“It’s a gull’s head that’s been coated in silicone,” explains Andrew Bolton, the 49-year-old British-born curator in charge of the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is examining a dress by Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, a wild whip of silicone fringing frozen in motion, the gull skulls caught as if attempting to fly. The dress will appear in the Costume Institute’s new show Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, opening next week.

We are standing in the conservation lab of what, since 2014, has been named the Anna Wintour Costume Center. All around are garments. The work benches are covered in tissue paper and furnished with the crates in which various archive clothes have been delivered. “This piece was grown,” says Bolton of another dress by Van Herpen, the jagged contours of which have been “drawn out” by magnets. “It’s a sort of resin that has iron filings in it,” he explains.

The room has more the air of a geeky science club than a hushed couture atelier. In the corner is a Hussein Chalayan dress from which paper pollens fly on wires. On the table is an Issey Miyake A-POC, an experiment in cutting clothes from a roll of fabric that was planned to be shown on 20 conjoined mannequins. “It’s like The Human Centipede,” says Bolton, referring to the 2009 horror film.

All is preparation for the most important date in the Costume Institute’s calendar: the spring exhibition, and its spectacular unveiling at the vast gala dinner, the Met Ball, on Monday. Few exhibitions, fashion or otherwise, attract such widespread attention. The Costume Institute Benefit, to use its correct name, is an overt example of old New York society turned 21st century. Getting a ticket is near-impossible. The guest list, and what everyone wears, is controlled by Anna Wintour and her team at US Vogue, who will co-chair the gala alongside Idris Elba, Taylor Swift and Jonathan Ive, chief design officer at Apple: the company is sponsoring both the gala and exhibition. The event’s sole purpose is to raise the money needed to fund the Costume Institute.

Manus x Machina will be the first exhibition to fall under Bolton’s full charge since he took over from Harold Koda as the Institute’s curator in charge in January. Once a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Bolton moved to the Met in 2002, where he has curated or co-curated 13 shows. He made his name with Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen show staged in 2011, a year after the designer’s death. It attracted 661,509 visitors, while last year, 815,992 visitors saw his exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass — making the exhibitions respectively the Met’s eighth- and fifth-most-visited shows in its 146-year history.

Andrew Bolton
© Andrew Rowat

The Costume Institute is housed in the basement of the Met’s north wing and includes an on-site storage facility containing most of its 35,000-piece collection. It also has a private library, still smelling of fresh wood from the 2014 renovations, where Bolton and I are now sharing tea and biscuits. Behind us is a life-sized caricature doll of Diana Vreeland, the former US Vogue editor who, in 1971, transformed the Costume Institute from being a fusty old repository for clothes into one of the world’s foremost destinations for radical fashion display. On her head sits a gold crown made by Stephen Jones, a remnant from last year’s China show.

Vreeland set the tone for eccentricity at the institute which Bolton continues to essay in his own English way today. Tall, slim and boyish, with British teeth, he is dressed in his daily uniform of a white shirt and slim-cut, cropped grey high-waisted trousers, both by his partner, the US designer Thom Browne. His accent is still English but he has learnt the American art of engagement. His talk is impassioned, his humour gleefully base and often self-deprecating. He laughs easily, before switching back to ideas that are complex and deeply felt.

“I really want Manus x Machina to be like a manifesto of where I would like to take the Costume Institute,” he tells me. “Really it’s about trying to marry connoisseurship with cultural theory.” The McQueen show, with its single subject, was a rarity. Instead, Bolton’s interests lie in the position of fashion within a wider social and psychological context. During our 90-minute conversation, he details enough exhibition ideas to last a decade: a show based on Freud and fashion; a collaboration with fiction writers; a look at the impact of flawed bodies — Chanel created her famous two-tone pump, he says, to disguise her “really big feet”.

Exhibit from the ‘Manus x Machina’ show, by Iris van Herpen
Exhibit from the ‘Manus x Machina’ show, by Iris van Herpen © Nicholas Alan/The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Manus x Machina will examine how man and machine-made processes have evolved and become entwined in fashion. “I didn’t want a show on fashion and technology,” he says. “I’m not a great fan of gadgets. I don’t find them that beautiful to look at. I’m interested in how technology has been incorporated as part of the creative process.”

“When people present visions of the future, its utopian or dystopian. I think people expect this show to be daleks and it’s not. It looks at technology as something romantic,” says Bolton. “There’s a connection between fear and clothing,” he continues. “Was haute couture a reaction to the anxiety of the democratic possibilities of the sewing machine — the two came about in the same decade [the 1850s]?”

The exhibition’s genesis was a wedding dress from Karl Lagerfeld’s AW14 Chanel couture show. “It was made of a scuba knit, a completely synthetic material,” says Bolton. “The 14ft train was hand-embroidered, and made in a sort of computer pixelated pattern. From the front it was super-modern, and as she turned it was all [artisanal skill of] the hand. That was the inspiration for it.”

Exhibit from the ‘Manus x Machina’ show, by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel
Exhibit from the ‘Manus x Machina’ show, by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel © Nicholas Alan/The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The show leaps across decades to find contrasts and commonalities: a Pierre Cardin 3D heat-moulded dress from 1968 next to a similar 2015 work by Junya Watanabe; a 1952 Dior couture dress with floral embellishment next to a piece from Christopher Kane’s botanical “petal” collection from 2014.

Bolton is enraptured by the narrative of clothing, rare in an industry that is rife with cynicism and ennui. “There is a sort of shamanistic quality to some works,” he says. For him there is great pleasure in understanding why a piece was made, and with what processes. “It’s actually not that complicated,” he says of a Proenza Schouler long-sleeve tiered dress. “The laser-cut leather has been applied to the garment by ultrasonic welding, so there’s no glue. The fabrics are bonded using high-frequency acoustics: only dogs can hear it. In Pennsylvania,” he says, deadpan.

“I’ve learnt so much from this because I’m such a technophobe,” he says of his research for the show. “Science was my least-favourite subject at school.”

Indeed, Bolton’s path into fashion was that of an outsider. He studied anthropology at the University of East Anglia before doing an MA in non-western art. His first curatorial role at the V&A was in the East Asia department, where he began to introduce examples of fashion into the collection. When he switched to the fashion department, he staged provocative exhibitions such as Men In Skirts, a show that is still referred to by young menswear designers finding a path through gender fluidity.

Bolton’s exhibitions come from specific, considered beginnings, yet the results have proven exceedingly popular. “The beautiful thing about fashion and clothing is that it’s accessible,” he says. “We all wear it, so we all have an opinion about it. It’s unlike painting or sculpture, where people are almost afraid to voice their opinion because they don’t feel they know enough.”

Bolton still recognises the challenges of mounting fashion shows in an organisation that incorporates the entire spectrum and history of art. “Harold [Koda] always says the Costume Institute is like the Met’s pretty sister. It gets all the dates but none of the respect,” he says. “I know what he means by it.” But Bolton is benefiting from a new interest in the Met, especially with the recent opening of the contemporary galleries at Met Breuer in the old Whitney Museum building. “It’s an exciting time to be at the Met,” he says. “Apart from our department, it has always been very circumspect about the contemporary. But it’s paid off. It’s allowed us to see the mistakes of other institutions, and to approach it in a more thoughtful way.”

Additionally, Bolton has found himself an unlikely film star: he plays a central role in First Monday In May, a documentary that follows preparations for last year’s China exhibition, and the Met Gala that launched it. “I had to have a few glasses of champagne and watch it on a really small screen so I couldn’t see myself,” he says. “I was really ambivalent about my role. I just thought it was going to be amazing for the museum. And once you commit to something, you have to really commit to it.”

The film further raises the institute’s profile, but he does have some regrets. “I look back at it now and I think, god, why didn’t I get an early night’s sleep? Why did I look so rough? Jeez, I should have washed my hair . . . ”

Last year’s Met Gala raised more than $12.5m, with the Institute’s entire budget paid for from its proceeds. It’s clear from the film, though, that Bolton’s focus is on the exhibition, not the event. “Anna and her team update me in terms of the gala but my role’s quite minimal,” he says. One scene towards the end of the film follows Bolton on the gala night as he walks through the exhibition alone. “It looks like I’m at a party I wasn’t invited to,” he says.

Bolton with US Vogue’s Anna Wintour
Bolton with US Vogue’s Anna Wintour © Andrew Toth/Getty Images

His relationship with Wintour is close. “She’s really supportive,” he says. “Sometimes I’m struggling to get in contact with a designer [about] a decision made by them. I can ask Anna for advice and she always gives it. And her advice is always, ‘Andrew, edit, edit, edit.’ ”

The film is striking for its number of English accents: especially in a study of such a quintessentially American institution. As well as Bolton and Wintour, the Met’s director Thomas P Campbell is also a Brit. “It’s funny,” he says, “I see myself as so much of a New Yorker, not as an Englishman in New York. I never did. Although when I hear my voice on the documentary, when it’s not with my face, I think, who’s that?”

Bolton’s workload is now in overdrive. “People saw the documentary and said, ‘Poor you, that show was so big and that’s why you were so behind.’ But pretty much every year is like that.” This year, they have been delayed by the rigour of the set-build, created in collaboration with Rem Koolhaas’s design studio OMA. “Minimalism is just so hard to do,” he jokes. “Worst-case scenario we’ll have three days to install 160 works.” Which means Bolton may well be installing dresses, right now.

Underneath it all, however, Bolton has a deeper reason for focusing the show so squarely on process. “I do think the moment in fashion is a bit of a house of cards. It’s alarming that design houses can’t keep their chief designers. Fashion is so fast that people are losing sight of the role of the designer and ideas of creativity. There are very valid concerns, and I do feel the fashion system needs to be addressed, for sure, but there’s so much incredible work being done in fashion. People lose sight of the materiality and artistry that goes into it.”

Manus x Machina may seem to be engaged with the future but Bolton’s intent is not to advocate a great leap forward. In fact, quite the opposite. “I hope this show allows people to refocus, and recalibrate, and to slow down,” he says.

It’s past 6pm and the museum is about to close. The biscuits are untouched, so he offers one to the librarian, still at work. “There’ll be crumbs all over the Helmut Newton book,” he says. And then heads back to work, the metal taps of his Thom Browne brogues clicking down the corridors as he goes.

Photographs: Andrew Rowat; Andrew Toth/Getty Images; Nicholas Alan/The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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