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"The White Shirt" Spotlights Italian Designer Gianfranco Ferré at Phoenix Art Museum

"I use the same approach to clothes as I did when I designed buildings," the late Gianfranco Ferré once said. "It is basic geometry: You take a flat form and revolve it in space."

This hyper-technical, detail-oriented approach the Italian architect turned designer employed is evident in Phoenix Art Museum's presentation of the traveling exhibition "The White Shirt, According to Me. Gianfranco Ferré," on view in the Steele Gallery through March 6, 2016. But it's evident in the 27 white shirts on display that Ferré was more than a mathematician or design executioner. 

This marks just the third time the exhibition, created by the Gianfranco Ferré Foundation in Milan and the Prato Textile Museum, has been shown. It premièred in Prato in February 2014 and then showed at Milan’s Palazzo Reale that March. In Phoenix, it's accompanied by a smaller exhibition in the Ellman Fashion Design Gallery that displays eight complete looks, along with 100 of Ferré's sketches.

"The White Shirt" is one of the most worthwhile, exciting exhibitions to come through Phoenix this year. That the show is exclusive to Phoenix Art Museum in North America — meaning it won't show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art nor the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology — is a testament to the strength of the museum's fashion department, headed by fashion curator Dennita Sewell since 2000.

The exhibition spotlights a designer worthy of recognition. Despite serving as artistic director at the house of Christian Dior from 1989 to 1997, his is not a household name. Ferré studied architecture at Milan Polytechnic Institute, graduating in 1969. He worked in accessory design and dove into the world of fashion by launching an eponymous line of ready-to-wear clothing in 1978. 

That Ferré was tapped as the first non-French creative force of Dior is reason enough to examine his career. He replaced Marc Bohan and was succeeded by John Galliano, and continued running his own Milan-based line while at Dior's helm (something that's commonplace today, but was comparatively rare for such a high-level designer at the time). Ferré died in 2007, and his legacy is the white shirt, a populist item of clothing that's perennially fashionable. In his hands, white shirts were boldly crafted as part of a powerful, glamorous woman's wardrobe.

At the entrance to the museum's main gallery space, sheer white panels are draped from the ceiling. They part to reveal a dramatically lit gallery space with walls doused in black. Mannequins face the entrance, standing on elevated rows as if in formation, and they wear a selection of Ferré's most significant white tops dating from 1982 to 2006. They pop from the darkness, sleeved arms akimbo.

Each mannequin stands suspended from sculptural metal wiring that spreads conically from each end of its torso. This further emphasizes the structure of the shirts, how the seams curve or jut, where flourishes end and begin. It's pure drama.

This contrast of hard with soft, dark and light, mirrors Ferré's blending of architect and fashion designer, with playful proportions and abstract ideas made concrete. One top is precisely what you'd imagine when thinking of a button-down: straightforward, office appropriate. From the neckline to the waist, that is. Below, the shirt flares into a tiered skirt, an homage to traditional Latin American dance wear.

There's a Seinfeldian puffy shirt made of silk taffeta, cotton tulle, cow leather, faux leather, stretch knit, and stretch tulle. A romantically flowing shirt dress calls to mind Renaissance-era dressing gowns. An intensely laser-cut shirt named Origami comprises tiny accordion pleats that splay like peacock feathers in nylon tulle and silk chiffon, while a strapless bustier called Calice was inspired by the imaginary swirls cut into the air by dueling swords. These are not re-imaginings of the white shirt, they are complete expressions of ideas and influences captured in that medium.

Beyond the impressive optics of gorgeous fabrics and details that merit the 360-degree views, the exhibition takes glimpses inside Ferré's creative mind. In glass cases on either side of the rows of garments are a corresponding sketches of each shirt, alongside an image of the shirt as interpreted by photographers, stylists, models, and fashion's power players in the context of magazines such as Elle Italia and British Vogue, catalog shoots, and advertising campaigns.

From sketch to mannequin, the argument for fashion as art — and fashion designer as artist — is made effortlessly.

"The White Shirt, According to Me. Gianfranco Ferré" is at Phoenix Art Museum through March 6, 2016. Entry is included in museum admission, $15 for adults. On Wednesday nights and First Fridays, the show costs $5 for adults. The sole exception is Friday, November 6, when the show is free to see during the La Dolce Vita Garden Party. See complete pricing details, hours, and more information at Phoenix Art Museum's website. A schedule of supplemental programming and events associated with this exhibition can be found at Arizona Costume Institute's website.

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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