Call them avant-garb or revolutionary chic. They are, in fact, some of the sleekest modern clothes to have passed through this town in a long time. Chimises with deep side slits, modern graphics underscoring the architectural shapes, dresses with bold color blocks, jodhpurs segmented in black and white, a black and red bisected cape.
These are more were shown last night at a curtain-raiser event of "the Avant-Garde in Russia 1910-1930: (ew Erspectives," which opens tomorrow at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The 25 garments were taken from sketches by Russian female artists and stage designers, particularly Lyubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova and Alexandra Exter and recreated by German designer Erika Hoffmann-Koenige.
Her husband, Rolf Hoffmann, president of the German fashion and textile house van Laack, did the comentary as models moved slowly across the bare white stage showing off the simple architectural shapes of the clothes.
These artists wanted to create functional dresses that anyone could make and anyone could wear," he said. "Many were tubular in shape so that Russian housewives as well as tailors could have made them easily and everyone could have worn them after the Russian Revolution."
Had these clothes been produced, they would not have been made in the silk, linen or wool jersey of the clothes modeled at the Hirshhorn but rather roughly and simply sewn in raw cotton or oil cloth painted with geometric designs, said Hoffmann. Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn. "The skill is in making it fashionable to look like a cubist painting or collage. It is important that they [the clothes] grow out of the same momentum that created the painting and sculpture," said Lerner. He decided on showing the clothes "as a living exhibit and a footnote to the Russian show" after seeing them presented as part of the Russian art show at the Los Angeles County Museum this summer.
According to Hoffmann-Koenige, neither the textile factories for which the women artists worked nor the government admired or approved of their designs. "After Lenin died the revolutionary atmosphere changed. Artists who were given important and meaningful jobs lost their jobs, were exiled or died," and the clothes were never made.
Hoffmann had considered adding one of the artist's prints, a hammer and sickle design by Popova, to his own commercial collection. "But it was just before Afghanistan and so we decided not to," said Hoffmann, who was wearing that pattern as a pocket square tucked in his jacket.
The van Laack firm has made up one of the dresses for sale. Erika Hoffmann-Koenige is counting on at least 149 women wearing her interpretation of the Lyubov Popova dress of 1923. She has even made available an order blank to sell the style in silk crepe de chine at $750. Twelve are already spoken for, she said.
"I've just come back from seeing all the European collections and this is amongst the best I've seen anywhere," said Selma Weiser from the New York high-fashion boutique Charivari. "I'm suprised. They're the most wearable clothes I've seen in a long time."
Russian scholar Abbott Gleason, who is secretary of the Kennan Institute of Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, provided a background on the period as an introduction to the fashion show.