As senior curator of education and public programs at The Museum at FIT (MFIT), Tanya Melendez-Escalante, also a graduate of FIT’s Fashion and Textiles Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice master’s degree program, connects exhibition curators and fashion designers to create dynamic learning experiences. However, for a recent exhibition at the Museo de Arte de Zapopan (MAZ) in Guadalajara, Mexico, she seized the opportunity to curate a show herself.
Newsroom recently sat down with Melendez-Escalante to talk about the experience of curating her new exhibition, Julia y Renata: Moda y Transformación, which tells the story of the Guadalajara-born sisters and fashion designers Julia and Renata Franco through their fashion collections.
Newsroom: How did you become involved in curating this exhibition?
Melendez-Escalante: I really like installing shows. In my current role at MFIT, I hadn’t done installation in a really long time. I forgot how much I loved it, being able to touch garments, and being hands-on. The similarities between my job at MFIT and my role as curator for the exhibition is that I am always thinking about the audience. How is the public going to receive it? Are we serving all of the audiences and connecting people to the content? I approach the museum’s Fashion Culture series and our symposia through that lens, while thinking about how to attract new audiences. I’m always thinking about the person who is new to the subject matter as well as the scholar. You want to educate, inform, and delight. It’s important to give everyone points of entry, make the content accessible. Giving people interesting bits that spark their curiosity and make them want more.
In 2019, I attended a program at MAZ for an exhibition on Rei Kawakubo, of Comme Des Garçons and interviewed Julia and Renata as part of a panel discussion. Afterwards, it was Vivianna Kuri, the MAZ museum director, who thought it would be a great idea to have me curate an exhibition about their label, Julia y Renata. Everyone was on board. MAZ is a contemporary art museum in Zapopan, a small suburb of Guadalajara, which itself is the second largest city in Mexico and is known as a creative hub—home to architects, designers, musicians, painters, and curators.
What was it like to bring this exhibition to life?
I like being the bridge between designers and curators; I see that as part of my job. Julia, whose personality is more intuitive, is the draper, and Renata, who is more analytical, is the patternmaker. Their contrasting strengths are reflected in their designs. When they first launched in the ’90s, they were seen as avant-garde because they developed their business on their own terms. From the very beginning they included artists and curators in their shows instead of working with fashion producers. Their commitment to their own vision paid off, and by the 2000s, they were popular among press and fashion fans alike.
The exhibition, which opened in November, was organized and designed entirely by women. The exhibition designer, Karla Vasquez, is also a furniture and interior designer, and a fashion collector. How important was it to you to highlight the role of women in Mexico?
Organizing the sections of the exhibition allowed me to show the designers’ strong feminist point of view. Julia and Renata are known for their play with silhouettes and shapes, structure and drape. To capture their artistry, which is the root of their work, multiple garments were displayed as flat, like paintings on the walls, instead of entirely on dress forms.
I met Julia and Renata when I was facilitating an acquisition for a pink dress to be featured in MFIT’s spring 2019 exhibition, Minimalism/Maximalism. I had been a longtime admirer of their aesthetic, and the relationship blossomed from there.
The collaboration across the board was a lucky coincidence. All the women involved shared the same fondness and respect for the designers, and we were all on the same page in terms of execution and outcomes. We have all been lucky to be in leadership roles in our fields, which was instrumental in bringing this exhibition to life. The more women that have the opportunity to be leaders in their profession, the more women can collaborate across all industries.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your process?
Though the curation process began in 2019, the heavy lifting started at the beginning of 2020 and continued through the pandemic that affected New York City as the epicenter in March. Curating an exhibition in the midst of a pandemic came with many challenges. MAZ is a government-funded institution, and prioritizing COVID-19 needs was a top priority. Garment selection was done through Zoom; garments on loan could only be accepted from local lenders and collectors. In late October, I traveled from New York City to Guadalajara to oversee the final stages of the installation. While I was there, there was a statewide curfew issued to the state of Jalisco, where Guadalajara is located.
Working under new, but crucial, constraints meant added pressure to complete the work by Nov. 6, the opening date. The hard work paid off and the press preview was well attended by both the press and government officials, like the mayor of Zapopan, his wife, and the secretary of culture of Jalisco, Mexico. Guided tours were limited due to occupancy rules. Still, despite the newly placed restrictions, the opening was considered a success.
Julia y Renata: Moda y Transformación is on view at the Museo de Arte de Zapopan through Feb. 14, 2021 and will remain available online through the museum’s website.