Earlier this year, Phoenix Art Museum announced that its fashion design department had acquired the entire, intact archive of visionary U.S. retailers James and Karin Legato. Selected works from more than 400 pieces of clothing and accessories by Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, John Galliano, Romeo Gigli, Christian Lacroix, Azzedine Alaïa, Claude Montana and Jean-Paul Gaultier, among others, will be exhibited for the first time in the Steele Gallery from Nov. 6, 2016, to Jan. 16, 2017.
The story of Emphatics began in 1963 when James Legato founded an upscale hair salon in Pittsburgh. Six years later, he expanded into designer women’s wear to service his clients with head-to-toe looks. With wife and business partner Karin Legato on board, the couple’s chic oasis in the Steel City relocated to One Oxford Centre downtown in the early 1980s. The white plaster and Italian marble setting crowned with a 15-foot, vaulted dome ceiling resembled a theater of fashion.
The exhibition, “Emphatics: Avant-Garde Fashion 1963-2013,” picks up at this point to celebrate their long-term, joint commitment to runway style and ends with the store’s closure in 2013. “We’ve always considered and appreciated fashion as art and seeing this exhibition materialize at Phoenix Art Museum has proven to be the most authentic expression of our commitment to the art of fashion,” says Karin Legato, in finding the right fit for the archive after her husband passed away in 2015.
Though located far from Paris, London and Milan, Emphatics was at the forefront of European fashion. The store was the first point of sale in the U.S. for Jean-Paul Gaultier and Maud Frizon. Jean-Paul Gaultier acknowledges Emphatics as a stateside pioneer for a new movement in fashion design, saying, “The Legatos have supported me since the very beginning. Emphatics was just one of a handful of retailers in the United States to embrace and support emerging avant-garde designers in the 1970s and 1980s. Their taste was exceptional, and their loyalty was unwavering. Working with the Legatos was a rare and treasured experience in my career, and I am delighted to learn that Phoenix Art Museum is celebrating the legacy of Emphatics and the visionaries behind it.”
Of the approximately 100 ensembles in the exhibit, there are a flaming bustier from Mugler’s Fall/Winter 1987 collection; velvet and lace ensembles from Gigli’s Fall 1989 collection inspired by Byzantine mosaics; and Miyake’s “A Piece of Cloth” (A-POC), an innovative technical process that eliminated pattern makers and decreased fabric waste from Fall/Winter 1998.
“Since it didn’t require sewing and assembly, A-POC broke conventions in the way garments were considered,” says the Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design for Phoenix Art Museum Dennita Sewell, who plans to show two uncut rolls and one cut garment along with their original cutting diagrams and tubes from this series. “The Emphatics archive also includes rare, limited-edition accessories such as Alaïa belts, Gaultier corset collar neck pieces and Mugler satellite-shaped brooches and earrings.”
Designed like a reverse runway, the exhibit’s mannequins flank related, multimedia ephemera including personal photographs often taken in showrooms and at fashion shows by the Legatos, as well as designers’ original videos and invitations from three decades of attending fashion weeks worldwide.
“The designs are exciting, but also acquiring the invitations and video material places their work in a larger, creative context and makes it an ideal archive for an educational institution like Phoenix Art Museum. The Emphatics archive also represents the most forward-thinking designers working in the ’80s and ’90s, which was an exceptionally creative period in fashion,” says Sewell.
Leading up to the exhibit’s debut, the museum is organizing summer salons that trace the history of the archive’s Parisian collections. A symposium with Karin Legato and design industry professionals is slated for Nov. 5, 2016.
Emphatics, Avant-Garde Fashion 1963-2013
Nov. 6, 2016 – Jan. 16, 2017
Steele Gallery at Phoenix Art Museum
For more information, visit phxart.org.