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  • Stephen Crafti

The Exhibitionist

With a passion for fashion but admittedly no skill for designing clothes, Roger Leong has instead dedicated his career to bringing archival pieces to life in major galleries and museums across the country. By Stephen Crafti.
An installation view of “Zampatti Powerhouse”, the Carla Zampatti retrospective Roger Leong curated for Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum in 2022. Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski/Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Many fashion students have their sights set on a career in design, in the same vein as Carla Zampatti or Akira Isogawa. Not Roger Leong. This fashion student may not have wanted to start a label, but he’s certainly made an indelible mark in fashion by curating exhibitions in some of Australia’s most prestigious institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and, now, as a senior curator at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS).

Leong studied fashion at RMIT University and, as did his fellow students, initially set out to be a designer, before quickly diverting down another path. “I could see that [design] wasn’t my strong talent, but what I saw was my ability to connect with fashion history,” Leong says. And so, after undertaking a postgraduate in museum studies at Melbourne’s Deakin University, he began his career in 1990 as assistant curator of decorative arts at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Canberra.

An exhibition view of “Akira Isogawa”. Photography by Jay Patel/Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

There, Leong showed his mettle with the exhibition “Mad Hatters” (1992), which featured the work of British milliners Stephen Jones and Kirsten Woodward. A year later, visitors enjoyed seeing “Dressed to Kill: 100 Years of Fashion”, and in 1999, Leong curated “From Russia With Love”, which featured costumes from the Ballets Russes. 

Post NGA, Leong moved to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) as curator of fashion and textiles. Here, his exhibitions were smaller but no less memorable. Take “Sneakers: Classics to Customs” (2006). The inspiration for displaying more than 300 pairs of trainers came from an article in The Age about people, predominantly young men, amassing substantial collections of runners from the 1970s through to the 1990s. “It was fascinating to see the obsessions of these collectors, always hunting for that next design,” Leong says.

His NGV exhibitions performed critical analysis on fashion trends. “Black in Fashion: Mourning to Night” (2008) explored the use of black in clothing from the mid-19th century to 2008, while his co-curation of “ManStyle” in 2011 showcased Australian and international men’s fashion. 

Leong (centre) with fashion conservator Suzanne Chee (left) and intern Hayley Thompson among outfits by various designers at “Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life”, 2016. Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski/Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

At “Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life”, Philip Treacy’s Lace Wings hat (2001) worn with an Alexander McQueen dress (2003) and jacket (2002). Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski/Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Since he joined in 2014, MAAS, which owns the Powerhouse Museums, has also benefited from Leong’s extraordinary knowledge of fashion history. One of his first exhibitions — in collaboration with Daphne Guinness — was “Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life” (2016). It was a celebration of the outfits and hats that designer Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy had made for Blow, their enduring muse. “Isabella had a short but intense life. She left behind a legacy of devotion to style,” Leong says. Those who saw the exhibition may recall Treacy’s Spanish-inspired troubadour hat worn with a bolero jacket, as well as the bright red acrylic dish-shaped hat that masked the eyes. 

Akira Isogawa, who made his mark in the 1990s and into the new millennium, was also the subject of a Leong exhibition in 2018. “Akira really showed us his talent for fusing Eastern and Western fashion. Being Japanese, he translated the kimono into a more Western style. And, of course, his level of detail with the embroidery is truly extraordinary,” Leong says. 

“Isabella Blow: A Fashionable Life”, featuring Philip Treacy’s Blow hat (2006) with Alexander McQueen lace dress (2006) and tartan outfit (1995) with Manolo Blahnik shoes (1997). Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski/Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Like Isabella Blow, the late fashion designer Carla Zampatti didn’t see the retrospective Leong curated in her honour after she suddenly passed away in 2021. Usually, he has access to garments through museum collections but with Zampatti, there was no such thing. “Carla never kept an archive. She was always looking forward rather than backwards,” says Leong, who called on the public to fill the gaps when he couldn’t find certain pieces she’d made between the 1960s and 1990s. 

“When you look at her work from the 1970s or later, in 2015, there’s a consistency with her aesthetic — a hallmark of her great talent,” he says. While there are certain ‘threads’ (no pun intended) between the garments that were displayed, Zampatti had a tendency, according to Leong, to “use a limited colour palette. But as we showed, she also had a way of introducing spots and stripes.” For Leong, Zampatti’s background was also an important part of the exhibition, showing a woman who emigrated from Italy, raised three children and never deviated from her determination to become a household name in Australian fashion. “Thousands of women could not only relate to her clothes but also her history, with six decades given to fashion,” Leong says. 

More looks from “Zampatti Powerhouse”. Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski/Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

For Leong, curating a fashion exhibition is akin to producing a theatre performance; it’s an experience that must engage the audience and convey a story. “It’s not just selecting individual items — you need to think about how each garment is displayed, the way it’s lit and the plinth on which it’s placed,” he says. “You also need to look at the words that capture the essence of each piece, right down to the font that’s used.”

Fashion exhibitions have been popular around the world for decades, becoming an important activity for galleries and museums across Australia, too. Leong gives two reasons for their continued momentum. “Firstly, fashion plays on people’s fantasies and their sense of identity,” he says. “Secondly, fashion is simply something that we all engage with every day, whether it’s high fashion, street fashion or even anti-fashion.” 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our twelfth edition, Page 90 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “The Exhibitionist”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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