Ideas on Her Shoulders
By LAURA JACOBS
In the airy gallery where the exhibition "Ronaldus Shamask: Form, Fashion, Reflection" is on display at the Perelman Building (an annex of the Philadelphia Museum of Art), three designs in the same shade of butterfly yellow are given pride of place on the back wall. These three pieces—two short dresses and a poncho—are not made of fabric but of tissue paper. In each, a long plastic "infinity" zipper acts as a traditional closure, yet also doubles as ingenious structure—spaghetti straps on one dress, a halter strap on another. All three pieces are lighted from within, an illumination that accentuates the folds and seams that give the designs their shape. Paper, zipper, an incandescent bulb, the sun-struck yellow of Apollo—these elements merge into the kind of eureka moment that is the modus operandi of fashion designer Ron Shamask. His designs are beautiful ideas that women can wear.
Born in Amsterdam in 1945, Mr. Shamask was raised in Australia and spent his early 20s in London. Though trained as an architect, he worked as a fashion illustrator for English newspapers, studied stage design, and painted. He came to the U.S. in 1972 and, in partnership with Murray Moss six years later, a fashion label was born: Shamask. It closed after 12 years, and while Mr. Moss went on to open Moss in New York's SoHo district—a retail store known for its pitch-perfect inventory of industrial design—Mr. Shamask, in 1996, began a new fashion business of his own, this time in uppercase: SHAMASK.
Today, the label has a devoted following of women who admire the precision and flow of its clothing and its cerebral sense of drape and scale. (Trendies do not wear Shamask.) Moreover, Mr. Shamask's clothes move. Yes, he has the architect's reverence for geometric shapes, but he doesn't let structural gambits hinder radial free movement. In fact, Mr. Shamask has collaborated with some of the top choreographers of our time, having costumed dancers for both Lucinda Childs and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The clothing in this show is drawn from Mr. Shamask's entire career, with an emphasis on the early work and on designs recognized as singular. Curator Dilys Blum has arranged the show with a purist's eye, keeping her choices to a narrow palette, mostly black, white and red. This makes forays into wayward color—for instance, two Circular Knit Dresses from 2000, plush cocoons (or are they wooly caterpillars?) in coral and in stone gray—all the more surprising. The gridlike, color-block dresses inspired by Mr. Shamask's fellow Dutchman Piet Mondrian—red, yellow, white, blue, silvery green—feel like an elevated expression of the restraint that has come before: a transmutation. Indeed, movement from one form to another is what Mr. Shamask is all about.
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