It's often the case that, while more famous museums easily jump on the bandwagon organising commercial exhibitions, smaller institutions instead concentrate on rediscovering real gems with compact yet well-focused events. A good example is the Philadelphia Museum of Art: though smaller than other institutions such as the Met Museum (yet big enough at the same time...), the museum has actually organised decade after decade quite a few iconic fashion exhibitions.
A new event - "Ronaldus Shamask: Form, Fashion, Reflection" - set to rediscover the architectural work of this fashion designer (bizarrely enough, I mentioned him in a previous post in connection with Stephen Manniello) will open tomorrow at the museum.
Born in Amsterdam in 1945, Ronaldus Shamask emigrated with his parents when he was 14 to Melbourne, Australia. At 21 he moved to London and started painting and working as a fashion illustrator for The London Times and The Observer.
In 1968 Shamask worked in Buffalo, New York, designing sets and costumes for the “Company of Man” theatre company. In the early '70s he moved to New York City where he focused on interior design and started experimenting with a 20 piece private couture collection. In 1979, he opened a shop in Madison Avenue and won two years later the Coty Fashion Award for his designs that, inspired by his passions – architecture, illustration, theatre, dance, but also traditional Japanese clothing and origami – were characterised by minimalist features.
In 1982 Shamask's work was featured in the exhibition “Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design” (previously mentioned here and there on this site) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The exhibition was among the very first ones analysing the links between fashion and architecture and remained throughout the years an important landmark for many museum curators and researchers interested in the fashion and architecture connection.
In that occasion Shamask declared: “I enjoy the term you have chosen to define my work: 'Intimate Architecture'. It is intimate, as it involves a very personal daily exploration of my private nature. It is architecture, as it attempts to create habitable structures. I relate to my work as both an art and a science; my imagination and aesthetic are constantly guided, and occasionally tempered, by systematised investigations into the properties, possibilities and limitations of the materials I work with. I employ what I believe to be a 'reasoned' conception of beauty, concentrating on cut and proportions and eliminating any solution not justified by the logic of my conception.”
Fascinated by modular architectures, Japanese art, theatre and ritualistic dress (think about his gold sayoko or his interpretation of the Japanese overall, the hakama), Shamask also infused in his work elements borrowed from Russian Constructivism and avant-garde artists such as Vladimir Tatlin and Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova.
Shamask's designs were featured in further exhibition throughout the '80s and the '90s, mainly events that looked at architecture, art and fashion.
The Philadelphia exhibition curated by Dilys Blum, The Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles, and organised at the Joan Spain Gallery at the museum's Perelman Building, will include Shamask's clothes, works made specifically for this presentation, such as translucent paper renditions shown as mirror images of the garments to reveal form and construction (extremely interesting for fashion designers, students and pattern makers; by the way, did you know that Shamask used graph paper to transfer a design and the pleating system of a dress to fabric?), a mood wall with Shamask's design process, video clips from fashion shows and dance performances showcasing his costumes and collaborative work undertaken with artists such as Jennifer Bartlett, Arman, and Michele Oka Doner.
Two pieces that were also exhibited in 1982 at the "Intimate Architecture" event will be on display in Philadelphia: the Cello Jacket (S/S 1981), in beige linen with a handwoven sash by Jeffrey Aronoff for Shamask and a kimono-derived silhouette that imitates the curves of the musical instrument, and the Spiral Coat (1981), cut from one piece of fabric and incorporating a continuously curving seam that mimics a lemon peel (the design was inspired both by the spiral in Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International" and by Vionnet's precise slashes). In this case Shamask appropriated an architectural tool, a miniature origami-like paper model, to conceive the form of his red spiral coat.
Pattern-wise Shamask was also known for his use of the “slashing”, a technique of the old Italian court style whereby a top layer of material is cut and stitched back to reveal colour underneath and for applying to his outerwear Palladian studies in proportions. In his linen dresses, the interstices between pleats set up a rhythm across the garment defined in the catalogue for the "Intimate Architecture" exhibition “as harmonious as the stretch of columns on a Classical portico”.
Interestingly enough, Shamask's passion for reinterpreting traditional Oriental forms is actually very fashionable at the moment as many collections from the S/S 13 season feature elements borrowed from traditional Asian, and in particular Japanese, costumes.
Considered by many as a master of effortless sophistication, hopefully Shamask will keep on inspiring future generations to develop a dialogue between art, architecture and fashion and to focus on construction and the importance of patterns rather than just on visually gratifying and temporarily trendy embellishments and decorations.
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