Dismantling Reigning Men took a full week of sweat, noise and dust. But from it the MAAS team has crafted a cocoon of serenity designed to celebrate the creativity and subtle complexity of Akira Isogawa, in a new exhibition which opened on 15 December 2018.
We started talking with Akira in late 2016 about the possibility of an exhibition to mark the 25th anniversary of his fashion label. With his nod, we got to work in 2017. The first step took about eight months as we worked with Akira to hone the themes and choose the garments and related objects to be featured in the exhibition.
We looked through Akira’s seasonal look books with their more than 1,000 images, which former assistant curator Melanie Pitkin scanned and storyboarded. Out of this emerged a road map of sorts, a set of ideas and categories which, over the next 12 months, evolved into the four predominant themes of the exhibition: Journey, Craftsmanship, Kimono and Collaboration.
The next step was to dive into Akira’s archive of around 3,000 garments and over 300 examples of design development from which we shortlisted around 800 individual items. Over several months we pulled these artfully-crafted clothes out of dry-cleaning bags to photograph and add to the growing number of themed storyboards.
We have recently been back to the studio to select a further 300 items that Akira has pledged to donate in future. These works complement the 25 works by Akira Isogawa previously acquired by the Museum from the early years of his career, including the infamous ‘Dress that saved Sydney’ and two dresses (here and here) donated by the four-times Oscar-awarded film, stage and interior designer Catherine Martin.
Back at the curatorial desk, newly-arrived assistant curator Kristina Stankovski and I penned labels and interpretative panels (edited by Cristina Briones) to accompany each of the objects on display and explain the themes and sub-themes. Many of the words in the exhibition are Akira’s own, talking about his life, his motivations and the serenely beautiful clothes that he designs.
Another important aspect of exhibition design is choosing the right dress forms and supports on which to display our garments. Textile conservator Suzanne Chee was crucial to this set of decisions as she dressed each of the garments. Suzanne also created wonderfully sinuous forms out of synthetic felt for mounting the silk chiffon costumes worn by members of the Sydney Dance Company in Graeme Murphy’s Grand (2005).
Meanwhile, over the past few months, the MAAS workshop team led by Penny Angrick, built structures to ‘frame’ the displays. Our registrars, Sarah Pointon and Sarah Heenan, along with Kristina, have been documenting each piece on the museum’s database in readiness for the exhibition while arranging for loans to be shipped in from Melbourne, Canberra and Glen Innes.
With the garment selection completed, in early 2018, Kristina and I began working closely with MAAS exhibition designer Jemima Woo and graphic designer Maria Mosquera to envision the design and layout of the exhibition.
Based on the proportions of the tatami, the standard mat flooring unit of traditional Japanese homes, Jemima designed a series of floating plinths above which the garments are suspended. Maria created text panels inspired by hanging scrolls. Their work evolved into a graceful environment that invites you to reflect on Akira’s reverence and love for his own heritage while alluding to his studio’s semi-industrial-meets-craftsman ambience.
So much more goes into the making of an exhibition like this than meets the eye. More than 40 people across 15 teams contributed, including teams from project management, photography, workshop, multimedia, marketing, communications, development and events.
Distilling 25 years of creative output by one of our country’s most loved designers into a 700 m2 space is a bit of a challenge. To truly honour his work, we also had to ensure we balanced Akira’s passion for craftsmanship and traditional Japanese aesthetics, with what is ultimately and uniquely his ode to the Australian lifestyle.
So, after you’ve visited the exhibition or read the accompanying book, drop us a comment on this blog and let us know if we succeeded in achieving that balance.
Written by Roger Leong, Senior Curator, December 2018