The fine art of staging a blockbuster

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The fine art of staging a blockbuster
The "Dior: Designer of Dreams,” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, Jan. 18, 2022. With a string of successes, Matthew Yokobosky is giving the Brooklyn Museum’s fashion exhibitions an edge over similar fare at the Met. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Ruth La Ferla

NEW YORK, NY.- Growing up in the town of Republic in southwestern Pennsylvania, Matthew Yokobosky would visit the local tailor most days after school. “His name was Danny Mariotti, and I used to go and watch him sew,” he said.

There were the Trevallini sisters, whom he liked to observe constructing jeweled flower arrangements and wedding bouquets. “Oh, and Charlie Angeloni, the shoemaker,” he added with the uncommon recall that over the years has served him well.

“His memory is like a superpower,” said Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, one of many factors that prompted her in 2018 to name Yokobosky the museum’s senior curator of fashion and material culture.

His latest appointment is a high point in a career that has taken him from the Whitney Museum, where for 12 years he was curator of film and video (and moonlighted as a set and costume designer at the La MaMa experimental theater). In Brooklyn, he was director of exhibition design before assuming his current post.

“He is a brilliant creative,” Pasternak said. “His eye is in the present, and he cares deeply about the visitor experience, qualities not commonly packaged in a single curator.”

A cultural polymath, Yokobosky, 57, may well be among the more inventive and prolific museum curators you never have heard of, praised — or bashed — for an aesthetic that veers from the ultra-rarefied to the baldly flamboyant.

Habitually, and somewhat anonymously, garbed in black-on-black, his gray-streaked hair slicked back severely, he has evolved a personal style as low key and artfully manicured as his shows are theatrical.

“Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” among the museum’s most lavish exhibitions, is housed, blockbuster-style, in the museum’s Beaux-Arts Court, the first exhibition in 40 years to be mounted in what customarily serves as a rental space. (It will be the site of a cluster of events marking the 75th anniversary of the house of Dior on Saturday.)

The show, which had its inaugural exhibition in Paris in 2017, and was curated by Dior scholar Florence Müller, has been retrofitted for an American audience to highlight Christian Dior’s tenure in America, with groupings of little black dresses and other pieces from the couturier’s New York-centric label.

The exhibition is rich with distinctive creations by Dior and a pantheon of successors, including Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Marc Bohan and Raf Simons. It ends in a viewer-friendly gallery of Dior-draped stars: Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor and Rihanna, to name but a few.

With its floor-to-ceiling displays, video installations and hall-of-mirror effects, it is all razzle-dazzle, easily eclipsing “In America,” the concurrent and comparatively sedate show of American fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As Zachary Woolfe, the classical music editor of The New York Times, wrote, “There’s something of a reversal of roles here: the scrappy Brooklyn Museum hosting the glam behemoth, while the mighty Met strikes a sweeter, more modest and (dare I say) underground pose.”

“Dior,” which closes Feb. 20, is the most recent in a string of shows Yokobosky has conceived or overseen — David Bowie, Pierre Cardin and Studio 54, among the more memorable — that promise to place Brooklyn’s fashion extravaganzas on competitive footing with those of the Met and elsewhere in town.

At least as impressive, as he conducted a visitor through the show, is Yokobosky’s seemingly encyclopedic command of fashion arcana. Christian Dior was more entrepreneurial than most people imagined, he noted, selling off-the-rack suits and dresses more than a decade before Pierre Cardin famously introduced the concept of ready-to-wear.

As extraordinary, Yokobosky said, “was how elegantly Dior thought about things.” He told of Magda, a client of the house, who during lunch with the couturier in the 1950s, lamented that she had lost an earring. No matter. “I know what to do,” Dior assured her. With that, he dashed off, returning with a leaf and pinning it to her lapel, a gesture the curator found spontaneous and witty.

He can, in his own way, turn on a dime. He was as gracious when a visitor mistook him for a museum guard as he was in encountering Beth DeWoody, the prominent art collector and philanthropist, who had stopped by to admire a Dior wasp-waist frock with a full skirt, an iconic postwar silhouette that prompted the Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow to exclaim, “Dear Christian, what a new look you have!”

The show has drawn a roster of high-profile fashion and screen-world visitors, including Katie Holmes, Anna Sui, Christy Turlington, Tim Gunn and Reese Witherspoon, many posing for selfies on Yokobosky’s Instagram. That platform is indispensable, he said. When the pandemic abruptly shut down the Studio 54 exhibition in early 2020, he turned to his feed, he said, “to keep the flame alive.”

“Twenty years ago,” he said, “a primary consideration when mounting a show was, ‘What happens when you get beyond the doorway, where do you want people to look, what happens when they turn around.’ ”

He still approaches each project with an architect’s eye. He compares the experience to that of constructing a small city, visitors meandering through a network of unfamiliar streets. Where do you want them to look?

As urgent a question now is, “How does this look on social media?” Yokobosky said, adding that he aimed to make the whole of the “Dior” show “Instagrammable.”

Such a strategy has lent the museum’s fashion exhibitions a discernible edge over similar fare at the Met, where fashion is, as often as not, exhibited in a somewhat congested basement space with limited internet access. “It’s hard to take a photograph there, and if you do get a shot, you can’t even send it,” Yokobosky said coolly.

To some critics, the show, with its generous focus on celebrities and displays devoted to Dior fragrances, seemed excessively promotional, conceived, as Woolfe suggested, to “burnish the brand and move merchandise.”

Yokobosky counters such barbs with serenity. A focus on celebrity “kind of comes with the territory,” he said. “If you’re going to an art exhibition, you are looking to see who the lenders are, who owns this or that painting. As a fashion curator, you can do a strictly academic exhibition built on the work of historians and scholars, or you can create a bridge to a broader public.”

He approaches his private life as calmly. During an early 12-year relationship with a psychoanalyst, he spent four days a week on an analyst’s couch. With a subsequent partner, he underwent many months of couples therapy. “Those times were bumpy,” he recalled. “My brain was so exercised.”

His current relationship with a neurologist has brought him a degree of tranquillity, as has an unswerving health regimen. “At the end of a day, an hour on the elliptical machine clears my mind,” he said.

But a workout, however rigorous, has done little to blunt an ambition that may well be bred in the bone. “I was always academically competitive, he said. “I wanted the straight A’s. I wanted the perfect score. I wanted that award.

“As soon as ‘Dior,’ opened, I immediately put on my mask and ran over to Met,” he recalled. “I had to see what was going on.”

He is impelled, he would argue, by necessity. “I feel like people who buy a ticket to ‘Dior’ could buy a ticket to a movie, a museum or sporting event for the same price,” he said. “They are thinking, ‘What option am I going to make time for this week?’ As a curator, you have to think, ‘How am I going to make mine the most interesting?’ ”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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