See Yourself in Couture at “Fashioning San Francisco”

The de Young museum’s latest exhibition reflects on a century of high fashion and history in its own backyard. Augmented reality tech by Snap Inc. even makes the unthinkable possible: visitors can “try on” archival eveningwear from Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Kaisik Wong.

Credit: Randy Dodson.

As American fashion capitals go, New York City gets a great deal of attention. Yet “Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style,” currently on view at the city’s de Young Museum, shows how designer fashion’s foothold in the city parallels San Francisco’s own journey toward prosperity in the wake of challenges beginning with the infamous 1906 earthquake. As the city became a hub for manufacturing, politics, society families, artists, counterculture, and philanthropy, a preponderance of Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, and Dior proliferated in the city’s upper echelons.

Of course, the great French couture houses are regulars on the circuit of museum retrospectives. “Fashioning San Francisco” branches beyond them. Highlights include a shibori-dyed silk gown from Yohji Yamamoto, a honeycomb-ish three-dimensional evening jacket by Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garçons, and a color-blocked gown by Christopher John Rogers. Then there are pieces from houses lost to history, like a captivating, beaded flapper-style silk chiffon evening dress from 1926, created by the late Louise Boulanger—a favorite of New York’s own society set.

Credit: Randy Dodson.

Where the exhibition really shines, though, is in its inclusion of the late homegrown talent Kaisik Wong. The Chinese-American artist and fashion designer was born in San Francisco in 1950, collaborated with ‘60s drag troupe “the Cockettes,” and emerged a tour-de-force from the city’s wearable art movement. The designer’s name ricocheted across the industry in 2002, after his death, when Nicolas Ghesquière admitted to copying a patchwork dress designed by Wong for a nearly identical patchwork vest in Balenciaga’s S/S 2002 collection. Doubtless, Wong is overdue his own, dedicated retrospective—the museum even owns his archive. Visitors, however, will have to content themselves with seeing just one of his looks: a black lamé ensemble with a structured overcoat and embellishments inspired by Chinese culture. Or, thanks to a collaboration with Snap, they can try the piece on.

While Snap’s AR tech has been used by the likes of LACMA and the Louvre, “Fashioning San Francisco” represents the first use of its AR mirrors in an American museum. The mirrors, which allow visitors to “try on” Wong’s ensemble, and evening gowns by Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent, were custom-made for the occasion. “That’s one of the benefits of being adjacent to Silicon Valley and the tech industry,” Laura L. Camerlengo, the curator in charge of costume and textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said in a recent interview. “They were excited to work with their hometown museum.”

Credit: Gary Sexton.
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