Gene Sherman’s Japanese Obsession

It is very fitting that the Powerhouse Museum—the largest part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney, Australia—is home to the influential collection of Japanese fashion owned by Dr Gene Sherman. After all, Sherman could easily be described as a powerhouse herself. At the age of 67, she has been running one of Australia’s leading contemporary art galleries for almost 30 years, has a doctorate in French literature, lectured at the University of Sydney, been a board member for many high-profile art, design, and cultural exchange forums worldwide (far too many to list here!), raised a family, and founded the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) to provide a space for supporting and furthering creative arts throughout the Asia-Pacific region. And if that wasn’t enough to place Sherman on top of your list of inspirational women, she is also always impeccably dressed due to her passion for fashion. Sherman gave up some of her early morning to chat with SheRa Mag about art, her fashion collection, and what the art world was like when you could buy a work by Ai Weiwei for the price of a meal in a fancy restaurant.

Traditionally fashion plays a lot with the ideas of form, often attempting to create the ideal female form. Do you think because the Japanese ideal of the female form differs from to that of a Western ideal, the former’s take on fashion is more exciting, or does it come from something else in the culture? 

The Japanese have a very different version of the female form, which directly relates to the kimono. Until the 19th century, Japan was closed to Western influence. The country developed its own highly sophisticated clothes, and kimonos were worn on a daily basis by shoguns (military commanders) and their consorts and peasants. The kimonos came in different versions, made of different threads, fabrics, textiles, patterns—but were still all one piece of cloth wrapped around the body and tied by an obi (belt) and a netsuke (toggle). They were also one size. The Japanese notion is about wrapping the body, not defining the body, which differs from the Western ideal of emphasizing different parts of the body, with corsets, stays, and so on. When elastic was invented, women stopped wearing corsets, but we still have these notions—if you look at the Oscars, you will see women’s bodies defined: bust pushed out, waist nipped in. In Japanese fashion, the space between the body and the cloth is aerated, so the clothes I wore from the early days [of forming the collection] still fit me because they are not body hugging. Issey Miyake [one of Sherman’s favorite designers] doesn’t design for high-maintenance women—no ironing is required; you can just squish the clothes into a suitcase. He was revolutionary in textile design. Normally you pleat the cloth then make the garments, but Miyake makes the clothes first and then pleats the fabric. In Japan, famous designers don’t just buy fabric and then design clothes. They have people with whom they work from the beginning. Threads are chosen, weavings are chosen, patternmakers are chosen. I don’t think Western fashion design goes that deep. It is more about decoration in Western couture, more about the later part, whereas with Miyake, it starts from the growing of the cotton. Japanese designers have a completely different view of fashion, different vocabulary, different look, different view of the body.

Is there a piece that you regret buying and why? Has it made it into the collection or is it hidden away in your wardrobe? 

I never hide anything away and don’t wear it. I either wear it or it goes. I haven’t had that many regrets because I have been running an art gallery for almost 30 years so I have a very well-honed and experienced eye and I know my body shape well! If you do have a sense of aesthetics and are honest with yourself, you know what you can wear and what you can’t. I’m 67 so I know what looks good on me. I’m slightly claustrophobic and my neck is short, so for these reasons I wear a scooped neckline. It gives a longer look and makes my neck feel freer. I have bought things made of crushable material and I always end up giving these away as I don’t own an iron and when I travel, I don’t send anything for pressing. Occasionally, I am lured by something fabulous but I don’t often make mistakes. Sometimes I buy things that I find less attractive when I open my wardrobe. As summer and winter are much closer in temperature in Sydney, I don’t need a vast wardrobe so I have 35 garments for summer, winter, night, and day. It makes life a lot simpler.

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How are fashion and art linked?

I think that any creative industry, or almost any industry at the top level, become art. And that applies to fashion. For instance, not everyone who gets dressed in the morning is dressed in high fashion. We all have to clothe ourselves but fashion at a certain point become distinct from clothing, and at another point becomes art. Issey Miyake is one of the great artists of the 20th century and he just happens to be a fashion designer. He is an artist as he takes fashion to a level that goes beyond clothing and even beyond fashion, and jumps into the category of art. You could apply that to food as well. We all eat three meals a day if we are lucky, but there’s also high-end food, and then you have cuisine, and then you have cuisine that becomes art. It’s also the same for film, jewelry, and other industries, not just fashion.

In the States and the UK, Australia and New Zealand are often viewed as separate from the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Do you think it is fair to say that there is a pan Asia-Pacific art/fashion culture and if so, how would you describe it? How does the interplay across such a vast region work? Is there any particular country leading the way in terms of setting trends for the region?

Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, countries cross hemispheres. Depending on where you are in relation to the equator, seasons are different so fashion is obviously different. So you not only have to take the North-South divide into account, but also the fact that different regions have different looks. For example, Singapore and Hong Kong have tropical climates which make high fashion impossible to wear outdoors, whereas Tasmania is colder. You can’t say there is an overall look in the region. It is too varied in terms of the weather. But because we are so geographically far from fashion centers such as London and Paris, it has taken longer for technology to spread and so the region has been isolated. On the other hand, this has meant it has been more able to develop its own individual looks suited to the different regions and cultures.

How do you choose which pieces to donate to the collection?

I only have 35 hangers in my wardrobe and when I buy something new, I retire something. I force myself to. And it doesn’t take me more than five seconds. I have three options: I can donate it to MAAS, the grander pieces I set aside for the museum, and I also have a couple of friends I offer pieces to that are not museum type pieces. Sometimes I take them to a store nearby which specializes in pre-loved garments.

Who are your favorite contemporary artists?

After the events of the Tiananmen Square in 1989, many artists left China—a few went to London, many to the USA and Australia, and some to Paris. So I came across the most wonderful artists at a very early time in their careers. Cai Guo-Qiang is one. He moved very early from China to Japan and spent a decade there before moving to America and—since the government is encouraging and accepting of contemporary art—stayed. He’s become a world star and has since come back to China; he had a huge retrospective in Shanghai recently. He also masterminded the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games; he’s a visual person. Ai Wei-Wei, who has become an international dissident artist, I also met very early on. He left for New York and then also came back. These artists are worth millions of dollars now but at the time when I first met them, you could buy pieces by them for $2,000 or less, or about the cost of a meal in a really fancy restaurant.

What impact (if any) has the recession had on the work of SCAF?

Because SCAF is not for profit, I am able to cross all my areas of interest in visual practice. At the moment, I have an architectural exhibit somewhat like the one at the Serpentine Gallery in London. I have a mini show of gorgeous but almost unwearable hats. I have a series of artworks by Pinaree, a Thai artist. I have Alistair Trung, an Aussie-Vietnamese, who I asked to make two works that are fashion but not wearable. I’m not selling anything so I can enjoy myself and give as much creative encouragement to anyone who works in the visual arts.

The work of SCAF is one of the most abiding legacies Sherman has created. By using her exhibition space to showcase and foster talented individuals in all areas of visual design, she is creating an arena for artists to develop their art practices in new directions. Although Asia-Pacific is a diverse region, SCAF provides a stable platform for cross-cultural expression all across the region. So not only do we at SheRa really, really want Sherman’s wardrobe and eye for design, we also want her drive and ability to bring different strands of art, fashion, and design together to show that perhaps beauty is a universal concept after all.

Photography by Rita Zimmermann

Thank you to Marcel Khoury

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