experiment with the artfullness of fashion, as well as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the type of public art exhibition (think Antony Gormley’s bronze figures, stand-in for the universal moderl man) ubiquitous across the country. “It’s about the intersection of art and commerce and materials,” he says,  “and we wanted to do it on a human scale.”