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Ferre’s white shirt exhibition astounds, inspires

Sharlene Celeskey, Contemporary Culture Editor, Puma Press

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A post appeared on my Facebook page announcing the opening of a new high profile fashion exhibition in October at the Phoenix Art Museum. I frequent the museum and am always amazed at how the exhibitions keep escalating in quality. This year they hosted both Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and a large Andy Warhol show. A collection of rare Michelangelo drawings is coming to the museum in January. Although fashion exhibits are among my favorites, I was a bit skeptical about the upcoming show titled, “The White Shirt according to Gianfranco Ferre.” I realized white shirts were a staple of his collections for decades, but can they really carry an entire main exhibit?

Ferre was one of the premier designers in Italian fashion during the last quarter of the 20th century until his death in 2007. His goal was to leave a legacy of his well-constructed designs behind and to start his own archive, which flourishes today. His Fondazione Gianfranco Ferre provided all fashions and drawings for this exhibition. The foundation wanted to bring attention to just how expertly detailed and constructed his white shirts were. As museumgoers viewed this show, they could see how today’s fashion lacks the fine lines, the perfect silhouette and the imagination Ferre possessed. Those that worked with him have attempted to show how the Italian master can still teach and pass on his architecturally based skills.

From failed architect to master fashion designer

After earning his degree in architecture, Ferre soon learned it was not for him. After he failed as an interior designer, he realized his artistic vision was too avant-garde for his chosen field. When he began designing leather accessories like belts and purses, his career quickly took off. He then branched out and started designing collections for women and later for men. As his fashion business grew, Ferre stayed closely involved with all his collections in his fashion house. When he took over as the stylistic director of Christian Dior, he flew back and forth between Paris and Milan each week (1989 to 1996).

Ferre became famous for adapting his architectural approach to his designs, which included impeccable tailoring coupled with complex lines. Since he was a master of basic contrasts, his signature item became the female white shirt usually paired with black pants or skirts.

The Exhibition: white shirts suspended in mid-air

There was a lot of fanfare surrounding this exhibition, since the only U.S. showing is in Phoenix. The museum offered a press breakfast with a preview before the official opening. They held a symposium including a showing and lectures with Ferre’s inner circle and fashion representatives. They then celebrated the collection with free admission and an Italian garden party on November’s First Friday.

I viewed the exhibit at three different events and was amazed how much I could discover in a single white shirt. Each time I walked through the gallery I marveled at a new detail while gaining new insights into Ferre’s remarkable technical and creative skills.

The exhibition is a first class example of a study in elegance. The simple sign outside the show sports a fabulous Ferre fashion drawing of a white shirt printed in black on white with red for contrast. Then I walked through a large, flowing silky white curtain and entered the Steele Gallery. Once inside, I saw 27 white shirts of vastly different designs arranged in five rows and suspended from the high ceiling. White shirt masterpieces were hung in a large austere black room. The shirts were so artistically arranged they created their own symmetrical design. The large empty spaces around each piece allowed me to walk around and view them from all angles.

Bright and perfectly placed lightening illuminated the shirts while playing on light and shadow, which made them look ultra-dramatic. Since the exhibition was already shown in Italy’s Prato Textile Museum and in the Palazzo Reale in Milan, the display design was perfect.

Glass cases placed on two sides of the room contained additional details on each shirt. I viewed Ferre’s highly artistic fashion drawings, his detailed constructional drawings and photos from original fashion magazines.

The stand out shirts

Ferre said, “Fashion for me has two sides: emotion and reason.” This was very evident in his white shirts. I picked up the program that listed each shirt and found it gave general details and explained the creative idea behind each one. Frequently, Ferre had multiple inspirations for a single garment.

The first one I gravitated to was his Calice from Fall and Winter 1982. The shirt, done in a bustier style, was constructed of silk gazar, taffeta and silk satin. Three different materials added contrast and depth to this architecturally styled shirt. Rows of topstitching gave a simple and linear decorative air to the wide waistband.

A simpler but equally elegant designed shirt was Nastro from Spring and Summer 1995 made from silk taffeta. It reminded me of elegant Grecian style gowns found in old Hollywood films. Ferre expertly wrapped a single piece of fabric to create the bustier. Then he added long sleeves and a large pointed collar all of semi-sheer material.

Two other favorites were inspired by the post-French Revolution era of 1795-1799. Napoleon was made of silk chiffon, crinoline nylon and silver lace. The shell was a vintage style, boned bustier accented with beads and silver lace. The long straight sleeves fell off the shoulder while the collar dropped below the bustline. Merveilleuse, a long floor-length shirt with a train, was from the same collection. Made of silk satin and chiffon with silver lace, it had a small closure in front. The shirt was made up of six panels with embroidered decorations and lace. It was airy, feminine and pretty but very daring. Both were from his 2003 Fall and Winter collection

The Orlando shirt was done for the Fall and Winter 2001 Collection and was one of the most elaborately constructed on display. The film the shirt was named after, ”Orlando,” was based on Virginia Wolfe’s book. Ferre took many design elements from the film’s time period, Elizabethan England. The fabric was silk taffeta, cotton tulle, stretch tulle and knit. He used both leather and faux leather as accessories for the dramatic triple puffed sleeves.

I left the exhibit awestruck and stopped to watch a short chronological film with elegant models wearing his fabulous shirts on the runway. As the years sped by, styles changed dramatically, but the white shirt remained a constant.

Lessons from the White Shirt

Did this exhibition succeed in its mission to teach viewers about high Italian fashion?

Fondazione Gianfranco Ferre also lent eight evening dresses to the museum for this exhibition. Many members of the crowd stopped and examined the details of each intricately constructed gown. People paused and walked around the garments several times to fully grasp what they had just viewed.

When I was at the First Friday event, I overheard a young excited fashionista tell her friend how much she loved Ferre’s drawings in the Ellman Fashion Gallery as she hurried over to inspect them. I also listened to other young girls discussing his fashion drawings.

His bright scarlet loosely knit gown from the 2002 and 2003 Fall and Winter collection garnered considerable attention. This sexy garment showed how silk organza was turned into yarn and then knitted into a stunning red carpet gown. Another piece that receive considerable attention was his brilliant brown ball gown from 2001 and 2002 Fall and Winter. Made out of traditional silk taffeta, Ferre had the material cut into strips and sharply folded like an accordion. The narrow ribbon like material was wound around and around the bodice and full bell-shaped skirt. Ferre’s inspiration for this eye-catching piece was the bark of a tree.

A highlight of First Friday was the fashion show by students from the Art Institute. A week prior Ralph Rucci, American fashion designer, who had been influence by Ferre, said at the symposium, “Fashion is so lacking today. It is a banal statement of the press.” At that time, I tended to agree with him. Tonight as I viewed a dozen young designers present their version of the white shirt, I reconsidered. Most designed female shirts but several created highly innovative male versions. These students had closely studied clothing construction and been inspired by Ferre’s designs. Their white shirts ranged from highly complex architectural creations to soft minimalist wearable designs. They demonstrated that Ferre’s fashion and tailoring techniques, close attention to detail and volume, and his passion for fashion was being passed down to a new generation of designers.

The Ferre exhibition runs through March 6, 2016. For more information: http://www.phxart.org/exhibition/ferrewhiteshirt

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Ferre’s white shirt exhibition astounds, inspires