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1997 was a ‘Big Bang’ for fashion

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 08, 2023 5:00 am

1997 turned out to be a very important year in the history of contemporary fashion. It wasn’t only a time when the century was coming to a close but the new millennium was about to begin and with the financial crisis and intensity of global competition, there was an urgency to work double-time if the fashion industry were to survive in the 21st century.

Paris could feel its supremacy being challenged, so radical changes were made, leading to a frantic succession of groundbreaking collections, shows, and events—shaping fashion as we know it today.

What was really needed was a Big Bang, the title splashed across the cover of Vogue Paris in March 1997, the issue dedicated to the haute couture collections that dazzled and scandalized everyone in equal measure.

1997 Fashion Big Bang exhibit at Palais Galliera in Paris

This is also the title of the latest exhibit of Palais Galliera, the fashion museum of the French capital, documenting 38 milestones of that eventful year, which actually had “50 explosive moments,” says the curator Alexandre Samson.

If Vogue was so effusive over “an opportunity for pride and the vortex of a general change in attitude,” Laurence Benaïm of Le Monde was less optimistic, deploring “the gilded funeral of haute couture as financiers speculate on benchmark names, with complete disregard for craftsmanship behind them, and whose future is now linked to exercises in public relations.”

John Galliano for Dior Haute Couture SS1997

LVMH owner Bernard Arnault, known as the “cashmere wolf,” had gobbled up a portfolio of heritage fashion houses over the previous decade and was shuffling them around, controversially appointing Brits—John Galliano to Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen to Givenchy—and an American, Marc Jacobs, to Louis Vuitton, which never produced garments before. This drastic move to save the couture business, which had dwindled to irrelevancy, created quite a buzz that also prompted Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler to launch couture collections in the January 1997 schedule. Press accreditation requests even increased by 30% for the week of the shows.

Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture SS1997

Despite Benaïm’s report of the indignation of a distinguished spectator, who after Galliano’s show declared that it was “an insult to the memory of Dior” and a quote from Yves Saint Laurent saying that he thought “it was nothing but music hall,” the collection was considered a successful celebration of the house’s 50-year history, with pieces of unbridled imagination that reflected diversity in a multitude of ethnographic and historical worlds while displaying technical excellence and material opulence in a Baroque universe. It recalled how half a century earlier, in 1947, Christian Dior presented his New Look to as much controversy because of the amount of fabric required for the exaggerated femininity—considered a shameful waste after the wartime austerity. But, just like Galliano’s show, it was a harbinger of the fashion of the next decade.

Bjork wearing Alexander McQueen for Givenchy for her album cover “Homogenic” in 1997

The upheaval in the fashion industry in 1997 extended to the cultural sphere through the Met’s exhibit celebrating the anniversary of the New Look with the Party of the Year—the forerunner of the Met Gala—with Galliano and Diana, Princess of Wales, as guests of honor. The princess, who was a fashion icon, actually died later in August that year, marking another significant event for 1997.

Paris could feel its supremacy being challenged, so radical changes were made, leading to a frantic succession of groundbreaking collections, shows, and events—shaping fashion as we know it today.

Another prominent figure, the designer Gianni Versace, also died the month before after he was assassinated in Miami. The Met paid tribute to him in an exhibit the following year, noting how he drew inspiration from the museum’s collections, like in his last show enriched by The Glory of Byzantium exhibit that he visited.

Atelier Versace Couture, fall 1997

These exhibits were not exactly welcome because of the prejudices about fashion in cultural circles where the heritage and artistic value of the craft was questioned, deeming it unfit to be collected and exhibited in a museum. The integration of Japanese and Belgian designers in the couture landscape, however, gradually changed perception because of how they challenged traditional tenets of beauty and the fashion system itself.

Rei Kawakubo, for one, angered by a Gap window displaying overly simple black clothes that reflected the uniformity of fashion design, presented the Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body collection for Comme des Garçons in October 1996, placing bulges and humps under tight-fitting garments, merging clothing to the body. Met with the yell of “Quasimodo” from a photographer at the show, the collection was nonetheless striking and groundbreaking, with Benaïm writing “it provokes questions, beyond the ugly or the beautiful, beyond normality or madness, showing everything that others seek to conceal.” Totally at odds with the flawless image and feminine canons of beauty that prevailed since antiquity, it questioned the garment as well as the body and its proportions.

Christian Lacroix Haute Couture FW1997 

The notion of the ideal body was a very hot topic at a time when debates on cosmetic surgery and controversy over the first cloning attempts were raging, a theme that Martin Margiela tackled vis-à-vis his comment on the creation and aesthetics of clothing. His collection was based on a bust of a “Stockman” mannequin, worn as a waistcoat and on which the different steps of its design were apparent, an idea explored further the following season when raw linen and paper patterns were worn like real clothes.

Martin Margiela SS1997 

The work of designers like Kawakubo and Margiela transcended commercial and utilitarian considerations, paving the way for exhibitions that explored the intersection of fashion and art: Art/Fashion at the Florence Biennale and the Guggenheim, and When Clothes Were Clad in Art at the Palais Galliera.

The Musée de la Mode et du Costume de la Ville de Paris, located at Palais Galliera since 1977, changed its name in 1997, deleting the term “costume” from its letterhead. Its directors and curators maintained that “fashion deserved its place in a museum, not only because of its artistic aspect, but also because of its relevance as a cultural expression and sociological phenomenon, as well as its importance as a creative industry working in a field of experimentation and technical innovation.”

The Louvre chimed in, inaugurating a renovated Musée de la Mode et du Textile with the statement “A fashion museum is a place where the quest for a multiple identity, which clothes allow us to achieve, can be traced. It is also a place that measures the steps by which materials are conquered, and the way in which they are made to coincide with people’s fluctuating desires and aspirations.”

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1997 Fashion Big Bang is ongoing at Palais Galliera in Paris until July 16. Visit or follow them on Instagram.