The Fashion and Textile Museum has diverged from its usual curatorial style in its current ‘Missoni Art Colour’ exhibition. Unlike the two shows that predate it; ‘Art and Textiles: Marian Clayden’ and ‘Liberty in Fashion’ there is a much stronger focus on art in a traditional sense rather than fashion – notably in 20th century European contemporary art and its undeniable influence on Ottavio and Rosita Missoni. Upon entering the exhibition, you are greeted by a corridor of modernist masterpieces including works by Sonia Delaunay, Gino Severni, Lucio Fontana and Enrico Pampolini amongst others which highlights the impact the colours, shapes and ideas futurist and cubist artists had on the Italian designers. Once you pass through this corridor, the next gallery houses over 40 mannequins, set across seven stepped levels, each dressed in a distinctive Missoni knitted yarn design (dating from 1997 – present day). This astounding display is backed by a simple translucent curtain with spotlights dimming or changing colour every few minutes, which in turn switches your focus to different garments within the display. If this wasn’t enough, this gallery displays previously unseen textile studies, paintings and monumental patchworks of knitted fabrics by Ottavio Missoni which illustrate formative works of their signature graphic style. A staircase behind this presentation leads you to the first floor gallery which contains a collection of sculptures, early digital works and other constructivist art. Each piece explores notions around art and its purpose, form and function, as well as culture and technology in the same way Missoni design did – I particularly appreciated Getulio Alviani’s 1960’s two dimension geometric work created from sixteen squares of aluminium each with a different satin finish positioned side by side, and several of the plastic Bauhaus-esque sculptures. Few exhibitions are quite so true to their title, but this one is literally brimming with Missoni, art and colour!
Vibrant colours (purples, oranges, pinks and blues), luxuriant materials (velvet, silk, felted wool and brushed cotton) and unusual techniques (ombre dying, shibori, toaster printing, passementerie and ikat) combine for an effective retrospective on British designer Marian Clayden. Using a combination of large-scale silk prints and finished garments hung on dummies, the Fashion and Textile Museum takes visitors on a chronological journey through the often overlooked designers’ career. Clayden studied art at Nottingham School of Art and taught at primary schools as well as exhibiting paintings in Harris Museum throughout the 1950’s before emigrating to Australia in 1962 where she began exploring dying techniques, despite only taking one short course in dying at college. The exhibition opens with impressive 1969 garments commissioned for the musical Hair (and produced in the kitchen!), following Clayden’s move to California and subsequent introduction to set and costume designer Nancy Potts. Things moved quickly and throughout the 1970’s Clayden participated in nine group exhibitions across America, Canada, Japan, Poland and back home in the UK. She also spent a year in Iran during this period, and the exhibition goes on to display ropes, hand dyed cotton and ripped silk influenced by her travels. The following decade saw the launch of Clayden Inc. which expanded to produce four collections each year, and the upstairs galleries showcase new print design techniques utilising clamps and a household sandwich toaster, as well as her constant experimentation with different materials. Throughout the exhibition, the accompanying text is accessible and explains complex techniques in simple terms, paralleling Clayden who despite creating high fashion garments for the likes of Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Sigourney Weaver was keen to share her skills and knowledge with everyone, and even produced educational tools for that purpose. Likewise, the layout and use of clothed dummies gives each piece space and allows visitors to appreciate the materials and techniques being celebrated.
As a huge fan of the Tudor-style Regents Street store, its prints, textiles, clothes and collaborations, it would have been difficult for me not to enjoy an exhibition celebrating 140 years of Liberty! Opening with an orientation room presenting a timeline from 1875 when Arthur Lasenby Liberty founded his Oriental Bazar selling imported goods through to the present day, the exhibition immediately puts in context what you are about to see. Beginning with this relationship with the East; ten mannequins dressed in opulent kimonos created from silk, velvet and crepe de chine are set against a backdrop of Jaipur wallpaper by Zoffany. This smoothly rolls into the next gallery focussing on the ‘Arts and Crafts’ and ‘Aesthetic’ movements at the turn of the century which acted against the structured corsets and upholstery of late 1800’s women’s clothing and celebrated a more natural shape and handcrafted embroidery. From the close of the First World War onwards the delicate prints, small-scale densely patterned textiles, and peacock feather decorations that are now ubiquitous with Liberty began to emerge into the mainstream, and by the 1950’s the brand realised they had their own original William Poole archive of ‘Art Nouveau’ designs to draw from. These were revitalised in vivid pinks, blues, purples and greens in the ‘Lotus Collection’, popular across London, Paris, Rome and New York. Similarly the 1960’s saw influential designers and boutique owners such as Mary Quant using Liberty prints in trend setting collections – a theme which has continued into the present day in collaborations with Vivienne Westwood, Kenzo, Barbour and Nike to name a few. Complete garments, lengths of various prints, original packaging and boxes, working sketches and even a gallery devoted their children’s clothing and smocks make this a comprehensive and enjoyable experience – and an avid reminder of how Liberty’s “unique blend of tradition and innovation” continues to be so popular today.