Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, chooses one hundred of the twentieth century’s most important dresses – a collection, albeit impossible to assemble in reality, that would be a treasure of gems in cloth and cut.

Described by The Washington Post as one of “fashion’s brainiest women”, Dr. Steele was methodical yet intuitive, thorough yet pointed in her decisions. She worked closely with publisher Martine Assouline in the selection. The result is comprehensive, but also clearly illustrates that certain eras were simply more magnetic than others for dynamic design.

We ask about her process in conceiving this impossible collection, her ideas on considering fashion as an art form, and the piece she would most like to wear for a night out on the town.

What characteristics define each dress included in the Impossible Collection?

Significant. Influential. Iconic. Significant in the history of fashion, influential on other designers throughout time, and iconic so that even for the public they would see it and say « oh yes ».

How would you define iconic?

The term, of course, comes from images that are worshipped, and so when you think of it in terms of fashion, I think it refers to those images that are immediately recognizable and so deeply powerful, to touch some visceral emotional response.

To what extent do you think that celebrities, or people photographed wearing the dresses throughout history, might play into a dress being considered iconic?

As Baudelaire said years ago – « What poet would dare to separate a dress from the beauty who wears it? » And, that’s a very tricky one. I wanted, as much as possible, to have pictures of the actual dress rather than a famous photograph of someone wearing the dress.
Because with the first book, The Impossible Collection of Art, there is much less of a disjunction. You have a photograph of a famous Picasso painting; it’s virtually the same thing as looking at the painting.

But if you have a dress, it can be styled and photographed in so many different ways. I wanted as much as possible to bring my visitors to the sense of being in front of the dress itself.

How would you say this selection is a portrait of yourself?

As a professional fashion historian, I tried to be as objective as possible but nevertheless everyone does have a tendency towards loving particular things. I have a tendency to like extreme fashion. My very first run-through had so many McQueens in it, it wasn’t even funny, there were a gazillion McQueens. Other designers like Thierry Mugler. Some of those Martine thought were too costumey. But I said that these were such iconic images of a great era in fashion. I think that was part of my tendency.
I’m someone who has written books about the corset, fetish and gothic, so I do have a tendency to go towards the dark and sexy side.

How do you feel that the McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum influenced the view of fashion as an art form?

Because McQueen, I think, really was the greatest designer of our time, of the most recent era, I think that the opportunity at the Met to see so many of his fantastical and beautiful pieces together in the context of American’s greatest art museum inevitably pushed the discussion of fashion and art further towards saying that at least some fashion should be considered as art.

The problem, of course, as Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, is that art is not just the object, like the painting or the sculpture; art is also a concept involving the creation of the artist as an artist, and the acceptance of an artwork as art. Fashion is increasingly being viewed as art, in part because of exhibitions like McQueen at art museums, but there is by no means a consensus yet that fashion is art.

It used to be that everybody could say that an Old Master painting and a Beethoven symphony were art but a lot people weren’t sure - was cinema art, was photography art, was jazz art? For a long time, that was open to question. And only fairly recently have those been pretty much accepted that yes, those are art. And I think fashion is in that interim period where it is in the process of being reassessed. But it is complicated by the fact that so many fashion designers, among the best and most creative ones, Karl Lagerfeld, Rei Kawakubo and Muccia Prada deny flatly that fashion is art. So although we might want to say that what they are doing is so fabulous it’s art, when I talk to young fashion designers, they sometimes say – « is it necessary to raise it to the level of art? Couldn’t you just say it’s unbelievably fantastic fashion? » And I have a lot of sympathy with view as well.

What do you think has influenced this phenomenon of collecting fashion as one would collect art?

Up until the present, it really still has not received the same kind of respect not just of collecting art, but also even of collecting cars or stamps. There has still been a relative stigma attached to collecting fashion with the implication, particularly with women collectors, that they are just consuming, that they are just acquiring more merchandise. Like a million Imelda Marco shoes, or the closets of a Saudi princess. They are full of stuff, but are they a collection or just an accumulation? I am doing a big exhibition this Autumn about Daphne Guinness as a fashion icon (, and making the implicit suggestion that her collection is a collection that she sought out the way an art collector would be thinking it out, looking for really iconic pieces by major designers and also being adventurous the way art collectors are about looking at who are going to be the designers of the future; so, investing sort of preemptively in people like Gareth Pugh.

Mouna Ayoub is also a collector.
Yes, that’s right. And I would love to see what kinds of things are in her collection…Azzedine Alaïa also has a fabulous private collection but not only have I not seen it, but even others who know him much better…have only been tantalized with «Oh, I have this and this but whoops you can’t see anymore!»

So, none of his pieces are included of this collection?

Oh no, I would have dearly loved to have included some of his private collection in there but no, it proved very difficult. We certainly include Alaïa’s clothes that he designed. Very, very important 20th century designer. But, for example, Poirets from his personal collection, things like that, Vionnets – I know he has them but we weren’t able to get pictures of them.

Are there any other major collectors?

Hamish Bowles has a fantastic collection. And we do have one, I think, a Hamish Madame Grès dress.

Are there fashion dealers? How would a client begin to start a collection, do they generally buy direct from the fashion houses?

They sometimes buy directly buy from the houses, of course. There are dealers also, for example, the company Lily & Cie by Rita Watnick in Los Angeles has an amazing archive; I’ve gone to visit there and seen, indeed, Saudi Princesses trying on 1930s Chanel Haute Couture, so yes she has amazing things. Mark Walsh and Leslie Chin in New York have amazing things. Yes, there are dealers and there are auction houses as well.

If you could imagine into the future, creating another Impossible Collection for the 21st century…

Oh, yes, wouldn’t that be fun? Then we could bring in so many wonderful younger designers, people like Abler Alba, Hider Ackermann, and gosh so many, Gareth Pugh, so many of the younger ones whose work has really taken off after the beginning of the 21st century. Nicolas Ghesquière, I can think of tons of talented people I would want to put into a book like that.

Do you think that there will be more or less Haute Couture included than in the one for the 20th century?

That’s a very tricky question especially since Couture itself, as a term, is evolving. Traditionally, as you know, it has been done by the rules of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne but more and more there are experimental designers like the Mulleavy sisters at Rodarte and the couple at Boudicca who are making very small scale, what you might call demi-couture. And, indeed, Azzedine Alaïa I would say is an example of demi-couture. So I think that, again to reference Bourdieu, you’re going to have a feel of restricted production. It’s not going to be mass produced stuff, even if it’s not officially couture.

Per season, per year, per decade or per century, how frequently do you think an iconic dress emerges?

It doesn’t come up every year. We noticed that looking through the book. One of my criteria was that I wanted a range of things from across the span of a century; I didn’t want to have 50 percent of it from 1990s on, for example. Within that we saw that there were certain eras – the late 1930s, the late 1990s – where there was suddenly a real explosion of brilliant things. I don’t know what causes that…But I do think that it is in the cycle, or perhaps the range, of inspiration and the way designers, like painters, influence each other you find certain periods are especially rich in fantastic art objects or dresses. I think that has to do with the kind of – I don’t want to say competition – but the kind of inspiration that flows back and forth between creators. Like you see in America in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the take off of Abstract Expressionism, suddenly de Koonig and Pollock were really feeding off of each other and going zoom zoom zoom and lot of other people as well were jumping in and doing great things.

If you had all of these dresses at your disposal, if you had the option to wear one for a night, which would it be?

You know, I’m a museum person; I’m so deeply conditioned that once it’s entered into a collection…you don’t…but you know, if that were allowed….gosh that feels so sinful to me. I’m just not sure. I really truly loved the red Alexander McQueen dress, made with microscope slides.

It’s interesting the different impact of a dress, when it is viewed on a person, or on a mannequin. I find that I am moved more when it is on a mannequin.

I agree with you. And so many designers say they don’t like museum fashion shows because it should be on a moving human body. And I know what they’re saying and yet when it is, as it were, kind of frozen in time, crystallized there at that moment on the mannequin, you can just sort of fade everything else out and just concentrate on the dress as an abstract object and it’s also at its best, very very beautiful. It’s just another kind of beauty.

There are all these layers of meaning that are very difficult to articulate.

Well, it’s like music, it’s very hard. Fashion’s not really like a language, it’s like music, it evokes. It evokes emotions.

The Impossible Collection of Fashion by Valerie Steele is available at or at their boutiques worldwide:
Paris: 35 Rue Bonaparte, 75006, Paris, T. +33 1 43 29 23 20
London: Regent Street, Ground Floor, London, W1B 5AH, T. +44 207 573 9767
Costa Mesa: 3333 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92626, T. +1 714 557 1882
New York: 768 5th Avenue, Mezzanine at The Plaza Hotel, New York, NY 10019, T. +1 212 593 7236
Istanbul: Cevdet Pasa Cad No 25A, Bebek, Istanbul 34342, Turkey, T. +90 212 287 5534
Las Vegas: 3720 Las Vegas Blvd S # 266, Las Vegas, NV, T. +1 702 795 0166

Daphne Guinness at The Museum at FIT
September 16, 2011 through January 7, 2012
7th Avenue at 27th St., NY, NY, 10001, T. +1 212 217 4558


The Impossible Collection
Didier Ludot’s Rare Finds
Daphne Guiness: The Art of Dressing

Valerie Steele’s Definition of Luxury:

What is your definition of luxury?
When I think of luxury in terms of fashion, I think of things which are rare and special. That special quality has to do with the quality of material, construction and design but I wouldn’t underestimate the rarity aspect because what’s been luxury throughout history is the things that are rare. And if you go in the third world today, clean water is a luxury. Because it’s rare, it’s hard to find.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
It’s the same criteria. Gold is valued because its rare, platinum is valued because its rare, if it were as common as quartz it wouldn’t be a luxury; it still might be beautiful. Caviar’s a luxury and peanut butter isn’t, they both have a distinctive, kind of fabulous taste, but one of them is rare.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
Far away and hard to get to, and when you were there, everybody else wasn’t there. I love Indonesia, and I love going out far away to Eastern Indonesia but the transport system is so erratic and there are so many islands so far flung it can take weeks and weeks just to get to the island of your destination, so that’s a real luxury, especially now that I am working all the time. To get to carve out enough time to get there. You feel alone, in a good way.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
Again, using the criteria of rarity and quality, it would be a moment, like Goethe said, when you say – stop this is so fair, let this moment go on and on. It exists outside of time.
If luxury were a person ?
I think that’s the person that you love, isn’t it ?

Martine Assouline’s Definition of Luxury:

What is your definition of luxury?
Rarity, sophistication, secret.

If luxury were a place, where would it be?
Amangiri hotel in Utah.

If luxury were an object, what would it be?
The key to a house in Capri

If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
7 pm drinking Veuve Clicquot Rosé on Punta Hermosa beach (Lima, Peru) after swimming.

If luxury were a person, who would it be?
Hélène Rochas or David Niven.