I have had the privilege of being the costume conservator for the Phoenix Art Museum’s Fashion Design Department for the past 25 years. One of the many problems costume conservators have when treating artifacts is locating fabrics to use while repairing objects. It is extremely difficult to match new fabric with original fabrics found on a garment that is many years old. The new fabric doesn’t have the same thread count, isn’t the exact color, drape or weight so at times repair cannot proceed because the correct new fabric is nonexistent.

In the summer of 2003, Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design, invited me to come to the museum to view objects for the upcoming exhibit, Beauty and Style in 19th Century American Fashion. Dennita brought forth from one of the vault’s archival boxes an 1890s two- piece gown with stand-up collar, very full set-in sleeves, center front opening constructed from brown silk velvet, gold silk taffeta, silk faille, and yellow dotted net silk fabrics. It was a wonderful ensemble except the dotted net silk fabric located on the sleeves was very badly damaged.

Silk textiles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were often impregnated with metallic salts that over time cause damage. The damaged silk looks like it has been ripped in many places but the deterioration is the result of fiber breakage rather than tearing. The fabric on these sleeves looked like a multitude of tears parallel to one another about ¼ inch apart. There was no way to repair the sleeves so the garment would look good enough to be displayed and my mind was spinning on how to tell Dennita that she would need to find another garment for the exhibition. But then Dennita reached into the box again and withdrew three yards of yellow dotted net silk fabric, an exact match to the deteriorated sleeve fabric. The gown’s dressmaker had retained the leftover fabric, given it to the owner of the dress who had kept it during her lifetime. Then this remnant was saved with the dress for more than a hundred years and donated to the museum along with the garment. To have excess original fabric to use for a treatment had never happened to me before and has never happened since. We had a solution to the degraded, metallic salt-laden silk fabric found on the sleeves. New sleeves could be constructed.

At my lab, I removed the deteriorated sleeves, drafted a pattern, created new sleeves using the saved yellow dotted net silk fabric and sewed them into the bodice. Voila! A luscious, gorgeous authentic late 19th century artifact was ready for display.

Martha Winslow Grimm, Costume and Textile Conservator

Intersection of Fashion and Art

Clothing design has always been a passion of mine since I was a child growing up in a small West Texas town. I learned to sew when I was a very young. I made paper dolls out of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines. I went to fashion design school and had my own label of one-of-a-kind wearable art, presenting trunk shows in Santa Fe during the opera season.

It was a dream come true when I was hired as a development officer at Phoenix Art Museum in 1990. And it was here that the lives of two amazing women with impeccable fashion sense and appreciation intersected with mine.

My family was friends with Sybil and Don Harrington and I was familiar with her many contributions to Phoenix Art Museum. I had visited her homes in Amarillo, Texas, and in Phoenix. Amarillo was an active community with balls and philanthropic activities filling its social calendar and despite its size, the women there had tremendous fashion savvy. I was aware of Mrs. Harrington and of the many designer pieces she had given to the Arizona Costume Institute.

As an employee of the museum, I got to know Costume Design Curator Jean Hildreth. Jean reminded me of my Philadelphia grandmother who was so prim and proper. One of my fondest memories of being in the presence of Jean Hildreth and Sybil Harrington was when the museum brought fashion designer Louis Feraud, a friend of Mrs. Harrington’s, for a special runway-like evening. Mrs. Harrington wore a gorgeous gold Feraud gown to the event that was a fundraiser for the museum. She announced a large gift and challenged everyone to match her donation. It was magical evening when guests were dressed in their favorite designer outfits.

Jean’s retirement was another event when both these remarkable women were present. The museum staff and ACI members had organized a tea at the Ritz Carlton to honor Jean. I will never forget how humbled Jean was to have Mrs. Harrington attend. Mrs. Harrington wore Chanel all of her life. On this occasion she was decked. She wore the two-toned pumps, carried a beautiful quilted handbag and she wore strands and strands of pearls on the most elegant classic Chanel black suit. When I had the opportunity to select a favorite garment for display at the annual ACI Holiday Luncheon, I selected a cocktail dress that Mrs. Harrington wore in the 1960's in Amarillo at her neighbor and best friend, Betty Biven’s iconic annual holiday party.

Kim Knotter

Chado Ralph Rucci

As a newly minted docent for the Phoenix Art Museum in 2006, I asked Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design for the museum, to suggest a topic for my docent research paper. She led me to American fashion designer and artist Ralph Rucci.

From the moment I began my research, I found myself falling in love. It was RUCCI not Gucci or Pucci. His name was not yet a household word in Phoenix. When I expanded my research from the Internet to the couture department at Neiman Marcus I learned he was unknown there as well.

As I dove headlong into learning more about this Philadelphia born designer, I fell deeper under his magical spell. I even traveled to New York City to view the 25-year retrospective of Rucci's work at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum and became more enthralled by his fashion genius.

In 2008, Ralph Rucci came to the Phoenix Art Museum for an exhibition of his work. It was then that I discovered I was his stalker. I kept popping up in the museum’s Fashion Gallery, at Neiman Marcus for his debut collection and at the brunch held in his honor. I never expected to ever meet a celebrity designer. As a diehard fashion fan, I found myself falling in love with Rucci’s artistry. My passion and appreciation for his incredible designs compelled me to follow him from venue to venue. He named his fashion house Chado Ralph Rucci after the name of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony that involves 331 steps for making, serving and drinking tea. The name embodies his respect, passion and discipline for detail, care, artistry and grace embodied in his work that turned me from a fan into a devotee of his talent and vision.

Stephanie Thier

Exclusive Vault Visit

As chair of the Arizona Costume Institute’s Holiday Luncheon, I got to select garments from the Phoenix Art Museum’s impressive fashion collection for display at this major fundraising event. And that meant a tour of the museum’s highly guarded, nearly sacrosanct Vault by the museum’s esteemed curator of fashion design, Dennita Sewell. Her knowledge of fashion history and the 7,000 garments stored in the Vault is unmatched and respected around the world.

But what awaited me on my visit eclipsed even those high expectations and defines what fashion has come to mean to me.

Here’s the story.

I was fascinated by the world of 18th Century fashion. We were pulling down a box housing an 18th Century court gown, when I saw photos of men’s cutaway coats on a nearby storage box. In that box were two men’s coats. Through the layer of tissue I saw a man’s 18th Century cutaway high-collared jacket with a creamy, satin lining designed with an extra layer of fabric for warmth – a winter court jacket worn for special occasions and crafted to last many years. Tiny glass beads lined both sides of the cutaway.  Robin’s egg blue fabric settled between tiny puffs of cut velvet. There was an extraordinary pattern of embroidery in a creamy satin thread. I could see the slender elegant gentleman holding his partner as they danced at a court ball. Such is the power of fashion to create from whole cloth a life story.

Unexpected Friends: Judith and Gerson Leiber

Being involved with the Phoenix Art Museum and the Arizona Costume Institute for more than 25  years has enriched my life through art, but also through meeting people from all walks of life along the way:  Curators, staff  members, guest speakers, artists and so on.

Years ago, I. Magnin hosted a reception for Judith Leiber at the Biltmore Fashion Park store to announce her new line of jewelry.  I remember picking out a favorite Leiber minaudière (I’ve always been a fan of leopard print and bling; this was a combination of both) for the occasion.  My idol was standing near the door, greeting guests rather commandingly, and I was stricken speechless.  I held up my bag, said nothing  and slunk off. 

We next ran into each other on the Internet, unknowingly bidding on eBay for the same vintage bags (I quit as soon as I realized who my online nemesis competitor was).  And when Dennita held our Leiber exhibit in 2008, Judith and her artist husband, Gerson, attended the opening.  As a lender to the show, I was included in the small dinner afterwards.  The Leibers were down to earth and interesting, and a friendship was born.  I have collected Judith’s minaudières for many years, being loyal only to designs made under her stewardship. I have a healthy collection that brings me joy.  Several pieces are in the Phoenix Art Museum’s permanent collection, and one has the honor of being in the Leiber Museum on the couple’s East Hampton property! 

We continue to be old-school pen pals, with a phone call now and then.  Gerson is doing the writing these days, and I am amazed by their senses of humor and worldly opinions.  “Judy & Gus” are both in their 90s, and I treasure this friendship, finally made possible through ACI. 

Written by fashion design collection and gallery benefactor, Kelly Ellman