Why would a fashion curator move from Paris, the de facto center of the fashion universe, to not-on-the-high-fashion-map Denver? A job offer she can’t refuse, of course. One year ago, Florence Müller arrived in the Mile High City to become the Denver Art Museum‘s Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art, Curator of Fashion and help the organization expand its very small costume collection. Her first exhibition, Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s–90s, opens September 11. We spoke to Müller about the unique showcase and her transition stateside.

5280: Fashion exhibitions have become very popular. Why is it important to see fashion in a museum setting?

Florence Müller: In France, I was a curator [Editor’s Note: She eventually became the director] of one of the first fashion museums (Union Française des Arts du Costume in the Musée des Arts de la Mode in the Louvre) in the ’80s and ’90s. At that time, it was a difficult [position] because nobody understood that it was a subject to be seen in a museum. My feeling is that this reaction is because fashion is often seen as a very feminine activity—as something light and superficial—which is totally wrong. If you look at the history of humanity, [fashion] is one of the first forms of art. It was one of the first forms of language; one of the first ways you could write your story was by weaving a textile. It speaks so much about us without saying anything. The other thing is that fashion more than other forms of art—furniture, objects, paintings, architecture, everything that builds our environment—reveals a lot about society at a specific moment, how people are living and how they behave.

Why did you pick Japanese designers for your first DAM exhibit?

Formally, the department is about textiles, and the idea is that I add fashion to a textile department. The costume collection is very small, and I have to build it. It’s a great challenge to build a collection based on the grand couturiers of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century, as it can be hard to find good pieces for a reasonable price. My feeling was that the decades of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s are still accessible; you find great things in auctions or private collections and the prices aren’t too expensive. Plus, these decades were a very creative moment in fashion. The Japanese designers achieved something really great. With 30 years of distance, perhaps now we can say it was one of the first phenomenons in the last three decades to have a strong impact on the fashion world. I thought it was the moment to do something.

Yohji Yamamoto surrounded by his models backstage at his spring 1986 fashion show. © Jean-Luce Huré

Are any of the pieces in the exhibit from private collections?

Yes, I have 17 private loans, including one from a client here in Denver. When you reach out to the ladies who were the customers of the brands at that time, you discover very interesting personalities. I have an online interview project connected with the exhibition that’s meant to enrich the experience by telling the stories of these ladies.

Maison Martin Margiela cotton canvas with metal hook and polyester crêpe jacket and skirt, spring–summer 1998 collection. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum: Neusteter Textile Collection

Many casual shoppers are probably not familiar with Japanese designers. Can you explain the differences between Western and Eastern design?

For many people who are not in the fashion world, the exhibition will still look very avant-garde. In fact, it explains what we have now on the runways. By that, I mean, a certain approach of what is a garment in terms of structure, fabric, how you play with the body—there are lots of things that were not possible without the Japanese designers. The last section of the exhibition will show designers—Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, and John Galliano—who were young in the ’90s and were inspired by the Japanese School (as we say in France).

Comme des Garçons stretch gingham jacket and skirt with padding from the “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” spring 1997 collection. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum: Neusteter Textile Collection

I imagine people look at a collection like Comme des Garçons spring 1997 (pictured, above) and wonder: “How can anyone actually wear these clothes?”

What I like about Japanese designers is that they can be very experimental and very commercial [at the same time]. This is an aspect that many people don’t mention because they think the pieces are just artsy. Rei Kawakubo (the designer for Comme des Garçons) has a great sense of what can be commercial or not. When she started in the fashion business in Tokyo, she herself was selling the collection. She didn’t want anyone else to do it because she wanted to learn and see the reaction of the buyers. She’s not at all an artist lost in the clouds; she’s really very conscious of the reality of her clothes and if they are wearable or not.

What do you want people to take away from this exhibit?

The message is that when you look at something very avant-garde, very creative—and I say this for fashion, for art, for everything—when you look at something that is new, the first reaction is “Oh, it’s ugly.” We are afraid of what is new because new is unknown. But this thing that looks totally crazy, stupid, nonsensical can become the next trend and the next normal. For example, let’s take the idea of unfinished stitching. The Japanese were the first to show this in a haute couture environment and everyone was laughing. How can you sell these clothes for an enormous amount of money when they are not finished? Now, this idea is everywhere these days. The message is don’t laugh at things that are crazy looking because it can be the statement of tomorrow. I think the Japanese were the first to launch this idea that you can be far away and still have something new to say. Many countries have followed this example. It has given the idea to others that they can participate in this beautiful world of fashion, and they can have pride in their own designers.

Issey Miyake Japanese ikat-printed cotton jacket with transformable bustle and asymmetric skirt, autumn/winter 1986 collection. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum: Neusteter Textile Collection

I have to ask: What made you want to leave Paris and come to Denver?

The idea of having new challenges, having something that has to be built—I like that. And I wanted to have a new life, to really experience something totally different. I had a great experience during the Yves Saint Laurent show here in Denver. I don’t want to say this just to be polite, but I had done so many shows around the world, in many countries, and I have seen many museums; the YSL exhibition was the first [one that I thought] was totally marvelous from the beginning to the end. Everything was easy, everyone was so nice, everybody was so welcoming. I love the atmosphere and the spirit here.

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