Man of La Moda
Jorge Yarur makes a fashion statement in Chile’s post-Pinochet culture
By Glenn Belverio
While passing through Buenos Aires last November, I had a brief chat with Argentine designer Jessica Trosman about my upcoming visit to the Museo de la Moda in Santiago, Chile. “There’s a fashion museum in Chile?!” she asked incredulously. Her shock was based on the unstylish reputation of most Chilean women. “Chilean women dress simply, nearly always in slacks; they wear their hair down and use little makeup," writes Isabel Allende in her 2003 memoir My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile. "On the beach or at a party they all look the same, a chorus of clones.” It was certainly not my aim to judge the questionable dressing habits of Santiago’s female population. I was, however, curious about how a fashion museum was being received in this far-flung country, one that is framed by the Andes, deserts, glaciers, and a vast stretch of the Pacific. Chile is, after all, a nation whose fairly recent political history—Salvador Allende’s controversial Marxist government in the early '70s followed by a long, brutal dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet—continues to resonate in everyday life. (A popular bi-weekly newspaper called The Clinic, for example, serves up scathing political satire and investigation, and is named after the British clinic where Pinochet was first incarcerated.)
An illustration of Salvador Allende from The Clinic
The Museo de la Moda, which opened in June 2007, is located in the exclusive uptown neighborhood of Vitacura, a wealthy, sterile community full of opulent homes surrounded by towering hedges. The area is in marked contrast to Santiago’s bohemian and partially seedy Downtown and Bellavista districts, where a majority of the city’s museums are located. Entering the Museo, you have to check in at a guardhouse, making you feel as if you’re crashing a private party at someone’s home on Mulholland Drive rather than visiting a public museum. But, in effect, you are visiting a private residence, for the Museo has been installed in the former childhood home—an impressive, one-level Japanese-style house built in 1962—of Jorge Yarur Bascuñán. The only child of a wealthy textile manufacturer of Palestinian descent and a bohemian Chilean woman, Yarur transformed the house into a fashion museum after his parents passed away sometime in the '90s. He began collecting pieces in 1999 and has since amassed over eight-thousand acquisitions.
The lovely zen-like exterior of the Museo de la Moda
Walking through the darkened hallways (the floor-to-ceiling windows of the house have all been covered with heavy curtains) I discovered such treats as important vintage Dior, Chanel, and Cardin pieces; a velvet dress worn by Eva Perón; Joan Crawford’s Jean Louis gown from the film Queen Bee; and a selection from Nolan Miller’s Dynasty wardrobe worn by Joan Collins. The temporary exhibit, titled Dressing Time and curated by Lydia Kamitsis, also reached back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was comprised of pieces from Yarur’s collection. Another, permanent exhibit takes up several rooms and is devoted to tennis clothing from 1880 to the present. An interesting facet of the Dressing Time show was a number of dresses from the '40s and '50s whose designers’ names will go unrecognized by most. They are pieces that belonged to the muse of the museum, Yarur’s mother, Rachel Bascuñán. “My mother was looking for her own style, more than big labels,” Yarur told me over the phone from Paris, where he was tirelessly acquiring more pieces for the museum. “She liked fine clothes, but she was searching for her own identity.”
A few of the pieces Ms. Bascuñán possessed were bought during her spectacular eight-month honeymoon in 1958. A colorful, dreamlike video transfer of an 8mm film plays continuously at the entrance of the museum’s galleries, documenting the honeymoon’s long trail: from Buenos Aires to Rio, Milan to Morocco (with a pit-stop in North Carolina so Jorge Yarur, Sr. could visit the cotton mills). Elsewhere in the museum is Ms. Bascuñán’s pink 1958 Ford Thunderbird—not a typical Chilean’s car at the time. One of her paintings hangs a few yards away from a work by Latin-American surrealist, Roberto Matta Echaurren, in the house’s carefully preserved den. “All the knowledge of culture that I have is from my mother,” says Yarur. “My father was always working, so I spent a lot of time with her, listening to classical music and learning about art. My mother was a quiet, sensitive woman. She never spent hours on the phone gossiping like other Chilean women.”
Inside the Museo
“This young millionaire, Jorge Yarur, didn’t know what to do with his life until he discovered his passion for fashion, which he has dedicated all of his energy and resources to for the Museo,” says Professor Pia Montalva, a Yarur associate and author of To Die a Little: Fashion and Society in Chile, 1960 – 1976. “And he does it very well, very seriously, elevating himself in the eyes of other qualified museum experts.” Ms. Bascuñán’s consumption of non-big-label fashion was not, according to Montalva, unusual for Chilean women during the '40s and '50s. “There was a design house in Chile during the '40s that sold prototyped copies of French high fashion. A manufacturer would buy a copy and then reproduce it with Chilean fabrics, using high-quality manual labor, and sell it commercially in large numbers,” Montalva explains. “By the mid-'60s, there were a number of boutiques that sold imitations of more avant-garde designs by Courrèges, Cardin, Saint Laurent, and Rabanne.”
Jorge Yarur photographed in Paris in 2007 by Kai Junemann
Copied French ready-to-wear was obviously not confined to Chile—Jackie Kennedy wore American-made knockoffs of Paris fashion while in the White House—but soon, even ersatz fashion statements were rendered démodé by sudden political and economic changes. When Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970, he implemented a number of socialist programs designed to improve the socio-economic welfare of Chile’s poorest citizens. “Allende was all the time against the rich people, and that affected my family,” remembers Yarur, who was a child at the time. “His government was about resentment of the rich, not about everyone having the same standard of living.”
“During that time, there was a fear in exhibiting or representing your status. Expensive, ostentatious dressing style disappeared,” explains Montalva. But, it seems, Chilean Marxism did not sound the death knell for creativity and style. “Toward the end of Allende’s presidency, the lack of natural resources produced a hecho a mano (manmade) style,” continues Montalva. “Women made their own clothes and accessories by recycling and transforming old garments from their wardrobes. A hippie-folk aesthetic emerged with an emphasis on the individual.”
Because the United States government could not tolerate the existence of a democratically elected Socialist in Latin America, they aided and abetted General Pinochet in a bloody, brutal coup against Allende on September 11, 1973. During the long years of Pinochet’s undemocratic government that followed the coup, U.S. and other foreign economic interests predictably seized the moment: Fashion flourished under fascism. “The big change during the military dictatorship was the arrival of foreign fashion brands: Esprit, Levi’s, Wrangler, Benetton, Fiorucci, and the boom of malls and department stores,” notes Montalva. “In the long run, the consequence of this change was the progressive destruction of Chile’s national industries, textiles, and clothing. The main legacy of Pinochet is that Chile has distanced itself from its continental aesthetics. It denies its mestizo origins and considers itself a ‘white’ country with a very superior level of development. And from that it builds its identity.” Perhaps it’s this homogenization that spawned Isabel Allende’s “chorus of clones”? “The women of Chile copy each other,” confirms Montalva. “I don’t think that will change because it’s rooted in Chilean idiosyncrasy; but it is a problem that is much more complicated than fashion.”
General Pinochet addresses his troops
A symbol of twenty-first century optimism, the Museo de la Moda is like a dollop of sugary meringue on Chile’s bittersweet late-twentieth-century history of flawed social programs, political repression, and torture. But even with the frothiness of eighteenth-century lace ruffles and Joan Crawford’s crimson satin, Yarur is turning his sights toward the streets. “I want my exhibits to address the cultures of North and South America and Europe, but not just be a reflection of the glamour you see in fashion magazines. Real fashion is to be found on the street, not at a party where everyone is wearing nice dresses and tuxedos. That’s a minority, what you see on the red carpet.” This is good news for those who’ve grown weary of Anna Wintour’s annual Costume Institute gala and the event’s coverage of couture-clad starlets who think Erté is the name of a new brand of caffeine-infused vodka.
Yarur’s museum is also poised to address a larger political history’s influence on clothing: the two World Wars and their impact on fashion’s long-lasting patterns. Yarur’s overall fashion vision is at once rooted in Chile (the museum’s homage to his parents) and well beyond his country’s social and religious parameters. “His collection is made with a non-elitist and non-nationalistic approach,” says curator Lydia Kamitsis. “He juxtaposes pieces from all over the world, and of different interests. They can be very simple or very sophisticated. This diversity makes us understand what fashion is about in France compared to Italy, the U.S., Argentina, or Chile.” Beyond the Andes, it turns out, lies a new and unlikely fashion frontier.
My photo of an exit at a Santiago subway stop. No, this has nothing to do with 9/11 in the U.S.--the avenue is named after the day of the 1973 coup in remembrance of Allende's death. (Chile is now moderately Socialist).