Quebec designer Denis Gagnon managed to take Montréal by storm, not only presenting at the Montréal Fashion Week and designing two lines for the fashion chain stores BEDO and ALDO, but also exhibiting his exquisite works at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. This type of cultural saturation and blurring of fashion boundaries points to a new age in fashion exhibition and consumption.
This fall, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal presents the exhibition Denis Gagnon Shows All, free of charge from October 19, 2010, to February 13, 2011. This is the first time that the work of a Quebec couturier is the subject of an exhibition at the Museum.
Just as the Montréal Fashion Week came to an end, the Museum presented a retrospective of the couturier’s decade-long career. Fifteen of Gagnon’s garments were exhibited together with photographs and projections. Similarly to the c. neeon runway show and exhibition curator Christine Waidenschalger organized in Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum in summer 2006, Montréal’s Museum is also highlighting local fashion and creativity. Unlike c. neeon, however, Gagnon’s designs do not place a particular emphasis on the environment in the sense of awareness and recycle-ability.
“This installation at the Museum, following the Yves Saint Laurent show and preceding the Jean Paul Gaultier one, reveals the same high standards with regard to the discipline. Gagnon’s unfettered talent makes him an icon of Canada’s fashion world,”said Nathalie Bondil, Museum Director.
Denis Gagnon asked the celebrated architect Gilles Saucier to design the setting for this installation. The Museum thus became a meeting place for fashion and architecture. Fashion is thought of as fleeting, at the mercy of the mood of the times and made of perishable materials. Architecture is monumental, designed to last for centuries. And yet what the two have in common is the fundamental function of sheltering the human body.
Gagnon’s fashion designs look and feel like sculptures. The Museum was particularly savvy in the installation of the mannequins that hang suspended from the ceiling, and allow the visitor a 360 degree view of the garments. Gagnon is a master of textures. Seeing them up-close like this allows a more detailed look and appreciation than in the first row of a runway.
“A woman wearing Denis Gagnon at a party is striking: it’s an event. The clothes bear witness to this transformation of material into the stuff of life in the city,” said Gilles Saucier.
Bringing the city into the materials of the clothes, and then exhibiting the clothes back in the city (at various cultural and industrial levels) makes this collection culturally significant. The next level of integration is allowing people to purchase these (or similar) clothes and wear them in their everyday lives, thereby becoming the living bridges between a designer’s artistic vision of fashion and the urban materiality reflected in the design. By wearing Denis Gagnon, one symbolically wears Montréal. This ability to capture, market, and sell this type of identity construction is what makes Denis Gagnon a successful brand.
Born in Lac Saint-Jean, from a humble background of which he is proud, Denis Gagnon worked for a while making costumes for the theatre before going to teach pattern-making in Casablanca, Morocco. Back in Montréal, he launched his first collection in late 1999. His reputation, limited until quite recently to the inner circle of devoted fashion followers, has now reached heights never before seen in the Canadian fashion industry. His creations have been compared to works of art. Everything about his creations expresses a truly artistic sense of form, infused with intense feeling.
“I would have liked to be a sculptor or a painter. You know, a real artist who has exhibitions. And yet by designing clothes, I have created a body of work that has earned me this exhibition, where I can express things I’ve been feeling since I was a teenager,” Gagnon confessed.
On the walls, close-up photographs show the raw materials Gagnon uses: lace, leather, a zipper. “When you sew lace, you look at it from very close up. These enlarged photos are what the couturier sees. You also see through the eyes of the talented seamstresses who spend long hours fashioning the garment.”
The clothes testify to the designer’s ability to transform inert material, whether natural or industrial, into a particular garment, like this riveting dress made entirely of gilt zippers, which created a sensation at the artist’s last show in the fall of 2009.
In the middle of the gallery, on a high inverted pyramid, video sequences show the clothes in action, in shows and on the street. “Like architecture, fashion is an applied art, meant to be ‘inhabited’ and to say something, to express a state of mind, an identity, an aspiration,” concluded the architect.
A documentary film by Khoa Lê, titled Je m’appelle Denis Gagnon, premiered at the International Festival of Films on Art on March 21, 2010 again at the museum. The film is an intimate portrait of the designer, now 47, as he toils in his basement, talks about his shyness, visits his mother in Lac St. Jean and expresses hope and despair about his work.
Outside the Museum, his fashion is also available for street wear. In late August 2010, BEDO launched a 30-piece women’s wear collection by Gagnon in 14 boutiques nationwide. Here too, as with his shoes, it’s all about zippers. The collection is significant because it’s the first time that Gagnon, whose high-end line sells at Holt Renfrew and his own boutique in the Old Port of Montréal, adapted his lauded look for a broader consumer market.
Referencing other celebrity designer collaborations like Karl Lagerfeld’s work for H&M, a representative for the company said that BEDO takes the “democratization of fashion” to heart. This trend is not new. Long before Lagerfeld descended to the masses via H&M, Giorgio Armani democratized his style by establishing multiple tiers of his label: Giorgio Armani at the top, Emporio Armani in the middle, and Armani Exchange (A/X) affordable to the average person. Marc Jacobs launched his Marc by Marc Jacobs line with jewelry and accessories available for as low as $5, and bags with his logo, expressing the irony and absurdity of branding: “Jacobs, by Marc Jacobs, for Marc by Marc Jacobs, in collaboration with Marc Jacobs, for Marc by Marc Jacobs.”
From the studio to the catwalk, to the museum, and the street, and finally, through blogs and online presence, out into the world. This is an interesting development in the culture of fashion. An effective move towards market saturation, so that the average consumer can buy and wear the things not only seen on the runways (often reserved for the limited audience of celebrities, buyers, and press) but also in the museum. Thus Denis Gagnon transcends the boundaries between art and fashion, high and low fashion, and becomes a household name.