Show on Chinese fashion is unexpected hit

A visitor photographs a Dior dress (above) by John Galliano at the China: Through The Looking Glass?exhibit, and a dress by Chinese designer Guo Pei on display.
A visitor photographs a Dior dress (above) by John Galliano at the China: Through The Looking Glass?exhibit, and a dress by Chinese designer Guo Pei on display.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
A visitor photographs a Dior dress by John Galliano at the China: Through The Looking Glass?exhibit, and a dress by Chinese designer Guo Pei (above) on display.
A visitor photographs a Dior dress by John Galliano at the China: Through The Looking Glass?exhibit, and a dress by Chinese designer Guo Pei (above) on display.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

China: Through The Looking Glass has become the most-visited Costume Institute show in the museum's history

NEW YORK • The talk of Wall Street over the last week may have been Shanghai's plunging stock market, but many blocks farther uptown, a different set of numbers related to China was making news. As it entered its final week, the Metro- politan Museum of Art's spring Costume Institute show, China: Through The Looking Glass, was attaining blockbuster status.

As of Friday morning, 735,000 people had attended the show. It closes on Sept 7. That has made it the most-visited Costume Institute show in the museum's history, displacing Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which pulled in 661,509 attendees, as well as elevating it to No. 7 - and climbing - on the museum's top-10 most popular list.

Mr Andrew Bolton, curator at the Costume Institute and the man behind the show, said there have been more positive responses left in the visitor's comment box than ever before. By any objective measure, this will be the most successful fashion show the Met has ever had. The question is: Why?

"Honestly, it totally surprised me," Mr Bolton said. "I was prepared for it to be polarising. We were predicting around 500,000 visitors. "

"No one expected it would surpass McQueen," said Mr Maxwell K. Hearn, the Douglas Dillon chairman of the department of Asian art, and Mr Bolton's collaborator on the exhibition.

I didn't expect it, either. Not because I didn't like the show but because it does not have the single iconic hook that can transform a purportedly high culture meditation into an extended pop culture moment.

After all, it is not, as Mr Bolton said, immediately obvious from the name what the show is about. Answer: the way a received fantasy version of China engages the imaginations of Western designers.

And the subject itself was ripe for criticism from those who thought the approach played to a now-discredited stereotype of the East.

There was not the sort of human gossip element that helped drive interest in the McQueen show, held a year after the designer's suicide and days after Kate Middleton married Prince William in a dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.

There was, to be fair, lots of striking use of mixed media, which made it seem very contemporary as well as historic. And it included film - Wong Kar Wai, who directed In The Mood For Love (2000), was the exhibit's art director, and clips from movies such as The Last Emperor (1987) and The World Of Suzie Wong (1960) abound - always a popular medium.

When I first saw the show in May, I was struck by the facile nature of the fashion when juxtaposed against the antiquities. No matter the clothes' beauty - I remember the runway impact of Tom Ford's pagoda collection for Yves Saint Laurent - they pale when compared with the source of the inspiration, in part because the latter has a creative integrity the former only borrows. Often too literally.

It is a good thing for the Asian art, because it makes you look twice at what otherwise may have been background pottery, for example, but not necessarily the clothes. It is no accident my favourite room is the "small Buddha room", which features an enormous gold dress by Guo Pei, a Chinese designer who made Rihanna's yellow egg-yolk cape for the opening gala, surrounded by multiple earthen Buddhas. The connection being one of silhouette and shade as opposed to anything overt.

This probably has more to do with my own discomfort with what the exhibit revealed about the superficiality of the fashion imagination rather than the exhibition itself; as art critic Holland Cotter wrote in his review, "the difference between the two disciplines is, too often, made glaring". It turns out reviews have nothing on word of mouth as an audience-driver.

And the word "China" was magical. Mr Hearn said: "Chinese visitors often want to see how China is presented in Western museums."

Forty per cent of the show's visitors have been international, and since June, 14 per cent of total international visitors have been Chinese, the Met's largest single group of overseas visitors.

China was also, until recently, one of the most lucrative markets for Western fashion designers.

Indeed, when the cynic in me first heard the exhibition's title, I wondered if it was a calculated move to capture some of that gold dust. Mr Bolton claimed "we never think about the numbers", although he did say: "I want to do exhibits that are relevant and resonate in contemporary culture."

In any case, the museum quickly learnt that its original expectations were going to be surpassed and in late June, decided to extend the show another three weeks. It was only the second time a Costume Institute show had been extended. (McQueen set that precedent.)

Mr Bolton would like to do a conversation between Edith Wharton and Henry James inspired by two portraits in the American galleries that would combine an examination of the American menswear tradition with furniture and sound. He would like to work with the Egyptian galleries.

The museum's biggest show, after all, was 1979's Treasures Of Tutankhamun, which attracted more than 1 million people. You do the maths.NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline 'Show on Chinese fashion is unexpected hit'. Print Edition | Subscribe