Because of its inevitable effect on the style zeitgeist, the fashion community awaits The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s annual exhibition with collectively bated breath. Andrew Bolton decides on the concept and then designs and stages the show (with support from Harold Koda, the curator in charge), all in nine months. This year’s baby, PUNK: Chaos to Couture (May 9–Aug. 14), with homages to Debbie Harry and Johnny Rotten, the original Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood collabo and “punk” labels such as Rodarte and Givenchy, already has us revising the safety pin.
To remind people of a time when fashion was political—it was challenging our expectations of gender, sexuality [and] even race. I haven’t seen anything like that for many years actually: that brave, heroic stance people had through fashion. I always feel like one should aspire to be a punk. People’s aspirations have changed; they’ve become safer.
It sounds like this exhibition is very personal for you.
It is. I was a little too young to experience it, but I would read about it in music magazines and see it on TV. They were so shocking then. [Punk] was very empowering for women as well. The Slits, Poly Styrene, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith—all these extraordinarily creative women were given a platform.
How have you addressed the dichotomy between establishment and anti-establishment?
The show is looking at punk’s legacy in high fashion, so I wanted to locate [it] in a couture atelier. When you walk through the exhibition, it’s as if you’re walking through the ateliers at Givenchy or Dior—18th-century rooms with boiserie panelling, which a lot of the couture houses have in Paris. But we’ve clad them all in DIY Styrofoam or graffiti.
You started at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. When did you migrate to fashion?
I worked on contemporary Chinese dress under one of the curators. From there I was given a job in the research department on contemporary fashion. Now you can do a fashion history degree, but at the same time, the only option was to do art history and study fashion through paintings.
What are you most excited to display?
All the early Westwood pieces are really interesting because they’re still potent now. When you look at some of the images on the T-shirts, such as the two naked cowboys or upside-down crucifix with the swastika on it, it’s still shocking. Also, the pieces by Rei Kawakubo, the heavily deconstructed ones—they are so beautiful—you really get to see the intricacy.
Why do you think the Costume Institute is important?
We can explore ideas in a forum that is not constrained by commerce. Also, close up, you really do appreciate how fashion is an art form technically [and] in terms of ideas. What’s extraordinary is how it [responds] so quickly to what’s happening politically or socially or economically.
Smart-Fashion Power Couple: Thom Browne + Andrew Bolton
Fittingly, Bolton’s partner—New York designer Thom Browne of the shrunken men’s suits, and, more recently, Michelle Obama’s inaugural look—is known for museum-worthy creations. His Fall 2013 presentation featured Vivienne Westwood-inspired dresses with corset waists, right-angle shoulder pads and male models bound to cots by blood-red ribbons—punk indeed!