Fear and Loathing at the Armani Exhibit



1 e 88th st ny 10128

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

It was bitter cold, about 2 pm on a Wednesday afternoon, and yet people were waiting in a helluva line: it wrapped from the entrance on Fifth Avenue around the corner onto 88th Street like a caterpillar stretching its limbs. The line was full and restless.

Photo by Miles Aldridge, 2000, of woman’s evening gown, fall/winter 1997-98

People bought hotdogs with sauerkraut from the vendor on the corner to help warm them up while they waited. Down the line, sun gleamed off of the aluminum foil of people’s not-so-kosher delicacy. Periodically, people were granted entry inside the building in waves; you just hoped the cutoff wouldn’t be you. The Guggenheim Guards were like human traffic lights, monitoring the flow of traffic on an overcrowded New York City Street, trying to prevent capacity and order from being completely overturn. Once through the front doors, the line turned to mush. The museum lobby thronged with too many people in one place waiting not-so-patiently to see the exhibit of a lifetime: the Giorgio Armani exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, New York City.

As I began the journey up the museum’s spiraling ramps, I noticed that every other woman wore mink, and not just mink coats, but also hats (that looked straight out of Robinson Crusoe, with the animal’s tail wagging down her back), mink scarves and even mittens, and not only her but also her young. Still in Pampers, toddlers who hadn’t even conquered the challenge of walking in a straight line were already clad in the finest hunt of the season, and by the woman’s other side was her twenty-something daughter who, trying to claim stylistic independence from her mother, wore not a full-length mink coat but a mink crop top—and a purse to go. The men wore silk scarves tucked into long trench coats. I noticed more cashmere then I’m worth! A striking blonde wore all-white cashmere, walking elegantly as if royalty, her nose never settling on being level but perched just above everyone else’s while she fanned herself with the Armani program in her left hand–also covered in white cashmere. After reaching only the floor above the ground level, I was already looking as much at the people looking at the exhibit as at the exhibit itself. Looking around me, I wondered whether there were more Armani suits on the mannequins or on the people walking by me. Just the value of people’s clothes walking around the museum would put a mere millionaire to shame.

Classical violins played in the background. An old hunched over woman removed her bifocals to get as close to the dress as possible without actually touching it with the point of her nose, commenting on the “magnificent intricacy of the diagonal hem.” If there had been real people instead of mannequins in the exhibition, I am certain they would have felt smothered by the end of the day (or the beginning of it). People looked at the pieces as if they were looking through microscopes, hoping that if they looked hard enough or close enough, something magical might be revealed. It reminded me of my grandmother when she inspects my every blemish, spinning me around, in fact, like a mannequin.

At the next group of mannequins, a man praised Armani’s use of “delicate angles” and the beautiful ways he used seams to create patterns and repetition that only a “genius” would think to create.

Meanwhile, sequins were constantly admired and talked about, particularly a dress that used translucent sequins with a half of an inch diameter that people thought were particularly “spectacular.” Most of all, women raved about Armani’s triumph of combining outrageously extravagant design with a practical and comfortable fit.

Unlike Armani’s designs worn by models on runways where translucent materials reveal real womanly features, here where transparency hung about the breast no nipples appeared, only the slightest hint of the female body. Two young men passed by a group of not-so-opaque gowns, “Ooh,” one man said to the other, “check out this see-through stuff. I should get Cindee to wear that for me!”

From the peephole on the second floor, you look down on a band of mannequins below. In this room, two groups of mannequins directly face each other like a Sharks vs. Jets scene gone glamorous. The mannequins appeared as if they were onstage perpetually receiving a round of applause after completing the finale of their last performance of a Broadway show. Commenting on a dress that did not use very much material, a woman who did not appear to smile often said very seriously to her husband, at least 20 years her junior, “This is a very sexy look.” He was carrying her two large Sax Fifth Avenue shopping bags, one in each hand.

“Fabulous,” a woman with a strong New York accent said to her friend about an elegant low-cut woman’s suit, “I mean look at it.” Another woman who apparently views lace as preeminent material commented on a heavily sequined dress, “I mean this isn’t lace, but it sure is beautiful.” Nearby, a teen said to her boyfriend, “It looks as if the dresses would give you supernatural powers.”

One woman yelled over to her friend, “Look Nancy, I see a size 6 over here!”

Talking about a certain Claudia, one woman said to the next, “You know she could never afford anything in here!”

“I’ve had enough of looking at clothes that we could never afford and will never buy,” said a young boy to his mother.” A dad and his two young sons have had it and sit on the floor and wait for mom to finally finish up. Two women conferred about a certain style while the husbands trailed behind, tired, bored and looking at each other like what is this fuss all about. In the room with Armani’s Hollywood creations, the woman next to me inspected one of Winona Ryder’s ex-dresses, a bright pink evening gown, and noticed more than a few snags. She could barely keep herself from pulling one of the fuzz balls, but acknowledged that it would be at least a “$1,000 pull. But I just want to so bad…Now that is anxiety!” Another woman recognized the dress that Keri Russell wore to the Academy Awards, especially recalling her matching flip-flops encrusted in rhinestones. “The media went nuts over that. She got hell for it, to say the least. People were like, ‘no, this is the Academy Awards, not the beach.’ ” Her friend measured the width between Jodi Foster’s shoulders and juxtaposed it onto Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bust. It was almost a perfect one to two ratio.

Meanwhile, spotlights moved from the portraits of celebrities plastered on the wall to the people walking through the exhibit; from Cindy Crawford to an eighty year old woman with a cane and a mink coat, from Brad Pitt to a toddler in his brown corduroys and matching polo shirt, looking not at the exhibit but bored as hell. The spotlight fluctuated from illuminating the immediately recognizable in one moment to illuminating the totally unfamiliar the next. People knelt down to read the descriptions of who wore which dress, not caring to look at the piece until they knew exactly which celebrity had once occupied it.

I confess that I must have become caught up in the whole exhibitionist scene like everyone else because by the end of it I found myself walking down the ramps like a runway, with my jacket lightly drooped over my left shoulder instead of holding onto it under my right arm like I usually do.

The coat-check workers told me that not just during this exhibit, customers hand them jackets and point to the label that reads Armani. They will introduce their jackets like a friend, “This here is my Armani coat” and will continue by instructing the coat-checkers to “take good care of it.”

The exhibit was a hit even before it opened. The Guggenheim had to plan three openings to accommodate all the celebrities who wanted to attend. A reserved guard finally revealed to me the celebrities that he has noticed since the exhibit opened. Among the onlookers have been: Imaan, David Bowe, Pat Riley, Claudia Schiffer, Pete Sampras, Robert DeNiro, and Christian Slater. Giuliani has not been spotted.

When asked why she thought Armani was being exhibited at the museum, one woman looked at me in disbelief, “Because he has completely changed fashion!”

One European woman approached a security guard to ask, “Where are the paintings? Are there no paintings? Isn’t this a museum?!” One of the museum workers offered his view of the exhibit, “The Armani exhibit is interesting mostly to the woman, especially to the American woman. Men and Europeans are not as intrigued by looking at such a fashion exhibit.” He continued, “I think there is an Armani store on 65th and Lexington. I hear it is very expensive…Armani is for people with too much money, it is not something for the simple person like myself.”

Armani has homes in Broni, Forte dei Marmi, and Pantelleria (Italy), in St. Tropez (French Riviera), and now has a temporary home in one of the most recognized and esteemed museums in the world. It is noteworthy that Armani donated somewhere in the range of eight million dollars to secure his exhibit there, which was not quite a financial burden for the Armani company who in 1996 had sales amounting to about $1.3 billion dollars.

A security guard by the door speaks to me through the empty space where he has lost his front teeth, “I don’t like women’s dresses. I am not into women’s fashion or going shopping with them, but this [exhibit] I love. It is a work of genius.”

Another guard says, “The real art is in the permanent collection…the Chagalls, Picassos, Kandinskys and van Goghs.”

One security guard remembered the labor intensive preparation of the exhibit which required 16-20 hour days for some of the workers; Armani appreciated them so much that he assigned them numbers instead of learning their names.

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