The World of WearableArt exhibition exceeded expectations when it opened in February.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, had predicted about 15,000 people would see the exhibition across the first month. Instead, more than 25,000 came through the doors in just the first three weeks. 

For WOW’s International Projects Manager Ali Boswijk, it has been an interesting experience to hear fresh outside perspectives and new reactions to the exhibition, which is on its second North American stop after a successful run in Seattle’s MoPOP Museum (formerly EMP).

 

Garment credit: LADY OF THE WOOD, David Walker, United States

 

More than 270,000 people came to see the exhibit at MoPOP, and over 600,000 people have seen it so far in total.

“We are starting to understand the value of WOW as the democratisation of creativity,” she says. “They like the idea that WOW is relatable and anyone can enter it; that we have the full spectrum of talent from skilled Motueka boatbuilder Peter Wakeman to New York’s Miodrag Guberinic, who’s made costumes for Madonna, Katy Perry and Scarlett Johansson.”

Notably, the exhibition gained the notice of the wider fashion world, with the founder and executive director of Boston Fashion Week, Jay Calderin, discussing the exhibition and how the fashion industry could respond to WOW on Boston’s public television channel WGBH.

“[The exhibition] is really important because it helps educate the public, giving designers this laboratory for ideas,” he said. “It suggests that there’s no material that you can’t turn into clothing or fashion.

 

Garment credit: IN THE OP, Lai Kit Ling, Hong Kong Design Institute, Hong Kong

 

“When I first saw the pieces the exciting part for me was being able to go in so close and see the detail. There’s definitely a theatrical aspect in a live presentation, but to able to see how they’re pieced together, what they’re made out of, influences everything we do.

“The commerce [of fashion] can’t keep moving without new ideas, innovation and new ways of looking at it. Projects like these really allow the designer to explore new ways to decorate. It’s incredibly important.”

The exhibition will be at the Peabody Essex for four months before moving to its next destination which is still to be announced.

It has always been difficult to describe WOW, which sits at the intersection of fashion, art, and theatre with the awards show, art exhibition, and three-week theatrical extravaganza, which is fresh every year.

“I sometimes describe the WOW awards show as a temporary installation,” Ali says. “Each year is unique never to be reproduced once it’s over. We are a phenomenon; we’re not simply theatre, fashion, or art, you really do have to be there.”

Every museum displays the exhibition differently, according to its space, audience, and local culture.

“It’s quite nice to have it reincarnated each time; it always looks new,” Ali says. “And though the garments and other elements remain consistent, each time the atmosphere is very different.”

 

Garment credits (from left to right in foreground): LADY CURIOSITY, Fifi Colston, New Zealand; MANTILLA, Fenella Fenton & Jeff Thomson, New Zealand; LUNANOIA, Jane Ewers, New Zealand; HERMECEA, Jan Kerr, New Zealand.

 

However, bringing the exhibition from New Zealand and touring it overseas is a logistical exercise requiring careful planning, because every time the garments move, there’s potential for damage. The process is handled by the “absolutely brilliant” New Zealand transport company Mainfreight, a supporter of WOW for almost two decades.

“They go above and beyond – we don’t know what we would do without them,” Ali says.

WOW’s garments are works of art and understandingly soem can be fragile. Th can’t travel by train, so they must go by sea and then road, in two 40-foot containers that have been specially outfitted with a Tetris-like puzzle of travelling cases designed by Wellington-based exhibition design company Workshop E. In February, taking the exhibition clear across the country from Seattle to Boston – in the middle of winter – meant two trucks and four alternating drivers.

At the destination, Workshop E staff, along with a team of WOW garment technicians, are on hand to work with museum staff in examining the garments, making any repairs, and setting up the exhibition.

As WOW approaches its 30th birthday, it’s an exciting time to be reaching new audiences.

“It’s a big OE, and it won’t stop,” Ali says.