The Google Cultural Institute's Newest Initiative Could Mean Big Things for Fashion History

The non-profit arm of the tech mammoth digitized more than 30,000 pieces to make the history of fashion accessible to everyone.
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The non-profit arm of the tech mammoth digitized more than 30,000 pieces to make the history of fashion accessible to everyone.
Photo: BFA for Google

Photo: BFA for Google

In 2008, Anna Wintour was amongst the first to donate pieces to the Savannah College of Art and Design's FASH Museum of Fashion + Film's permanent fashion collection. Last Thursday, that collection was debuted for the first time digitally alongside costume collections from around the world as a part of a new project from Google's Cultural Institute.

"Most of SCAD's collection is digitized, of course, but in talking to them, I heard that Anna Wintour had gifted them a collection they had never digitized," Kate Lauterbach, the Google program manager who headed up this launch, told Fashionista in an interview on Friday. That donation included a dress designed by John Galliano for Christian Dior, as well as quite a few pieces by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. "So I said, well, let us do it with our cameras and our crew and get that digitized for you in the highest-possible resolution so that you can have that as a resource and you can curate it a story about it on the platform."

That collection and the accompanying story now sits alongside costume collections from over 140 not-for-profit institutions around the globe on the Google Arts & Culture platform in an exhibition titled "We Are Culture." Culling from over 450 exhibitions including the likes of Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between, as well as Schiaparelli and Surrealism and The Corset: Fashioning the Body, the project spans 30,000 pieces, incorporating video, photos and virtual reality to make that history of fashion accessible to everyone.

"For this launch, we really pushed the bounds of virtual reality," Lauterbach said. The launch is only the latest of the Paris-based Cultural Institute, which was started in 2010 after being conceptualized — first known as the Google Art Project — by Google engineer Amit Sood. "The idea came from a conversation I was having with a woman from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. She was saying that the trouble with exhibiting fashion objects in a museum is that you only get to see them from the front, behind a glass case and clothes are meant to be worn, they are meant to move."

To solve that problem, Google used virtual reality to contextualize the pieces. For a video that provides a short history of the corset, the undergarment animates and finds itself traveling through time, posed against its artistic beginnings, followed by a scene from the height of the punk era outside a sex shop. The clip in question also boasts a 360-degree capability, a technology that is seen in several other aspects of the project and was mentioned multiple times on Thursday at cocktails celebrating the launch. That event was hosted by Anna Wintour and attended by the likes of Public School's Maxwell Osbourne, Chromat's Becca McCarren and Google consultant Kate Lanphear, amongst others.

The Google Cultural Institute also allows entry into a rarefied space of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an anchor program of the Institute: the Conservation Lab. There, in a multi-layered project, anyone can get a full-scale view of what the space looks like, and also watch videos with conservators explaining the work they do. 

But it's not just collections in the typical fashion capitals that have contributed pieces; the Balenciaga Museum in Spain's items dovetailed nicely with a large Balenciaga exhibition from the V&A. "Central Saint Martins was also doing a student project with Balenciaga, so it actually ended up being this really wonderful space where they could have this conversation online that wasn't restricted by their physical boundaries," Lauterbach added.

The project features contributions from institutions in over 40 countries. "We didn't really know how to structure an experience around fashion so we didn't really try," Sood said at the cocktail. "We've made it into a bit of a rabbit hole and you can choose how you want to experience it. There's features on kimonos, saris, national dress; we even have videos for younger viewers with YouTube star Ingrid Nielson to decode trends." And these features come robustly built out.

"One of my favorite [parts] was this wonderful Kyoto Museum of Traditional Craft in Japan," Lauterbach said. "They have this collection of over 200 different kimonos that they never digitized and we did that for them. Now we have this wonderful resource."

The possibilities for application here seem endless. With many of the images shot with Google's art camera — which provides a resolution high enough to see the thread and stitching on pieces — the ability to use the platform as a resource for research or inspiration is immediately apparent. But for the museums specifically, it provides a unique benefit.

"Because of the fragility of clothing, it's very difficult to have fashion on permanent display in a museum context," Andrew Bolton, the head curator in charge at the Met said at the cocktail. "What this platform does is offer a virtual display of most of our collection. I want to thank Google for allowing that to happen."

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