The Emphatics: Avant Garde Fashion 1963-2013 exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum, which opened on November 6th, featured the collections of modern powerhouse designers, such as Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake, Addezine Alaïa, and more, which originated in the Emphatics store in Pittsburgh.
In a lecture on the formation of the Emphatics exhibit and the history of the store with the same name behind it, Dennita Sewell, the Phoenix Art Museum’s Jackie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design, gave the audience a look behind the scenes into the museum’s latest fashion exhibit.
It all started in November of 2014, when Sewell was sitting next to a former Metropolitan Museum of Art colleague who told her that he had heard about a collection in Pittsburgh that she would be interested in.
The collection was at a store called Emphatics, which was founded in 1963 as a hair salon and developed into a full-fledged avant grade boutique experience and closed in 2013.
After being sent a PDF of several images featuring pieces in the store’s collection, Sewell said, “I couldn’t believe some of the pieces that were in the archive.”
The collection would cost a large amount to purchase and, according to Sewell, the museum doesn’t have a fund dedicated to purchasing pieces. But despite this potential obstacle, Sewell spoke with Kelly Ellman, a member of the museum’s collections committee, and showed her the PDF, to which Ellman told Sewell that they should go for it.
With the go ahead, Sewell flew to Pittsburgh to see the collection in person, and was impressed by what she saw.
The store had a large collection of clothes, according to Sewell, including menswear pieces from prominent designers which were difficult to acquire, including Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano, as well as a vintage archive that the Legatos offered to throw in for free, which included accessories, rare pieces, and more.
“They had very, very fashion forward pieces in the store and as a part of the archive,” Sewell said.
One of the most important parts of the archive that the Legatos had was located in about twenty bins in their back office.
In these bins, Sewell said, were original show ephemera; letters, posters, runway show invitations, and original videos.
“These materials are extremely hard to come by. They only go to fashion insiders and so they’re very difficult for institutions to collect,” she said. “And here was a whole group of them and they matched the clothes.”
After seeing the collection, Sewell was sold, but she still had to convince the museum that the collection would be worthy of purchasing.
One of her requirements when considering a collection for the museum, Sewell said, is to think of the collection in the span of 100 years.
“What we acquire is based on some kind of rubric of research, of some kind of reasoning for it that exists in a larger way other than, ‘Oh, I like that.”’
In the span of 24 hours, the archive was purchased with the help of six families, including the Ellmans, and with the support of the Arizona Costume Institute.
“It was a whirlwind 24 hours, but it was an incredible thing,” Sewell said.
One important thing that Sewell promised the Legatos was the the museum’s collection would be a part of their 50th anniversary.
And it was.
The History of Emphatics
Emphatics originally started out as a hair salon in 1963, since the Legato family owned a hair styling business.
But James Legato wanted to achieve more for his vision that just hairstyling, according to Sewell, he wanted to style a client’s whole look. So, the Legatos started selling clothes at Emphatics.
In the 1970’s Karin bought a black crochet dress from James, and Sewell said, they were inseparable ever since.
Karin not only was the co-owner of the store, according to Sewell, she would also model the clothes for the store’s advertising, and was the muse.
With the rise of ready-to-wear in the late 1970’s and it’s increasing relevance with designers of that era, the Legatos jumped on board and started heading to Paris.
The designers on the edge of the ready-to-wear scene included avant garde designers Thierry Mugler, Yves Saint Laurent, and others.
“At the time, remember, these designers were not known, they were the avant garde then and they became the classics, they became the big designers.”
Karin personally tried on every garment that was purchased for Emphatics and looked for proper construction, durability, and seamless transition into a larger wardrobe, Sewell said.
The choice of these garments was specific, and according to Sewell, they had to fit the Emphatics streetwise style. It wasn’t irony that the Legatos selected garments from lesser known avant garde designers whom they would nurture, that would become the classics of today.
“They were not trained in fashion, they were not trained in business, and so they really just created their own way with the store and it was all based on passion.”
Emphatics: The Museum Exhibit
“This collection was never intended to be a museum archive, it was never even particularly meant to be a collection, they just loved these things,” Sewell said.
When the collection was coming to the Phoenix Art Museum, there were many things to consider on how the show should be presented.
The exhibit was located in a wide open gallery, where mannequins lined the outer walls. The walls were angled and featured jagged platforms upon which the mannequins rested.
The mannequins were grouped along the walls by designer, allowing patrons to see a small evolution of the designer’s work before moving on to another.
The museum also chose to end the designer grouping lineup with a strong designer: Addezine Alaïa, who Sewell said, was chosen due to his relevance and longevity in a modern fashion system in the midst of many changes.
“Alaïa is still very active, valid, and leading the way today.”
The industrial-like space paired with a lighted grid hanging above the ceiling gave a nod to the streetwise edge that was a part of the Emphatics store, Sewell said.
The exhibit also featured projection screens that hung high above the center of the room and played runway show footage from many of the featured designers’ shows.
Down the center of the room were long rectangular cases of original ephemera, such as runway show invitations and momentos, which Sewell said highlighted their importance and rarity.
“When you go down and look at the ephemera down the center aisle, keep in mind, this was not like her baseball collection of invitations, she was at all of those shows,” Sewell said. “She was there.”
In paying tribute to the importance and style of the rare runway show invitations and the personal relationship among the museum and its patrons, Sewell said, museum members’ exhibit invitations were written in a script font to mimic the personal touch of the handwritten runway show invitations that the Legatos received and attended themselves.
“Emphatics was an experience as a store and we tried to make it an experience for you here.”