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Permanent Collection Highlights: Interview with Cynthia Amnéus, Chief Curator and Curator of Fashion Arts and Textiles

by Megan Nauer


fashion , Fashion Arts & Textiles , Comme des Garcons , textiles , permanent collection

Rei Kawakubo, Jacket, Tank, Skirt and Pants

One of Cynthia Amnéus’s favorite ensembles in the vast fashion and textiles archive at the Cincinnati Art Museum is a riotous assemblage from Rei Kawakubo, avant-garde designer and founder of the Comme des Garçons label. It features bright shades of pink, orange and yellow, multiple patterns, a black and gray blazer with extra sets of cuffs and collars and, maybe most strikingly, a pair of electric blue ruffled pants fashioned with large rectangular cutouts.

“Kawakubo is such an important designer in the sense that she is so conceptual. She talks about the fact that she starts every season from zero. It’s not about trends, it’s not about ‘Where am I going with this?’ or what other designers are doing or what the fads will be—she just creates things out of her mind. Amnéus enthuses. “Something that’s so interesting about this ensemble is all of the influences you can pull out. There’s some African influence there, there’s some ikat, there’s a traditional tailored blazer but then it’s doubled…” Amnéus gestures to the pieces on the mannequin in turn.

“The way that [Kawakubo] puts pieces together in unusual ways, uses unusual materials, creates new kinds of garments—like these pants, these crazy windowpane pants—which are so great!” Amnéus laughs. “She’s been an enormous influencer of many contemporary designers since. Kawakubo was one of three incredibly important Japanese designers…who really have pushed us toward what we wear today. The fact that we have statement zippers on the outside of garments, the fact that I have frayed edges decorating my jacket—that was them. This idea of hodge-podging these things together toward something new, that was really them.”

Amnéus initially came to her love of fashion and textiles partially through a surprising avenue: practice of 19th century dance. This led to fascination with the history and fashion of the time, and began to pave a road that has now wound through more than 20 years of experience in her field. Amnéus attained her degrees in studio art, obtaining her M.A. in textiles and fibers. Because of that, Amnéus says, “I come to this with an understanding of how textiles are made, where fibers come from, which has helped me a lot in terms of mounting things and other parts of my job—understanding why things behave the way they do on the body or form.”

When asked about the daily realities of being a curator and working with the collection at the museum, Amnéus reflects, “Every day is so different. I might be working on an exhibition with a designer, or might be working with the design and installation crew on mounts for artwork, or I might be at a potential donor’s house investigating a piece from their attic. I might be at the library doing research in 19th century periodicals, or I might be writing label copy. In my case, I might be dressing mannequins, I might be making their hair. We get to do so many different things as curators. We interface with every part of the museum…We might be helping to write a grant or design programming. Every day is completely different—I love it. Never the same old thing.”

One of Amnéus’s most important lessons from her career: “You learn to always look.” Amnéus describes the process of searching for new pieces to bring into the permanent collection at the museum as a careful balance between historical significance, physical condition and artistic quality. That said, when considering a new acquisition or displaying a piece from the archive, “You just never know. There are things in our collection that I look at and say…well, OK [without too much enthusiasm], but then we find out something new and remarkable out about them, or they become a perfect fit for an exhibition in a way you never would have expected. You keep an open mind.”

When it comes to strengthening the fashion and textiles collection at the museum, Amnéus says, “Knowing the collection as I do, I know where the gaps are, where the needs are. I have been focused on building the 20 and 21st century collections but, for instance, I know we also need ballgowns from the 1890s.”

For anyone curious about the inner workings of the permanent collection, Amnéus reminds us that at the museum, “We are actively collecting—the collection is always growing, by gift or acquisition. At the same time we are very careful, very selective in terms of what we bring in, the standard of quality of what we acquire and become caretakers of, to preserve and show people. We’ve been collecting since before the building was here. Collection directions change, but the quality of what we bring here does not.”

Image credit: 

Rei Kawakubo (b. 1942), Japan, Jacket, Tank, Skirt and Pants, Spring 2008, wool, polyester, cotton, polyurethane, nylon

The Cynthea J. Bogel Collection/Museum Purchase: Lawrence Archer Wachs Trust, 2016.234a-d