Visual Arts

Urban Cowboys

Western tradition, in all its romanticized glory, has always appealed most intensely to the urban dwellers of the East Coast. From their cries of gold on the leftmost shore, through pulp magazines, to serialized television shows and onto New York fashion runways, the West has always been about the ideal rather than reality. But can you blame those citizens of the high-rise? After all, the open prairie, wild horses, calculating villains and damsels in distress sound a bit more appealing than trailer parks, gun-carrying rednecks and miles of flat pavement lined with convenience stores.

The idealized vision of the West is the underlying theme of "Way Haute West!", the new fashion exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum. In fact, the clothes in the show are not about everyday Western style at all but more about the way fashion designers have thought about and conceived the Western attitude toward life. Much like contemporary art, this current offering is concept rather than content; yes, the West exists in this show, but it exists as the ideals of freedom, independence and self-reliance translated into clothing made for the world of haute couture.

These are not easy connections to make. But thanks to the extensive research of Dennita Sewell, the Phoenix Art Museum's new curator of fashion, the show illustrates how those ideas associated with the West have moved to the forefront of American fashion design at various times. Sewell manages perfectly to detail the moments when those inhabitants of ultra-hip locales turned their attention here and imitated the styles and designs found in our own dusty region.

"What I wanted to do was show that culture doesn't always come from these large cities," says Sewell, herself a recent import from New York who came to Phoenix after working as the collection manager of fashion design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "There have been moments and times when those spotlights have switched and people have looked to the West for inspiration and culture."

Given a chance, Sewell will tell you that these clothes were made to be worn by urbanites. In fact, the designs probably got no closer to Western status than being sold on a street named for cowboy entertainment -- Rodeo Drive, with the Spanish pronunciation, please. This is Dolce & Gabanna meets High Lonesome, Roy Rogers à la Versace, Ralph Lauren and denim chic.

Sewell says she spent a lot of time thinking and researching her subject. "I was looking through old Vogue magazines, and in 1968 everything is all space age; then, the next year, there's fringes on all the outfits and suddenly the West is important again."

The jewel of the show, and the only dress shown behind glass, is Christian Lacroix's leather-encrusted pink vaquero outfit from the spring-summer collection of 1992. The history of the piece is exactly what makes this show more than just a retrospective of fashionable clothing. Though the ensemble is highly influenced by the Western wear we see around these parts, its inspiration comes more from the romance of the West and its popularity in Europe. Lacroix grew up in the south of France, not far from the north of Spain where the vaquero tradition originated in the early 19th century. That same tradition traveled west to California during America's vast exodus to the West, only to reappear in Europe with the popularity of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the end of the 19th century. Buffalo Bill actually left images of his traveling show at a small museum in France that Lacroix saw as a little boy. The outfit, complete with pink silk dupioni gaucho pants covered with heavy, gold-painted leather designs, a wide-brimmed gold hat and long, dangling earrings, shows the full circle of the Western influence -- four countries, two transatlantic crossings, a French designer and a real Western hero, all before arriving in New York.

While the Lacroix piece stands in the entrance to the exhibit -- next to several fine examples of La Cracia gloves and a branded Chanel purse -- the rest of the show is found in the main fashion design room -- snuggled quite closely between the European Galleries on the second floor of the museum. Despite the tiny space afforded her, Sewell's creation comes off like a charm, in all its pop-affected grandeur. Powder blue walls appear like a comic-book-style Western sky, while bubbles of white clouds hang over the stylized mannequins as they strike various poses across a corrugated cardboard runway, complete with cactuses, fashioned after the desert floor. Like the Western tradition itself, it's great kitsch while hiding the fact that the museum gives Sewell no money to design shows, buy works or even advertise. In fact, all pieces purchased for the show come from gifts of the Arizona Costume Institute, which has, since her arrival, become Sewell's largest source of volunteers and fund raisers.

The runway begins with that fashion staple of the mid-1970s disco crowd, the leather-fringed jacket. This model, from the now-defunct Italian house Fiorucci, came to Italy via America, Andy Warhol, Jerry Hall and the rest of the Manhattan set. During the 1970s, Fiorucci was more than a fashion house; it was a scene, a happening, where too cool people gathered in cool clothes and embraced a hip set of artists, musicians and poets. The fringed jacket was inspired by Jerry Hall's obsession with vintage Frederick's of Hollywood Western wear, which the designer immediately took a liking to. Again, though, while the stylings of the leather jacket visually relate to the Western tradition, one can also associate the newly found freedom and independence of the 1970s single lifestyle and the emergence of the women's movement as intellectually tying this piece to the mood and attitude of the American West.

Sewell's vision goes beyond cowboy fashion. Zandra Rhodes rediscovers Native American imagery with a feather dress, made of silk and covered with native patterns, all conceived to lightly hang off the body to create the 1970s idea of unencumbered freedom. Rhodes sketched many of her designs at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Then, later, in the spirit of the age, she drove cross-country in a VW bus and became fascinated with the culture and environment of the Arizona desert.

The contemporary works in the show, from the likes of Versace, Dolce & Gabanna, and Helmut Lang, take on a new identity of the West, too, one where rap stars replace cowboy heroes and gold spurs become gaudy signs of bountiful wealth and extravagance. John Galliano's dress and jacket, designed for Christian Dior for 2000, is a perfect example of this. With denim stylings printed slantways across the silk dress, the false appearance of the denim gives a certain ruggedness to the gentle silk of the fabric. And this, combined with the denim jacket covered with gold belts, hitches and other regalia, creates a look more associated with hip-hop than anything necessarily Western at all. But that's the beauty of the show; the vast array of design interpreted through Western culture in all the postmodernist wrappings.

"Way Haute West!" is an important show for a museum that has attempted everything but changing its conservative approach to art to appeal to the younger, hip set. What the museum will learn, one hopes, through Sewell's success is that fancy cocktail parties will appeal only to lovers of cocktails -- if you want a wider and younger audience for your institution, it's not about what drinks you serve but about the type of art and programming you offer.