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Dr. Valerie Steele: Fashion’s High-Heeled Intellectual

One of the industry's top intellectuals, Dr. Valerie Steele (Ph.D., Yale University) defies the notion that fashion is shallow and anti-feminist. Described by the Washington Post as one of the industry’s “brainiest women,” she gives fashion substance through thought-provoking exhibitions, focusing her lens onto the social and cultural behaviors shaping the past, present and future.

As the Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she has curated over 20 exhibitions, which have included explorations of Isabel Toledo’s construction techniques as well as Dephne Guinness’s couture collection. The editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, which she founded in 1997, Dr. Steele is also the author of numerous books, including The Corset: A Cultural History, Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now and Women of Fashion: 20th-Century Designers. Her latest book, Fashion Designers A-Z, is a lavish overview of the museum’s archives spread over multiple editions, each encased in covers designed by the likes of Stella McCartney, Diane von Furstenberg and Miuccia Prada.

This month D’NA sits down with Dr. Valerie Steele to discuss her impressions of visiting the Middle East, her thoughts on the designers shaping fashion history today, and her latest exhibition, Shoe Obsession, opening February 8 at FIT.

Visiting the Middle East…

I’ve been lucky to have visited the Middle East and North Africa, including Yemen and Bahrain. I had a brief stop in Saudi Arabia while I was in transit at the Riyadh airport, but I would like to do a longer visit some day.

When I was living in London in the early 80s one of biggest treats was to travel to Egypt, and experience the beauty of the culture there. There is an incredible cultural richness in the Middle East in terms of art, textiles and objects that I would like to explore.

More recently I visited Qatar twice; once for a design conference and the second time to give the commencement speech at Virginia Common Wealth University. When I visited VCU it was interesting to meet all the young students there, who wore the kind of clothes you would find on any college campus in the US beneath their abayas. I remember one of the students was also preparing to show her collection during the Alta-Moda collections in Rome.

Middle East encounters at the Paris haute couture…

My earliest recollection of the Middle Eastern presence at the Paris haute couture collections was around 1980, when I attended my first couture show at Nina Ricci. I sat next to two young Lebanese women who were buying couture pieces to modify for the Middle Eastern market.

In the early 90s, during the July couture shows, I also remember attending the presentation of a young Saudi designer named Adnan Akbar. The room was full of Arab clients, some of them wearing the traditional abaya, although you could hear the clanking of Chanel jewelry beneath their cloaks.

Valerie Steele Article 1 

The historic allure of high-heels…

Within fashion, high-heels are not only a prime symbol of femininity, but they can be worn by a wide variety of women across cultures, regardless of their shape or age. It’s also historically provided women with the added value of height, which not only gave them a more dressed up look but also a certain sense of power.

On personal style…

I find black very flattering though I also love the color green. I will often mix and revisit pieces I’ve had in my closet for years by Japanese designers such as Yoji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. In terms of shoes, my personal favorites are a pair created by Repetto, the ballet company that also makes heels.

The most coveted item in my closet…

One of the most precious items in my closet is a gorgeous couture ‘Malachite’ evening gown with Lesage embroidery by Ralph Rucci. I wore it to the opening of the exhibition we mounted of his work at FIT in 2007. What I love about Ralph’s work is his attention to construction and detail, which gives his clothes a timeless quality. I wore his dress again to the opening of the Roberto Capucci exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2011, and it still felt right for the moment.

Valerie Steele Article 2

Collecting for a museum…

What I typically look for is directional fashion when I search for new pieces to add to FIT’s collection. They are usually designs that were considered avant-garde for their period, and would go on to influence the way we dress. Rick Owens is an example of a designer who has had a profound impact on the fashion world. It was important to include him within the collection, since his work has been copied and reinterpreted over the last few years.

Fashion history’s future stars…

As a fashion historian, it’s about making an educated guess when it comes to collecting the work of contemporary designers who will be influential within the fashion world. These aren’t necessarily the most popular or successful designers from a commercial standpoint, but those who push themselves creatively and ultimately influence their peers in the industry.

We’ve been collecting Rodarte since the beginning as well as Gareth Pugh, and what ties these designers together is their focus on craftsmanship and detail. Their clothes are often described as demi-couture. There is a fascination amongst this new generation of designers with a kind of technique and artisanal workmanship that has become rarer to find in European ateliers. Haider Ackermann falls within this camp and we hope to collect his work in the future.

The role of the exhibit in a world of fast fashion…

Each exhibition I work on tries to advance the knowledge of fashion and get people to realize it is an important social and cultural phenomenon, while still being fun. In the past I think a lot of people didn’t know how to approach a fashion exhibit. On the one hand some academics thought it was a topic too trite and frivolous to explore within the context of a museum, while the fashion world saw it as being overly intellectual and out-of-touch with the realities of the industry. I think part of my work over the years has been to debunk many of those perceptions.

Stop by D’NA today to discover our selection of books by Dr. Valerie Steele.

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