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'Reigning Men' at LACMA

Commune Design sets the scene for an extensive new menswear-through-history exhibition in Los Angeles

by Julie Wolfson
on 13 April 2016

Currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), rain pours down inside and men fill the galleries. On the first floor of BCAM, Random International’s Rain Room continues its global frenzy and naturally become one of LA’s most popular Instagrammable experiences. On the second floor of this Renzo Piano-designed building, images of the male experience rule the conversation in every direction. To the left, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium" explores the career of this seminal artist. To the right, "Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715 to 2015" (taking its name from the classic Weather Girls disco song-turned-anthem) offers a rare opportunity to focus on the masculine side of the history of fashionable dress.

Often dresses and gowns are the stars of fashion exhibits, but this major survey features 200 looks for men, mostly pulled from LACMA’s permanent collection. The museum's Costume and Textiles department curators organized the massive number of pieces in the show to reflect fashion trends highlighting connections and contrasts between eras. The themes—Revolution/Evolution, East/West, Uniformity, Body Conscious, and The Splendid Man—make it possible to show a 1940s zoot suit alongside a recent Jeremy Scott design.

Tasked with creating the exhibition design, Steven Johanknecht and Roman Alonso of local studio Commune met with the curators to view the tremendous number of pieces in the show. The curators at LACMA have collaborated with several architects and designers to create innovative exhibition design. In this case Commune—whose portfolio includes Verve Coffee Shop to the Palm Springs Ace Hotel and Swim Club—was an inspired choice. Both Johanknecht and Alonso worked with Simon Doonan at Barneys New York in the '80s. “We knew our way around a mannequin,” shares Johanknecht, who was the former Vice President of Display and Store Design at Barneys before going to work at Donna Karan and Banana Republic.

The Commune designers knew they needed to transform LACMA’s massive white gallery spaces into something better fitting for this type of show. They developed the idea of over-scaled architectural cornices taking the viewers on a journey through the rooms. “Displaying period clothing next to contemporary designs help the viewer see the connections that the curators have found in the collection. In the large Uniformity-themed gallery with a sleek charcoal grey cornice, a Burberry trench stands out among pieces loaded with decoration to visually reveal how this coat became an iconic piece of outerwear.

“Some of the references we were looking at were Michael Graves, the Memphis Group, Ettore Sotsass, and Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library for the mannerism and the scale of molding,” adds Johanknecht. “The color focuses you down onto the mannequins and to the pieces you are looking at. Then letting the white space above and washing that with light gives some levity to the space." He has a hard time narrowing down a favorite piece in the show. “That zoot suit in the first room is just incredible. When you see that and how it is meant to move when someone is dancing. I also love the Rudi Gernreich caftan.”

"Reigning Men" is on view at LACMA now through 21 August, 2016

Images by Julie Wolfson

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