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Manus x Machina: Fashion exhibit stuns at the Met

As wedding dresses go, the one designed for Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld — and the first thing you see upon entering the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new fashion exhibit — is astoundingly elegant. And unusual — it’s made of scuba knit.

But it’s the train — a very, very long train, in a gold baroque print, dusted with pearls, gems and rhinestones — that’ll take a fashion lover’s breath away. It’s just one of 170 remarkable garments now on display at the Met’s Costume Institute. The exhibit, which opened earlier this month and runs through Aug. 14, features works by some of fashion’s most exclusive labels — Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Pierre Cardin, Alexander McQueen and more.

The space is divided into six sections (the major specialties of haute couture — embroidery, feather work, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework and leatherwork). In each, traditional designs stand alongside modern dresses created by digital technology (3-D printers, lasers) with new materials like resin, foam and . . . straws?

“There are no more rules,” said cutting-edge British designer Gareth Pugh at a press preview, standing beside two of his dresses made of plastic straws. “In order to move forward, you have to push things a little bit and move with the times.”

From the title of the exhibit — “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” — you might expect a slew of high-tech gadgets and gizmos. At least an Apple Watch. (Apple is a sponsor.) But the emphasis here isn’t on futuristic, sci-fi styles. Rather it’s a celebration of the dazzling heights fashion can reach when it combines the artistry of traditional craftsmen with modern technological advances.

The hand (manus) and machine (machina), working together, is “the future of fashion,” says the Costume Institute’s curator, Andrew Bolton.

Lagerfeld’s scuba wedding gown, for instance, is hand-molded, machine sewn, then hand-embroidered, and the train’s pattern was hand-drawn, then digitally manipulated. With Pugh’s dresses, the wool under-layer is machine-sewn, but each straw is hand-cut and hooked on like an earring.

Granted, not everyone is going to want to wear Dutch designer Iris van Herpen’s feather dress adorned with — yikes! — actual bird skulls, or Hussein Chalayan’s fiberglass gown that a wearer steps into via a doorway in back, and which moves by remote control, with spring-loaded crystals that fly off and swirl around the dress. But they’re amazing to see.

“A new aesthetic is emerging,” Bolton said, “one of . . . unfettered imaginings.”

The curator

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute curator

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton in a scene from "The First Monday in May," a 2016 documentary that follows the creation of the Met's most attended fashion exhibition in history, "China: Through the Looking Glass."

Embroidered elegance

The new Costume Institute exhibit includes stunning examples
Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The new Costume Institute exhibit includes stunning examples of embroidery, both old and new. Here, from left to right: Dior's "Junon" and "Venus" haute couture dresses of taffeta and tulle (from fall 1949) and an Alexander McQueen evening dress in silk organza and mesh (spring 2012).

Hand vs. machine

Travelers with a fondness for the funky would
Photo Credit: Nicholas Alan Cope

Travelers with a fondness for the funky would love Issey Miyake’s Flying Saucer dress, part of the spring-summer 1994 collection. It folds up flat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Nicholas Alan Cope

3-D design

Israeli designer Noa Raviv, 29, creates fashions using
Photo Credit: Joseph V. Amodio

Israeli designer Noa Raviv, 29, creates fashions using a 3-D printer to sculpt polymer in unusual swirls and shapes. It took a lot of trial and error, she admits, smiling. “The collection is inspired by mistakes.

Flower power

The artistry of artificial flowers, created by both
Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The artistry of artificial flowers, created by both hand and machine, made of, from left: gold thread, pearls, crystals (Dior, fall 2012); glass beads and crystals (two Prada dresses, fall 2015); and laser-cut plastic (Louis Vuitton, spring 2012).

I'll drink to that

Gareth Pugh'’s 2015 black silk-wool gazar dress with
Photo Credit: Joseph V. Amodio

Gareth Pugh'’s 2015 black silk-wool gazar dress with overlay of mesh, “embroidered” with black plastic drinking straws, is like a flapper dress for the 21st century.

Seductive swirls

Israeli designer Noa Raviv, 29, creates fashions using
Photo Credit: Joseph V. Amodio

Israeli designer Noa Raviv, 29, creates fashions using a 3-D printer to sculpt polymer in unusual swirls and shapes. It took a lot of trial and error, she admits, smiling. “The collection is inspired by mistakes.

19th century glory

Irish eyes must've been smiling, all right, for
Photo Credit: Joseph V. Amodio

Irish eyes must've been smiling, all right, for the lucky bride who wore this 1870 Irish wedding dress, made of hand-crocheted cotton lace dappled with three-dimensional replicas of roses, lilies of the valley, morning glories, buds, berries and more.

It 'floats'

British designer Hussein Chalayan'’s “Kaikoku” floating dress, from
Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Nicholas Alan Cope

British designer Hussein Chalayan'’s “Kaikoku” floating dress, from his autumn/winter 2011 line, is made of fiberglass and moves on wheels via remote control. It was never meant to be worn, but oh, if it were, —you'’d never have to iron again.

White, alight

A 3-D-printed "Bahai" dress, made of white power
Photo Credit: Joseph V. Amodio

A 3-D-printed "Bahai" dress, made of white power mesh and ivory resin, from the spring 2014 line of innovative label threeASFOUR.

A spiky snood

The new Costume Institute exhibit spotlights designs by
Photo Credit: Joseph V. Amodio

The new Costume Institute exhibit spotlights designs by up-and-comers — —among them, Japanese designer Maiko Takeda, 30, who made a splash at the press preview wearing her “Atmospheric Reentry” headdress (which is also on display). The porcupine-like sphere of plastic strips, acrylic disks and silver jump rings makes you feel like you'’re “in a cloud, ” she says, and retracts into a ball. “It’'s soft and more flexible than it looks. ”

Feathery frock

Dutch designer Iris van Herpen'’s silicone feather dress
Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Nicholas Alan Cope

Dutch designer Iris van Herpen'’s silicone feather dress (from her autumn/winter 2013 collection) boasts silicone-coated gull skulls perched, gargoyle-like, on the shoulders (and adorned with synthetic pearls and glass eyes).

Catch that train

Karl Lagerfeld'’s scuba-knit wedding ensemble, created for Chanel
Photo Credit: CHANEL Patrimoine Collection

Karl Lagerfeld'’s scuba-knit wedding ensemble, created for Chanel in 2014, features a regal gilt medallion and 32 buttons of gold, glass and crystals on the front — but it’'s the back view of the dramatic train that astounds.

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