John Galliano Previews The Met’s New Exhibition
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John Galliano Previews the Met’s New Exhibition

“It makes you want to dress up, doesn’t it?” laughs John Galliano, as he wanders saucer-eyed through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Asian galleries, and the Anna Wintour Costume Center where the exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass” will be unveiled at the glittering gala this coming Monday evening. The exhibition’s curator, Andrew Bolton, is leading the way, and the scene, it has to be said, is fairly chaotic. With less than a week to go, there is a lot of installation magic that still needs to happen, but giant movie screens are already flickering with potent images and golden mannequins, some wrapped in protective Tyvek shrouds, are awaiting placement in the evocative sets. The exhibition’s artistic director, the brilliant filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, and its production designer Nathan Crowley, (who created the scenic magic for such movies as Interstellar and The Dark Knight), seem a little distracted. “We are looking for . . . lightbulbs,” Wong deadpans, and off they dash on their hunt.

In the conservation laboratory Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s elegant Deco qipaos are hanging up ready to be dressed, and John gasps as a child-sized yellow robe, painstakingly embroidered with the twelve auspicious symbols reserved for imperial use—it was made for Puyi, the last emperor immortalized by Bertolucci in his magisterial 1987 movie, clips of which are projected (along with other iconic China-themed films) on state-of-the-art screens throughout the exhibition. John leans in to study the embroidery. “To be that close,” he whispers, “it’s magic. The fil d’or is so beautiful.”

In a room off the conservation lab, the golden mannequins that are already dressed are lined up like the soldiers in Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army. Many of them are sporting the incredible headdresses that John’s long-term collaborator, the brilliant milliner Stephen Jones, is busy finessing on site; some of them were fabricated by the company that constructs Anish Kapoor’s impeccable high-finish sculptures. A 1920s picture gown by Jeanne Lanvin, with its full black taffeta skirts embroidered with jade colored roundels copied from Chinese bronze mirrors, jostles a tunic suit by Valentino and dress by Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel imitating Coromandel screens.

There is an early 1950s ensemble made by Balenciaga for Mrs. Firestone from a painted silk that resembles the de Gournay wallpaper we have just seen in one of the galleries upstairs. Pagoda-sleeved satin jackets from Tom Ford’s 2004 swan-song collection for Yves Saint Laurent stand shoulder to shoulder with pieces by Poiret, the dragon lady robe that Travis Banton designed for Anna May Wong in the 1934 film Limehouse Blues, and a Mao-era suit. And Christian Dior’s collections manager Soizic Pfaff is earnestly dressing an eggplant-colored ensemble that John himself designed for the house’s spring 2003 couture.

It is one of many Dior pieces in the show, and Soizic can’t be distracted. “This is strange,” says John, pensively admiring his dress. “It’s like seeing a child you haven’t seen for a long time.” In the gallery next door he is looking at another ensemble from this same collection, a yellow silk gown breathtakingly embroidered in aubergine, that elides Chinese embroidery, color, and detailing with the elaborate silhouettes of the fashionable early-sixteenth-century women depicted in Lucas Cranach’s etchings and paintings.

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“We put them through their paces, didn’t we?” John laughs, scrutinizing the extraordinary work. “I remember Monsieur Lesage telling me that some of the stitches you are not allowed to do anymore,” he adds, “because they can turn you blind. Those tiny, tiny little knots!” In the annex next door, John is transfixed by the clips of the Chinese silver screen movie goddess Ruan Lingyu in her 1934 vehicle The Goddess, in which she plays a prostitute dressed in a series of high-style qipaos. In one shot the director Wu Yonggang’s lens zooms in on the side split of her skirt hem, provocatively outlined in filmy lace. “Look at that dentelle!” he gasps. John peeps under a Tyvek shroud to admire a jacket that Coco Chanel made in about 1930 from an authentic dragon robe. An untouched original is displayed nearby. “It’s magical,” he says. “To be in a room with all these things is . . . awesome.”

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