Gene Sherman: ‘Fashion is misunderstood, a lot of people still think of it as shopping’

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The academic and former gallery proprietor wants to bring serious thinking about fashion to the public through her new centre for culture and ideas

Gene Sherman




Gene Sherman launches the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas in Sydney.
Photograph: Rita Zimmerman

Gene Sherman: ‘Fashion is misunderstood, a lot of people still think of it as shopping’

The academic and former gallery proprietor wants to bring serious thinking about fashion to the public through her new centre for culture and ideas

Gene Sherman doesn’t shop for clothes in the way most people shop for clothes. Sure, she’ll pick up a T-shirt every now and then, but when she wants something substantial, it has to meet certain criteria. It should be black, avant garde and created by a particular Japanese designer. And it must be interesting enough to replace one of the 35 outfits already in her wardrobe because for every new piece she acquires, one is “retired”.

For Sherman, fashion is not about glamour – it’s about ideas, and it’s an art form she takes very seriously. “I think fashion is a bit misunderstood, a lot of people still think of fashion as shopping and I never thought of it as shopping.”

When we meet, she is dressed in her customary black, a sculptural jacket paired with a long sweeping skirt decked with a Yohji Yamamoto belt covered in silver hardware. She wears an oversized silver ring and her tiny penny-shaped eyeglasses are perched on her nose.

Her wardrobe – or, as she describes it, her collection – is dominated by designs by Issey Miyake, Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto, with a few acquisitions from Australian designers Alistair Trung and Akira Isogawa. It’s the intellectual side of Japanese fashion design that has always appealed to her.

“I loved the way [Japanese fashion design] was conceptualised, it was explained, it had thinking behind it,” she says. “It had an intelligence that the sewing on of beads, much as I think that’s brilliant [and] it’s not that I don’t appreciate the craftsmanship – but it’s not enough for me.”

Over the years, her fashion collection has become significant enough that, in 2009, she donated 60 garments to the Powerhouse museum for exhibition. No Vinnies drop off for this fashion collector.

Art and ideas have been central to all aspects of Sherman’s life. An academic with a doctorate in French literature, she was the driving force behind the commercial Sherman Galleries in Sydney throughout its 21-year lifespan, and then the not-for-profit Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (Scaf).

Both were highly respected galleries with exhibitions by contemporary artists including Ai Weiwei, Shaun Gladwell, Fiona Tan and Brook Andrew, but Sherman admits they cost a small fortune to run, particularly Scaf. “It was expensive even when I did the first budget but over time costs went up. Also I grew more ambitious, everything I do seems to grow.”

So after 10 years, she was content to close Scaf earlier this year. But she was not interested in putting her feet up. Although she recently turned 70, she needed a new challenge. “I’m still very energetic, but I had a number of goals – to spend less money, have more time, not have so many deadlines [and] do something that no one else has done.”

One of Dr Gene Sherman’s fashion pieces


One of Gene Sherman’s fashion pieces Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

This month she launched the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas (Scci –pronounced sky). A crowd of arts journalists gathered in Scaf’s former home in the Sydney suburb of Paddington for the launch.

In her opening speech, Sherman described Scci as a place for “the exchange of ideas”. Over the next five years, the centre will host two ideas festivals – or “hubs” as Sherman calls them – each year: one in April focused on fashion; the other in October focused on architecture.

The two-week festivals will have a densely packed program of talks, workshops and demonstrations tackling the ideas behind these artforms, although there will be no exhibitions. “The link between all these categories is an expanded notion of art – art as culture, not art as pictures on the wall”, Sherman says.

With only four permanent staff, Scci will be a small cultural player but its ambitions are large. It will partner with the Museum of Arts and Applied Science, the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and the University of Technology Sydney on some programs.

“With these big institutions, we want to exchange ideas, share connections. We want to build bigger, richer denser programs, separately we can do it, but together we can do it better”, Sherman says.

The fashion festival will be headlined by international speakers including the Paris Grand Palais exhibition director Emmanuel Coquery, Japanese designer Akira Minagawa and Vogue India editor-at-large Bandana Tewari. There will be discussion on fashion writing, ethical fashion, the art of fashion, the business of fashion and the future of fashion.

Journalist Clare Press will lead the discussion on the ethics of fashion, and says she is excited to see Scci tackling the ideas behind the fashion industry: “Ideas can so often be lost or sidelined when commerce takes over, and of course the modern fashion world is powered by commerce. As the velvet rope has been lifted and fashion has become more popular, we’ve seen an explosion of festivals, pop-ups and exhibitions in the fashion space, but how many of them are, at their core, about ideas? I can’t think of any.”

Fashion is close to Sherman’s heart but she is just as interested in architecture. Scaf ran a series of exhibitions called Fugitive Structures focused on emerging architects, and Sherman was surprised by their popularity. “I realised that I had a whole untapped audience there of architecture students, design students, industrial design students, that no one was catering for.” Details of the line up for the architectural program are still to be announced.

She hopes Scci will become a place where artists connect. She uses the example of two young emerging fashion designers, Mary Brown in Sydney and Paul Vasileff in Adelaide, who have expressed their mutual admiration but never met. “They need to meet, these two people,” she exclaims. “They know of each other but who is going to bring them together?” The answer is probably Gene Sherman.

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