Culture  Fashionably early

Young Quebec designer Denis Gagnon joins haute hotshots at the Musée des Beaux-Arts

Never before has a Quebec couturier been the subject of an exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts (MBA). That is, until now, as couturier Denis Gagnon, who just celebrated the tenth anniversary of his fashion house, currently has a showcase of his work on display at the museum. In collaboration with Stéphane Aquin, curator of the exhibition and the museum’s curator of contemporary art, Gagnon approached award-winning architect Gilles Saucier to design the setting for his installation.

Immediately following the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective, “Denis Gagnon Shows All” also precedes the coming exhibition for fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. While putting the designer in between two major haute-couture fashion houses may come as a surprise, for Aquin, the choice of Gagnon was all too simple. “I’m not in fashion, but I know art. When I see [Gagnon’s work], I’m admiring something that is absolutely brilliant and original,” he said.

The exhibition is conceived to show the inspiration and the raw material behind Gagnon’s designs, not to mention the final products. Upon entering the exhibition, your gaze is immediately drawn toward a massive, inverted black pyramid that juts out of the ceiling, overwhelming the entire room. A film projects onto the pyramid, taking you to Gagnon’s runway this year and behind the scenes. Oversized photographs of his material stretch across the walls; on one of the walls is a blueprint of his humble workspace, a basement atelier.

The atmosphere is cool, minimalistic, even slightly uninviting. Suspended in mid-air, twenty pieces drape the mannequins on three sides of the room, meeting the observer just at eye level. It’s haunting, but a riveting sight nonetheless. Each piece is selected from this year’s collection and arranged by one of the four themes dominant in Gagnon’s work – chains, zippers, fringe, and stripes. While using industrial materials, such as zippers or leather, is not entirely unconventional in the fashion world anymore, Gagnon uses them in a dramatic interpretation, transforming the harsh elements into soft and fluid works. Zippers and chains become material instead of simply embellishment, crafting flowing dresses from metal.

To be sure, Gagnon’s mastery over this medium is one that has been adored by the fashion elite. The challenge now is whether the art world can be convinced that Gagnon’s work, and fashion in general, deserves a place in a museum. Aquin hinted at a bias in the art world against putting fashion into museums. “It’s the idea that museums want to whore themselves to new culture and new audiences,” he said. Aquin conceded that in reality, museums do have to find ways to attract audiences. “If you have to attract, you may as well attract with objects you can frame within an understanding of history, of what art is about, and what beauty is about,” he said.

Still, Aquin remains convinced that the museum hasn’t sold its soul to the fashion industry. He’s a strong believer that Gagnon is meant to be an artist, and this translates into an exhibition that feels neither contrived nor like it’s paying favour to the fashion hungry. For Aquin, it harks back to the traditionalist sense of art, where craftsmanship is enjoyed by art enthusiasts. But he believes that to understand Gagnon’s work as truly art, we ought to separate the artistic element of couture from the fashion industry. “We should set these worlds apart – [Gagnon’s work] is couture, this is done by an artist who has a sense of material, shape, art, of beauty. Fashion is something else. It’s corporate money. Fashion can prey on couture as it can prey on all sorts of other things.”

The MBA has applied its signature approach to showing Gagnon’s work, challenging the limitations of artistic exhibition. Gagnon’s work is not presented simply as art pieces hung on a wall, but as objects that bridge the gap between consumption and display. Nonetheless, whether Gagnon’s pieces hang inside the enclave of the MBA or on the racks at Holt Renfrew, the designer is blurring the distinction between what we consider fashion and art.

“Denis Gagnon Shows All” runs at the Contemporary Art Square at the Musée des Beaux-Arts until February 13, 2011. Free admission.