May 6, 2008

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superhero Inspiration

By Suzy Menkes

'Iron Man" stands in all his armored glory, eyes flashing like winking dollar signs. (Well, the movie did gross over $100 million in America when it opened last weekend.)

Beside the metallic monster is a sexualized female version, the armor cut away at breasts, belly and thighs.

And between the two comic book versions of dominator and dominatrix is Giorgio Armani, in New York for the opening of "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy," the powerful new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until Sept. 1).

Armani, who says that he once fought with his brother over Flash Gordon comics, brought a childlike enthusiasm to his tour of the exhibition, claiming that he wanted to take home the crouching model of Spider-Man and marveling over John Galliano's priapic fantasies.

The Italian designer also gazed at the gigantic sculptures of the superheroes towering over the Metropolitan Museum's lobby to greet the celebrities arriving for the gala he co-chaired with George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue.

Andrew Bolton, the curator who has brought such imagination and intelligence to the exhibition, sees a serendipitous connection with "Iron Man" and its hero, Robert Downey Jr. Then there is Superman's 70th birthday - even if the caped crusader of 1938 looks vibrant and ageless in the portrait by Andy Warhol that opens the show and in the fashion versions of his blue unitard and enviably recognizable logo, as subverted by Moschino and Bernhard Willhelm.

"Superheroes are a metaphor for fashion because they share an obsession with the body, its identity and transformation," said Bolton, who, working alongside curator-in-charge Harold Koda, has divided the exhibition into categories such as the body "graphic,""patriotic" or "virile." (Walter Van Beirendonck's "Hulk" jacket with inflatable pectorals fits the latter category.)

The concept of dual identity is so intrinsic to comic book stories that what Bolton calls "metaphoric malleability" adds to the fascination. Superman morphs behind a glass window into a sober- suited Clark Kent. It is all done with mirrors, copying an old Victorian magic trick, according to the set designer Nathan Crawley, who created the scenarios of "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight." His cityscapes of a Gotham skyline make a dramatic backdrop for lacy Spider-Woman dresses by Armani, John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier.

"I always try to define on film what makes a futuristic city," said Crawley, explaining how he gave the exhibition an illusion of space with angled mirrors.

The most persistent creative force in the show is the French designer Thierry Mugler, whose work from the 1980s - all sharp shoulders and rigid hourglass waists - reverberates from the decade of feisty feminism in the later work of Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana and the British designer Gareth Pugh, whom Armani described as the most inventive purveyor of superhero style.

Other elements include high performance sportswear, especially Speedo's water-repellent "Fastskin" body suit, turned skeletal and graphic in a design by the anarchic Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons.

Movie designers also play a starring role, as in the black latex body skin, revealing flesh through hand stitching - a copy of the sensual, feline outfit, with its spiked claws, as worn by Michelle Pfeifer, Cat Woman, in "Batman Returns" (1992).

Or there are the extraordinary Silicon extrusions which were molded on the naked body of Rebecca Romijn for "X-Men: The Last Stand" in 2006.

But the conundrum of "Superheroes" is that this subject, so quintessentially American that the flag was the costume of Captain America and Wonder Woman in the 1940s, has been used as fashion inspiration almost entirely by foreign designers. The Californian Rick Owens (even if he lives and works in Paris) did create a Jasper Johns-style version of a faded American flag. But that is outdone by Galliano's star-spangled banner clothes and Willhelm's stars and stripes.

Violently colored wigs, armored helmets and spidery stockings, created by the ultra-imaginative hair stylist Julien d'Ys, also suggest that the fashion home of superheroes is on a Paris fashion catwalk.

"I think it's about irony," says Bolton, referring to the practicality of American designers and explaining why so few have been inspired by fantasy heroes. Perhaps a few more humble pieces, such as the T-shirts with superhero logos, would have given the lofty show a closer link to middle America.

Dynamic and energetic as this exhibition is, it misses out on the multimedia aspect, where the Met seems to lag behind some other museums. Where are the extracts from the iconic movies which might have been shown beside the clothes? (Although there is a fine display of comic strips in the accompanying book from Yale University Press, and a parallel program of feature films at the Met.)

And what about running videos putting the designer creations in context and responding to the hunger of visitors to see clothes in motion? Outfits that might have been a fashion crescendo in a show, look weird and wondrous and more like costumes than clothes. Armani implied as much when he gazed at a Galliano menswear creation with a phallic hose pipe attached and asked if it had really appeared on the runway.

But the exhibition is imaginative and original. And seeing the caped crusaders land in the Met offers fashion a chance to display designers at their most fantastical and for the museum to pull in a fresh young crowd.