“When Richard Martin took over the Costume Institute from Diana Vreeland,” says Tiffany Dubin, fashion director at Sotheby’s, “it had been all about ‘dahling, dahling, dahling – isn’t this just terribly chic,’ but Richard came at it from a much more intellectual stance. He’d relate a costume to a Titian painting, display a hip designer dress with one from the eighteenth century. He was a pioneer.”
Martin, who died last Monday at the age of 52, was curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute for seven years. While making a case for fashion as fine art and cultural movement, Martin also oversaw a successful capital campaign that, in recent years, made the Institute’s annual gala – to be co-hosted this year by Anna Wintour, Aerin Lauder Zinterhoffer, and Tommy Hilfiger – a highlight of the December party season for both the designers who inspired the exhibitions and the society types who backed them.
“One thought of him as the quiet curator in the ivory tower, but he was very aware of commercial considerations,” says Constance C. R. White, fashion director of Talk magazine. “He knew you have to plug into the current Zeitgeist to get the attention, and he operated in the two spheres very smoothly.”
“He’d tie everything into a fine-art context,” says a Versace spokesperson who worked with him on the Gianni Versace retrospective and prefers not to be named. “When Versace did the hooker thing, Martin would pull out a Toulouse-Lautrec comparison. He could reference everything.” “We were at a conference in Texas on the fashions of the 1960s,” remembers Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at FIT, whom Martin hired as a teacher when he was the school’s dean of graduate studies. “He stood up and started speaking without notes on contemporary art in the sixties. Afterward, Laudomia Pucci said she’d never heard a lecture like that.”
“I think he understood my clothes better than I did,” says Christian Francis Roth, whose highly conceptual designs appeared in many of Martin’s Met exhibitions. “I was at Rizzoli once and I found the Contemporary Fashion encyclopedia. I was like, ‘Oh, I won’t be in this,’ but there was an essay by him about my work. I had to consult a dictionary to find out what most of it meant.” “He approached what could be a flamboyant and flashy world with the mind of a historian,” says Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which honored Martin with two special-achievement awards. “It gave us pride in our own work.”
“Richard was a merchant of ideas,” says Martin’s longtime collaborator Harold Koda. “Utopian clothing, an exhibit he never did, was going to be about fashion that is not fashion – classical robes, or sweatpants and a T-shirt. I would love to have seen that show.”