"Emphatics" Explores Five Decades of Avant-Garde Fashion at Phoenix Art Museum

You only have one body. Let Emphatics cover it.

So went a promotional slogan for Karin and James Legato’s Pittsburgh boutique Emphatics, whose avant-garde fashion archives are the subject and contents of Phoenix Art Museum’s newest exhibition. It chronicles the rise of ready-to-wear clothing as designers including Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier forged careers independent of the fashion houses where they got their starts.

In other words, it’s about democratization and innovation in fashion from 1963 through 2013.

On view in the museum’s Steele Gallery through January 2017, “Emphatics: Avant Garde Fashion” bursts with around 100 ensembles that look at once like a time capsule opened to share relics from a past era and a credit to the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Stunning in its scope — and for the fact that the museum acquired this 400-piece collection as opposed to receiving or purchasing items piecemeal — the exhibition examines fashion’s most daring designers, including Alexander McQueen, Kenzo, and John Galliano through prêt-à-porter garments and piles of ephemera.

All of it comes from the Legatos’ personal collection, an unintentional archive, as Karin calls it. She and her late husband picked and chose pieces from one enfant terrible after another while running Emphatics. They kept everything from throwaway fashion show invitations with handwritten seating assignments to Thierry Mugler skirt-suits in black, berry, and lavender complete with satellite-shaped brooches and earrings that look lifted from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

But it all began with a black crocheted mini-dress.

James Legato founded Emphatics in 1963 as a salon where his cutting-edge hairstyling found a home. In 1969, he expanded it into an all-inclusive style hub, whose advertisements touted “All Together Emphatics: The Clothes, the Hair, Your Own Exciting Look.”

James met Karin when she worked in another area boutique. She sold him a pair of pants. He, in turn, invited her to Emphatics, where she bought that dress by Leah Hertz for Crochetta LTD London. As Karin recalls, they were inseparable after that.

Their story began with that dress, and so does “Emphatics.”

Upon entering the gallery, there are three ways to approach the show, curated by Phoenix Art Museum’s Dennita Sewell. Straight on is the neon sign from the shop, illuminating a violet-blue Thierry Mugler one-shoulder gown that’s all angles in silk taffeta, with darting hips cinched by a wide belt. To the right, garments are shown chronologically on a static, sweeping runway. To the left is a timeline, chronicling the boutique’s history with photographs, stacked garment boxes stamped with the Emphatics logo in gold, a video interview with Karin, and a black velvet rope from the shop that lent it an air of exclusivity, as if entering a club.

Striking, bold, and definite were the measurements by which James deemed something “emphatic.” And it’s clear the Legatos were vigilant about keeping a finger on the pulse. They worked closely with designers pushing the boundaries of the sometimes stuffy fashion world.

This exhibition of their archives reflects that feeling: fizzy fun, soundtracked with dance music selected by Scott Ewalt, but with educational elements that lend context to the tromp-l’oeil pinstripe suiting separates that are secretly a onesie, body-con party dresses Cher Horowitz would max out a credit card for, and a presentation of swimwear to conclude the show, bucking the runway tradition of closing with wedding wear.

Faxed communiques between the Legatos and Alaïa appear among the exhibition’s ephemera and reveal how they stood by young designers they championed — even when those designers hit production snafus. Such documents, fliers, and personal photos fill several glass cases down the center of the gallery. Above them, clips play from fashion shows where ensembles featured in the exhibition made their runway debuts.

The deftness with which the Legatos placed their style bets is astonishing. From Issey Miyake’s first edition of A-POC, a customizable garment made by an industrial knitting machine that was delivered in a cardboard tube with directions, to the macho, militaristic leather coats of Claude Montana, the couple gravitated toward designers who’ve now secured places in the history books and toward pieces that reflected reverence for personalities instead of trends, stocking their shop with wearable oddities.

Mere mortals would be ill-advised to go out in head-to-toe Gaultier (there is but one Madonna, after all), but the Legatos encouraged their clients to make daring choices and incorporate them into elevated everyday outfits. The goal was a carefully curated but robust wardrobe.

Which is exactly what Sewell has presented.

“Emphatics” is on view at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue, through January 16, 2017. Admission is $18 for adults. See
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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski