Valerie Steele is the Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. As a fashion historian, Dr. Steele has written numerous books such as The Corset: A Cultural History and Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power.
Can you tell me about your upcoming book and the exhibit that’s up now at FIT?
We don’t have a title for the book yet but the exhibit is called Fashion A-Z. It’s held in the fashion history gallery where we normally do 250 years of fashion on a particular theme such as seduction or color or sports, but because our collection is strong in 20th and 21st century clothes, we thought it would be fun to go through the alphabet and include designers from A-Z who are well represented in our collection. So we have about 50 now and another 50 will be in part two, opening in late May. The book will be called something like Fashion Designers A-Z from the Collection of the Museum at FIT.
What inspires you to write these books or choose these titles?
Most of my books have to do with exhibitions that were doing. What’s interesting about Fashion A-Z is that it’s about our permanent collection. Normally we have loaned pieces from collectors and designers. We try to have a range of exhibitions, but on a theme such as London fashion or on a particular garment like the corset.
How does the collection grow at the Museum?
We purchase from auctions and dealers as well as what designers give us. Other times it’s from individuals who offer us clothes. Of course it has to be museum quality but it’s amazing how many beautiful clothes people have offered to give us.
What alumni are you most proud of or feel you have a good collection from?
We have a very nice collection from Calvin Klein, and beautiful Ralph Rucci pieces as well. Also Michael Kors, just to name a few.
Right now, the current exhibit is 50 Years of the CFDA?
Yes, Diane Von Furstenberg approached my deputy director Patricia Mears about doing the show. It’s been a lot of fun and great experience. Although Patricia choose clothing for designers who were deceased, she and Diane thought it would be good to have the living designers choose themselves which of their looks they thought had there greatest impact on fashion. [When you saw what they picked], sometimes you were like “Oh yes, of course,” and other times you’re like “Oh why did they choose that one?”
How does this compare to the Daphne Guinness exhibit?
Completely different! There are so many exhibitions about designers but so few on individual woman of style who make the clothes come alive, and I think she is the most inspiring fashion icon today.
Are you currently teaching at FIT?
I did teach for a decade but now I am busy at the museum and I lecture a lot around the world.
What’s your next upcoming venue?
I’m going to Japan in two weeks and giving a lecture to a lot of FIT alumni there. I will be talking about a show I did last year called Japan Fashion Now about contemporary Japanese fashion.
Where do you see Japanese fashion in America going?
Well in addition to classics, there are a lot of new young designers like Jin Takashee who’s underground and very creative. You will see him because he’s working on a special project with Uniqlo that comes out next month.
Did you always want to work in fashion?
I wanted to be an actress when I was a child but have always been interested in fashion. My PhD was in modern European cultural history and in every course I took I ended up twisting it into some aspect of fashion and I wrote my doctorate on the erotic aspects of Victorian fashion.
Do you have a favorite book you worked on?
Probably the most famous is Fetish or maybe The Corset.
Would you say the closet at FIT inspires you in your closet at home?
No, I would say the Collection here lets me focus on important pieces. I think I have a very uniformed style
How would you describe it?
Narrow and black!
What the next exhibit?
I’m working on an exhibit for 2013 with my colleague Cher Dennis called “Celebrating Queer Style” focusing on gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. It will include mens and womenswear.
Have people been responsive to doing exhibitions such as Daphne Guinness?
She was lovely. She took a little convincing, because she’s really very modest but she was a co-curator and contributed a lot to the show, and she was absolutely wonderful to work with.