When Jasen Emmons first heard about WOW’s travelling exhibition at a museum conference in Atlanta, Georgia, he had to find out more.
Jasen, the director of curatorial affairs at Seattle’s EMP Museum, thought the photographs of the garments were “stunning”.
“I had to stop and ask ‘Who created these outfits? What’s WOW? What’s the exhibition all about?’”
Last February, WOW invited him to see the exhibition in Auckland, and he jumped at the chance – and the opportunity to visit New Zealand. “My only regret is that I couldn’t spend a month there,” he says. “Originally, I wasn’t sure if the exhibition would be the right fit for our museum, which explores creativity and innovation in popular culture, and aims to inspire our visitors to tap into their own creativity. WOW doesn’t scream “pop culture”.”
But as soon as he saw the show, he knew he had to take it.
“The outfits are visually rich and complex, the creativity of the individual designers is remarkable, and the presentation is really dynamic,” he says. He also thought it would inspire the museum’s visitors to do something equally creative.
“We think it’s a great fit alongside our exhibitions on Jimi Hendrix (who would have loved the outfits), Nirvana, Science Fiction, and Horror Film,” he says. “We try to help our visitors find their passion, their tribe, and a form of self-expression, and we think WOW has the power to help us do all three of those things.”
With the help of funding from the New Zealand government, the show will open on July 2 at the EMP. It will be based there for seven months, and will likely remain on tour in the US throughout 2018. As well as 32 of the best garments ever created, including winners for the past 12 years, it contains an audio-visual presentation, an interactive workroom where people can design their own garments, and a mobile app, STQRY, which connects viewers with more information about the garments and their designers. The opening week at the EMP will involve four WOW models showing off the garments, offering a small flavor of the WOW show in Wellington.
Garment highlights include Gothic Habit, a three-dimensional replica of a Gothic cathedral by American designer Lynn Christiansen; Persephone’s Descent, a suit of armor made by Stuart Johnson, a New Zealand blacksmith and weapons maker for the Lord of the Rings movies; and Lady of the Wood, a replica 17th-century ballgown made of mahogany, lacewood, maple, and cedar, by Alaskan carpenter David Walker. There will also be a special display of pieces from the much-loved Bizarre Bra section.
WOW international projects manager Ali Boswijk, who briefly introduced Jasen to the show at the conference in Atlanta, says she’s thrilled the exhibition is about to hit the mainland US after its successful four-month run at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii. More than 230,000 people have seen it so far, and she estimates that more than 350,000 will have seen it by the end of its run.
“The best thing about the EMP is it’s such a significant contemporary museum in North America,” she says. “It has such a high profile, so for us to be able to partner with them is wonderful.”
Seattle, she says, is a natural fit for the show.
“From what I’ve seen of Seattle it does have that maker community; it’s a very creative place in terms of some of the digital technologies coming out of there and the business side as well,” she says. “But it also has a big music, artistic, and designer industry.”
She says another wonderful thing about being at the EMP is that it will be hosted in a striking building designed by Frank Gehry. “That is divine,” Ali says. “The EMP has this incredible connection to contemporary culture, music, and theatre. To be in that environment is going to be exceptionally exciting for us and it feels like a logical fit.”
The impact of WOW finally connecting with new audiences in the United States can’t be over-emphasised, she says.
“Suddenly people know who we are, and I think that’s very exciting.”
WOW founder and creative director Dame Suzie Moncrieff says the international exhibitions are something WOW has wanted to create for a long time. She selected the 32 “outstanding” pieces for the show, concentrating on showing off different materials and creating an interesting visual mix.
“I’ve always said from the very first days in Nelson that I wanted to have WOW out in the world, and this is our first step out,” she says. “Thankfully with government assistance we’ve been able to make it happen.”
She says it’s a fantastic opportunity to show off designers and also to explain the concept of WOW to the world. “It’s a hard one to explain at the best of times, but we couldn’t have wished for a more amazing place to be; the design of the EMP is a work of art in itself.
“I know audiences will be thrilled. I was told this wonderful story when the exhibition was first in Auckland, before it left New Zealand to go offshore. Some American women came in to see it with no idea what it was, and one burst into tears and sobbed because she loved it so much. There is nothing else like it in the world; it is a powerful exhibition.”