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Jean Paul Gaultier & Thierry Mugler at Phoenix Art Museum

Jean Paul Gaultier & Thierry Mugler at Phoenix Art Museum

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Emphatics exhibition brings European designs to Phoenix by way of Pittsburgh

A new exhibition acquired by the Phoenix Art Museum opens today through Jan. 16th, featuring an avant garde array of looks from iconic designers. Karin Legato and her late husband James Legato, finely curated the collection to include fashions and accessories from designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, John Galliano, Romeo Gigli, and Azzedine Alaïa. Also on display are original runway show invitations, videos and other materials—spanning 1963-2013.

James Legato launched Legato Hair Fashions in Pittsburgh in 1963 and in 1968 expanded his family’s salon to included high-end luxury apparel, so that he could style his clientele from head-to-toe. This new space was called Emphatics. Legato met his future wife in 1969 and she became his muse. The rest is fashion history. I recently attended a viewing of the collection and a symposium for the new exhibition. I sat and chatted with Phoenix Art Museum Fashion Curator Dennita Sewell and Karin Legato, to get more intel on the highly coveted and curated collection.

One of the first stations in the exhibition features a Betsey Johnson dress.
One of the first stations in the exhibition features a Betsey Johnson dress.

Interview with Dennita Sewell, Phoenix Art Museum Fashion Curator

Phoenix isn’t a fashion capital either and yet we’re making a strong fashion impact here with the resources the community brings together with the Arizona Costume Institute for the fashion department.

When we think of fashion we often think of the fashion capitals—New York, Paris and Milan, but the Emphatics collection was originally curated in Pittsburgh. How do you feel that knowledge impacts the fashion culture in Phoenix? I think it’s interesting because Phoenix isn’t a fashion capital either and yet we’re making a strong fashion impact here with the resources the community brings together with the Arizona Costume Institute for the fashion department. Pittsburg in the same way, shows me that you can do anything you want to, anywhere you are. Karin has had a vision and she worked hard at it. It’s a really inspiring story that it happened in Pittsburgh because it shows that, that kind of thing can be done.

Beginning fall of 2017, Arizona State University will offer a Bachelor of Arts in fashion and you are heading that program. How will exhibits such as Emphatics impact what you are doing with ASU? Everything builds on itself. We have 50 years under our belt here. That is really significant and those opportunities over the years have been growing and building on each other. We were selected by Karin because of our reputation. I think that activity attracts activity. Linking Arizona State University with it—it just is so natural for the students. The Metropolitan Museum’s costume institute was started to be an inspiration for designers and for fashion industry experts, and so, it’s the same thing here.
It’s just really important to me that in this world where everything is so digital that the students have a chance to see high quality objects and to see things by designers like Azzedine Alaïa, Mugler and Gaultier, who are highly regarded around the world as masters of fashion, and to see those first hand and to study them, not just on the internet, but see them, feel them. I always tell the students to ask the pieces questions: What is that fabric? Why did the designer chose that fabric? How do you choose the hemline when you’re using that fabric? How much does it cost? How is that cut? Who wore it? Where did they wear it? How did they feel? All those things—the answers are all in the exhibition. They’re all in the clothes.

What are you hoping visitors take away from viewing Emphatics? I hope they’ll be inspired. Karin Legato speaks on video in the exhibition and it’s freeing to listen to her, that she pioneered her own point of view in dressing. They pioneered their own store and neither one had business school training—they just did it and worked hard at it. It’s just an inspiring story on many levels. And, questions are being asked in fashion right now, you know serious questions. Should we continue to do fashion shows? What should the calendar be and the whole manufacturing thing? To be able to showcase someone who’s been an independent spirit all this time and has been successful at it, I think it is really important.

Speaking of fashion shows, what are your thoughts on them? Do you still believe they represent what they did in their heyday? I know they are incredibly expensive. There has been excitement linked with these shows for so long … something needs to transform or morph to the new excitement, the new way of seeing the clothes. If it’s not a fashion show—and I don’t really know what that is—I do know that there are industry groups and there are consultant groups looking at it, but I honestly think you have to ask the designers. I think it’s their work and they’re the key part of the system and what’s going to work for them.
I don’t know if it is a gallery style system, everything evolves as we’ve just seen. This was an evolution from the couture and while this was going on, everyone was like “The couture is dead, the couture is dead. There will be no more couture.” Well of course there’s still couture. So, we don’t really know and it’s hard to predict. Because it’s a whole energy in the air and there will emerge people, leaders like Mugler, like Jean Paul that will establish what the new style is, and if this system has run its course. It’s a very complex question that involves a lot of money and there’s a lot at stake. It’s hard to change something rapidly.

Interview with Karin Legato, Collector of Emphatics

That was the youth revolution back then. We were part of that. We were rebellious, we were breaking rules and tradition—that was kind of our path.

Why the name Emphatics? My husband named it that—it was before me. He wanted it bold, striking, definite. It was his vision.

When you started collecting pieces for Emphatics, did you know what you wanted to do with it down the line? When my husband conceived of Emphatics and created it in 1968-69, it was his passion. It was his desire to make women beautiful—his love of women and his desire to make them beautiful in his own unique vision. But we were young back then. We were in our 20s. We weren’t planning for the future. We were living the moment, living the day. That was the youth revolution back then. We were part of that. We were rebellious, we were breaking rules and tradition—that was kind of our path. That’s kind of where we were going. We didn’t want anything normal, we wanted to be out there and it was his vision. He was the artist and when I met him in 69, we became inseparable and I became his muse.
Did you curate this collection based on what you loved to wear? The collection is just a piece of what Emphatics was, but everything had to have that same quality. Our style was pretty much my style, because when we would do purchasing, I did really try almost everything on and I really had to like it on me—how it felt and the experience it gave me. If it passed that, that was something I could share with my clients. If I had a passion for it, it would be a natural transition for them to figure out how to put it in their lifestyles, too. But we were always avant garde, we were always cutting edge, we were always provocative. My husband wasn’t trained in retail, neither was I. He made up his own business model and he did it his way. There weren’t prices on the clothing. If they would look at a price tag, they’d say, “It’s how much money? I’m not trying that on!” We went, forget about that. Let them have the experience first then they can figure out if they can afford it.

You have pieces that span over time. What do you see as the evolution of the fashion in Emphatics versus what we see in today’s fashion? I think a lot of what you see in there is current. We bought and edited them. Integrity was very important. It wasn’t just new cutting edge designs. It was the artistry and integrity. Integrity also meant that things were well made and would last through time. My husband said, “If something is well done and well made it is like a Picasso. If it is not, it’s just trash.” So we used that as a model. That’s how we curated and picked pieces.

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What do you hope visitors take away? Because of the way people think of fashion nowadays, they don’t understand that this is the beginning of what the industry has become today. Unfortunately, I don’t like what the industry has become today. Because it has taken away this creativity. Branding has taken away the artistry and the creativity. You have designers like Louis Vuitton, even Balenciaga—this musical chairs of designers and their branding. That’s the reason McQueen killed himself. It’s all about money now. They don’t care who’s design it, it’s about the bottom line. It started with creativity. It started with designers and artists and these people were that base. That creativity and that spirit has gone. They don’t care who’s painting the picture anymore. It’s just, give me some dollars and cents, and I think that’s wrong.

For more info or to buy tickets for the Emphatics exhibition, visit phxart.org.

Mignon Gould

Mignon Gould

Mignon Gould is a multimedia publisher and the Agent-in-Chief of TheChicSpy.com. She is a style enthusiast, who views fashion as an art form that anyone can master. In our Culture column, she shares her musings on the latest happenings in the world, from diversity in fashion to pop culture controversies. Mignon has also interviewed celebrities and insiders including actress Emma Stone, 70's supermodel Pat Cleveland, and Audrey Hepburn's son, Luca Dotti.

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