It was only a matter of time The Whitney Museum of American Art would stage a fashion exhibition. In Eckhaus Latta: Possessed, a free exhibition which runs from August 3 to October 8, the institution taps the design duo Zoe Latta and Mike Eckhaus to bring their art-inspired take on fashion to the museum’s first fashion exhibition since 1997.
It’s clear in this show that The Whitney’s definition of a fashion exhibition veers sharply from anything the public is used to seeing. Instead of a static show with clothes on mannequins placed within a dizzying set, the curators gave a pair of zeitgeisty designers a platform to share their more considered point of view on what the fashion industry means.
“What compels us and why Mike and Zoe make sense within the context of the emerging artist program is that the way they are operating within fashion really has a kinship to the relationship visual artist have with their work,” says Christopher Y. Yew. Yew is the Nancy and Fred Poses Associate Curator at The Whitney and collaborated with Lauri London Freedman, Head of Product Development, to bring the exhibition to life. “The design of their work, the means of distribution, advertising and marketing, the way it all ties together in a visual sense, not every designer thinks that way. That’s why it feels so interesting in the context of contemporary art.”
The result is a visual commentary on fashion from the designer’s perspectives which pulls back the curtain on what they believe to be pillars of the industry: desire, purchase, and voyeurism. The show leaves the viewer to decide what the exhibition and its message is about. Is it retail? Is it art? Is it performance? Is it fashion?
“We’ve always been interested in grey zones that exist between art and fashion and for this show, we were interested in the different sensorial experiences that people have with fashion. We also explored how the fashion industry works in a sort of overt manner and also in an oblique sense,” says Latta in an interview.
The overt messaging seems clear: fashion is a business that will seduce you into buying products and observe your every move while you spend your money. But some of the more oblique questions are about desire and what triggers desire. Like, what does one pull or what is one drawn to in response to a created desire? And in the end, there is the invisible eye that watches over all.
A show in three parts, or zones as the designers call them, the first zone is a gallery-type space that is rawer-than-raw with blown-up fashion advertising lit by bright lightboxes hanging off a skeleton of metal wall frames. The second zone is a fully-functioning retail environment containing merchandise from 12 contributing artists as well as the designers’ own collection. The third zone is the surveillance area comprised of CCTV viewing monitors.
“The first zone is around the advertisement of fashion and the advertorial language of fashion. It’s about the idea that imagery the fashion industry gives is trying to have you buy something, or want something,” says Latta. “The store is the second zone and what we think is the most textured zone. And the third is the surveillance area, created to illuminate and shine a light on the practice of being observed as a consumer. We have a series of live feeds, fabricated feeds, as well as CCTV from the stores we sell our clothes in. We are so sensitive to surveillance and data collection.”
Artistic concepts, as opposed to hard and fast fashion ideas, are in the duo’s DNA. They have art school pedigrees and met while at the Rhode Island School Of Design where Eckhaus was studying sculpting and Latta, textile design. Their interest in fashion drew them to each other and both moved to New York upon graduation and landed jobs in fashion. In 2011, they entered a design in a fashion competition in France on a whim which led to the creation of more designs and, ultimately, their first collection. From the onset, they eschewed the traditional runway show model for promoting a collection and instead opted for an artistic approach by showing their work in a gallery on the Bowery.
Since then, they have become known for this art-meets-fashion-meets-visual-experience that defines much of who they are as designers. They are thoughtful, considered and considerate, constantly aiming for elevated ideas in their work.
While the experience for young designers to curate an exhibition for an institution like The Whitney is extraordinary, this show is an unprecedented event for the museum as well. “It’s the first collaborative exhibition between the curatorial department and the retail department,” says Yew. “We were interested in tapping into the idea of retail. It’s never been done.”
It’s this concept of retail, though, that may come across as gimmicky to some as the store within the exhibition is fully-functional. There are salespeople, a dressing room and visitors are free to try everything on with the option to make a purchase. Products range from around the $50 mark to well into the thousands, inviting the idea the retail aspect of the show is a ploy for commerce. The opposing idea is, of course, that visitors are being drawn into the exact cycle the designers are trying to communicate through the show–one of desire, the creation of that desire and the impulse to act on the desire.
“Fashion exhibitions usually lack interactivity. You can see the clothes but you never feel the fabric or the material, or the structure of the garment,” says Freedman. “But this is fully interactive and it allows people to really engage on the interactivity. When people come I hope that people are willing to try to on the clothes and feel how it fits on one’s body and that, in our minds, is the purpose of the show, not to buy something.”
It all feels a bit like a grey area, although, isn’t that the point? The obliqueness and obtuseness of the fashion industry? Eckhaus and Latta have only said as much, but then again, they’ve created the sort of show that leaves it completely up to the viewers to decide.