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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 Met Gala: ‘The First Monday in May’

In the opening seconds of the trailer for “The First Monday in May,” the new documentary about the star-studded Met Gala, Rihanna tosses her fashionable head in slo-mo as the red-carpet cameras click furiously.

And then suddenly we’re looking at a boyish, bespectacled man far from the limelight, walking through the dimmed galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is Andrew Bolton, curator of the blockbuster exhibition that the gala is celebrating. And he’s all by himself. “It looks a bit like I wasn’t invited to the party,” says Bolton. But actually, he explains, he was just stealing a moment to be alone before the hordes descended.

Up until that morning last May, museum workers had been frantically installing the show. So this was his first chance to really see the result. “The First Monday in May,” directed by Andrew Rossi (it’s now available on iTunes and Amazon), chronicles the yearlong preparations for “China: Through the Looking Glass” and the gala that accompanied it — the annual Met Gala that has become, under the relentless nurturing of Vogue’s Anna Wintour, a huge fundraiser and one of the top celebrity gatherings in the world.

You might think the film’s star is Wintour, and there are indeed some delicious moments in which she steamrolls over anyone in her path (that Tiffany pillar? Move it, we need another table!). But it’s really Bolton — who looks rather like an extremely chic Oxford professor in his horn-rimmed spectacles and shrunken suit by Thom Browne, his life partner — that forms its center. Through him, the film asks its fundamental questions: Is fashion art, or is it commerce? And if it’s both, can they happily coexist?

Clearly Bolton’s answer is yes. But he acknowledges it’s a tough balance — not just at the Met Gala, where the celebrities shine so brightly, but also in the fashion world itself, where celebrities play a key role in promoting designers. “I think the fact that (fashion) is associated with celebrities is sometimes not always a good thing,” he says. “The celebrities wearing the clothing sometimes outshine the garment itself.”— The Associated Press

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