Commemorating its 70 year anniversary, Dior is holding its first ever retrospective exhibition, From Paris to the World, at the Denver Museum of Art (DAM) this November. The luxury brand is well known for its fashion exhibitions — last year alone it held them in France, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. By all accounts, Dior is still having a moment. In addition to the Denver show, it will also be the subject of a blockbuster at the V&A museum, which recently released tickets to Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams (based on the 2017 exhibition in Paris,) set to open next year. With every visitor a potential customer, are exhibitions doing enough to convert them?
Florence Müller, curator of the DAM show, is adamant that these exhibitions are purely cultural, existing without the need for the hard sell of the retail world. “Actually there’s no Dior boutique in Denver...Even in our department stores, you can’t find any RTW from them — not even bags — just make-up I think,” she says emphatically from her office at the museum. “Denver is a good example of the fact that there is no direct connection between the store and the exhibition. Instead, it [fashion in the museum] is seen as a major cultural subject — despite the fact there is nothing to sell in the town.”
Andrew Busby, retail analyst and founder and chief executive of Retail Reflections has a more different reading of the situation.“The boundaries of what we consider to be 'retail' are blurring at a rapid rate,” he explains. “Consumer demand and expectation is increasing exponentially; these days we expect to be given a very good reason for engaging with a brand. And especially in the case of luxury brands, that expectation is even higher.” Busby continues: “An exhibition, such as the Dior one opening at the V&A, is the chance for people to engage with the history of a brand like never before. It brings authenticity and encourages people to want to be a part of the brand.”
“Consumer demand and expectation is increasing exponentially; these days we expect to be given a very good reason for engaging with a brand.”
Many insiders might view this location as an unusual choice for a flagship event, given there is no Dior outpost in Denver, but Müller wants to craft a show that appeals solely to the American visitors: “Many American visitors will have seen the Paris show, or at least know the pieces,” she admits and has thus curated a show for Denver that will highlight how the large role played by the Americas in establishing Christian Dior as the first global haute couture fashion house. To this point she has selected dresses and archival materials featuring prominent American clients. From Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe to newer stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Zöe Kravitz, the show will mark this special rapport. Archival materials from Dior boutiques in Venezuela and Mexico will also be on view, including a dress for the famous Mexican actor María Félix.
“Fashion is happening all around the world and breaking out of the fashion capitals,” Müller adds. Fashion is indeed expanding beyond the regular hotspots and extending its reach, yet the essence of an exhibition is narrative. As retail spaces are becoming more sophisticated at displaying clothing, visual presentation and creating atmosphere, museums are increasingly under pressure to replicate these experiences. The person responsible for translating the Dior world at DAM is Shohei Shigematsu, principal architect of OMA New York. “It’s about story — if you have nothing to tell it gets very boring but if you attract from the beauty and the set design you can then capture an audience with the story,” Müller explains. “From the phenomenon of these 90s ‘temples of fashion’ to now… You don’t want to be seen to be a space which is dusty, but when you deal with history it’s always a trap.”
“Fashion has to be sold in boutiques to exist, but when you have the chance to have an exhibition, there is an opportunity for the visitor (who might one day be a client) to discover it’s not just a brand, it’s a history with real people who devoted their life to a house.” Busby, on the other hand, has a more rigid view, citing these activities as vital commercial vehicles. “...The 'selling' is very subtle but nevertheless, selling is what it is, by education and portraying the brand in a different manner.” His reasoning is very simple: “Bringing the product to life in more innovative and imaginative ways is vital to attract and retain customers.”