The exhibition seeks to foreground Aghion at the brand, repositioning Chloé as a historically important fashion name and giving the museum a pop culture edge. Whether it succeeds was the subject of a debate between Vanessa Friedman, the chief fashion critic for The New York Times, and Max Lakin, a contributing culture critic.
VANESSA FRIEDMAN Fashion shows in New York tend to land at the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, or specialist institutions like the Fashion Institute of Technology, which makes this show something of a black swan. So what exactly is going on here? Do you think this is a teachable moment about cultural preconceptions, an effort by the museum to reach a new audience, or both?
MAX LAKIN This is what intrigued me about siting this here. The Jewish Museum has mounted art-historically important exhibitions, though as you say, infrequently about fashion (their first was a buoyant Isaac Mizrahi survey in 2016). Yet this show only really addresses Aghion’s Jewishness — and, for that matter, Aghion herself — sidelong, despite her being the nominally animating principle.
Aghion’s biography basically takes up half of the first gallery, with photos of her lolling among the desert dunes of her youth, after which the show becomes a mostly linear brand history, from boutique upstart to global industry player. I don’t necessarily think this is a curatorial failure: like the majority of diasporic Jewry, Aghion was largely secular; most designer-entrepreneurs did not foreground their Jewishness. (“Ralph Lauren” is of course the savvy Anglicization of Ralph Lifshitz.) She subsumed her own identity in the Chloé name, an invention she chose mostly because she liked the way the roundness of the letters looked together. Despite its consumer popularity, Chloé is relatively understudied, no?
FRIEDMAN Very understudied. In part, that’s because museums tend to be either interested in fashion as: 1) an art form, or a textile art form, which means couture: the super-fancy clothes made for the very few; or 2) an expression of a sociocultural trend, in which case work from different brands makes the argument. It’s rare for one show to focus on a single ready-to-wear brand such as Chloé. Yet that’s what the Jewish Museum is doing, and it suggests that brand has something very important to say. But beyond simply giving Gaby Aghion credit where credit is due — here is a Jewish female entrepreneur in a fashion world where those three words rarely get acknowledged as going together — what, exactly, is that?