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Christy Turlington

MOMA - The Metropolitan Meseum of Art - December 10th 2002

Christy Turlington Christy Turlington Christy Turlington

For the better part of a month, Everet has slaved to capture Turlington's head in clay, and even now, as the two men discuss the project, he can't keep from picking up a tool and gently poking at her-or rather, the clay head's- right ear. (The head will later be used to make a plaster mold from which the actual mannequin heads will be cast.) "Do you think it looks like her?" Pucci asks me. It does, I assure him. In fact, remarkably so. The dull clay has been expertly molded to reflect Turlington's high forehead (particularly high and android like at this stage, without the period-style raffia wig that will eventually adorn each mannequin), her exotic eyes, turned-up nose, and full mouth.

The mannequins for the New Costume Institue galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, whether man, women, or child, have one thing in common: Christy Turlington's classic face. Rachel Urquhart reports on the supermodel made immortal:

Cindy Sirko is the stylist for the first installation of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's New Costume Institute galleries (opening December 10), and now, in late summer, she has a problem. She has to find a single unifying face, real or imagined, for 120 mannequins, a face able to carry off a lavishly brocaded, seventeenth-century gown as convincingly as it can a 1992 Isaac Mizrahi print.

It must be able to sit solid and restrained atop a short, full-figured eighteenth-century body, yet tilt wan and elegant above a long 1920s silhouette. The face must transcend gender, looking graceful in Lauren Bacall's Norman Norell print dress, handsome in Cecil Beaton's tweeds, impish in a little boy's summer outfit, and innocent in a girl's mourning clothes. Above all, it must be a timeless face, one that might just as easily have peered mysteriously from the window of a departing Orient Express one hundred years ago as turn heads in the Coffee Shop in downtown New York today.

How could any earthly face satisfy such demands? It's no wonder that, at first, abstraction-a hint of eye, nose, and mouth, topped by a wisp of hair-seemed the only solution. Except, of course, for Christy Turlington. Sirko pored through books of photos-"It was like a detective story," she says-before settling on Turlington as the perfect face to launch a thousand (well, 120) shifts. "Her face goes across the boards," Sirko continues. "I can see eighteenth century; I can see nineteenth century; I can obviously see twentieth century. We don't have clothes in the show from the Egyptian era, but it's fascinating, because her face could even go back to Egyptian times."

The reason the Met needed Turlington's versatile face has to do with the Costume Institute's new approach to exhibiting its collection. A technically advanced new gallery space, designed so that individual pieces can be changed without having to change the entire exhibit, will display costumes all year long, a departure from the huge, two- to three-month-long shows and retrospectives of the past.

(These more temporary extravaganzas will still be held, but in regular museum galleries, upstairs from the new permanent exhibition.)

"The big challenge," says Katell le Bourhis, curator for the first exhibit, "is to do something creative and lively that will not be out-of date three months later. Some of the costumes are like paper, they're so fragile, but I didn't want each one in a cage of glass. That might be OK for an army museum, but it doesn't show the liveliness of fashion."The pieces will be drawn from the museum's own formidable collection, with more than fifty-five thousand costumes and accessories, one of the best in the world, and they will be organized to present a thematic rather than a chronological history of fashion.

"I looked at costume history and fashion in terms of the symbols that evolved and changed over time," Le Bourhis continues. "Tastes change, but there are perennial symbols-the use of black or white, for example, or flowers-which remain constant."In one group, featuring geometric abstraction, a 1965 yellow-and-black chevron coat, designed by Frank Stella and made out of painted pony skin, is paired with an equally arresting green-and-whitestriped dress from-believe it or not-the eighteenth century. Another cluster of costumes illustrates the evolution of the little black dress through the decades.

An exquisite 1927 Chanel "little black dress" (one year after Vogue decreed that Chanel had created "the Ford of dresses") is paired with an actual maid's uniform, so that, in the words of assistant curator Beth Alberty, "people can see what really was a Ford and what wasn't." With so many mixed references over so many centuries, Turlington's face would provide the necessary thread linking them all together.

All those costumes, but only one Christy Turlington. The Met had to set about mass-producing her ageless features, and for that they turned to mannequin designer Ralph Pucci. In the back room of Pucci International on lower Broadway, Pucci and his chief sculptor, Michael Everet, survey their work.

"Not a lot of people are used to seeing a mannequin this early," Pucci continues, somewhat apologetically. "Yes," Everet agrees. "I mean, if you shaved Christy Turlington's hair off and sort of painted her all one color, you might have a hard time recognizing her.""She would look different," says Pucci, dryly. Indeed. Capturing Turlington as she really looks was only part of the challenge. Three more heads were also in the making: Turlington as a rounder, fuller-faced eighteenth-century woman, as a man, and as a child of either sex (depending on the wig). "Those faces are more of a fun kind of thing," says Pucci. "No one can ever say definitively that that's not what Turlington would look like as a man, but the modern one has to be right."

Pucci sees me staring at a lurid green mannequin body in the corner. It is short and zaftig-nothing remotely like the long-limbed, sculpted bodies on display nearby in the gallery. "We did not do that body," he says emphatically. "That's a body from the museum; it has to fit the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century clothes and eventually, a rounder version of Christy's head will fit on top." "It's very weird," Turlington tells me a few days later, as we sit in a town car headed for Kennedy Airport so she can catch a plane to Italy for a photo shoot. It's the only time she could see me, face to timeless face.

Although she was up late doing a benefit, has worked all day, and is about to take a Long, international commute to more work, she looks utterly flawless with no makeup in a pink T-shirt and white Levi's-even better than she did in clay. Turlington is still clearly stunned and flattered at being chosen to head as it were-the Met project. "It's such an honor. Twenty or thirty years from now, I'd like to be one of the faces that people associate with this time in history.

To me it's sort of like being immortalized, in a way. It'll be nice if, years from now, it won't be just, `Oh, she was a famous model.' It'll be like I'm associated with a decade-it'll be more timeless in that sense.

"A few months before the opening of the galleries, it's hard to imagine that by December the burly construction workers who now fill the space will be replaced by a kind of cocktail party for well-dressed time travelers-all of whom happen to look like Christy Turlington. But in the conservation room nearby, chief conservator Chris Paulocik and her assistants work tirelessly to get everything ready.

On one table, a pair of seventeenth-century gloves has demanded 140 hours of conservation work, including strand-by-strand dyeing of the French hair silk that the conservators use to stitch and "stabilize" the gloves.

At another worktable, Paulocik has just finished cleaning a straw boater with the aid of a few Q-Tips and her own saliva. (Enzymes in human saliva make it a practical cleaning agent for some materials.) Such ministering, however, would not be a good idea for a nearby bonnet, charmingly decorated with dead parakeets: the parakeets were, more than likely, dusted with arsenic to preserve them over the centuries. Not all the pieces in the Met's collection were worn by anonymous women of style. Some dresses belonged to women who were as well-known as they were well turned out-Catherine Beekman, Sunny von Bulow, and Babe Paley for example.

But the new exhibition will focus primarily on the costume itself, and its place in fashion history, not its owner. "It's always interesting for people to know who wore something," says Beth Alberty, "but it's not really about the costume. It's like saying, `Washington slept here.' Well, so he slept there-that doesn't tell you very much about the site." Not far from the new galleries-just down a few museum corridors Cindy Sirko found her own inspiration for the look of the show. "I went to the museum's terra-cottas room," she says, "and looked at these classical Greek allegorical terra-cottas, and then at later pieces that have these nymphet girls, and I saw the same face.

Even over the time period that we're focusing on, it really is a very specific repetition of this beauty, the ideal beauty. "This show is about pure fashion," she continues. "It's about the best and the most luxurious clothing that was available to people of great style. It's trying to push the look toward the imaginary beautiful woman that all these designers were designing for. That's why we chose Christy."

Sirko pauses for a moment as if she's not quite sure how I'm going to take what she's about to tell me.
"You know," she says mysteriously, "in the museum, there's this ocher colored stone in the Egyptian Wing. On it, there's just the bottom half of a woman's face-the mouth and a bit of the jaw-and I swear, it's Christy Turlington's face."

Phyllis Posnick / Vogue Magazine