Dressed to Thrill
With her fashion-centric art shows and black-tie-at-breakfast style, the curator Stacy Engman is all about turning heads.
Something unexpected happened this winter during New York Fashion Week. Stacy Engman walked into a presentation for the designer Lorry Newhouse and no one recognized her. “Is that you, Stacy?” gasped Newhouse as she stared in disbelief at the slender woman poised to embrace her. Engman slipped off the fur-lined hood of her white snow-bunny jacket, removed her oversize black shades, and exclaimed, “Darling, yes! It’s me! I decided to dress for the weather!”
Engman, the ultra-eccentric curator of crossover art-fashion exhibitions for the National Arts Club in New York, rarely appears in public as dressed down as she was that evening, when a snowstorm blanketed the city. More often, she looks like she’s headed to a gala, even at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. “Daytime dressing is completely overrated,” says Engman, who bonded with Newhouse in the Hamptons when they noticed they were both wearing sequins. “I like a cocktail dress as a uniform—unless there’s a blizzard.”
Engman’s usual garb is some combination of her countless Vivienne Westwood dresses, steep Christian Louboutin heels, and Philip Treacy hats. Or she might choose a lacy, feathery, or leather garment by one of the younger designers she champions—Teddy Willoughby, Alon Livne, or Chadwick Bell—accessorized with temporary tattoos and glittery diamond rings in the shape of an open vulva, like the ones found in the medieval carvings of Sheela-na-Gigs, the Celtic fertility figure. Engman calls the symbol her “personal mark.”
After the Newhouse presentation, which was held at 15 Central Park West, the most desirable address on the Upper West Side, we headed to the East Village for the opening of the artist Mickalene Thomas’s pop-up salon at the Proposition gallery. We were chauffeured by a car service that Engman keeps on retainer. Its fleet functions as her office and her vanity table, good for applying fresh coats of her signature red lipstick, making phone calls and appointments, and checking on the whereabouts of fashion editors, artists, and friends with family names like Rockefeller and Mellon.
As an independent curator, Engman has organized traveling museum exhibitions like “Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project”—a compendium of tarot cards by 78 artists and designers, including Tracey Emin, Raymond Pettibon, Catherine Opie, Karl Lagerfeld, Nick Knight, and Marc Jacobs. For the show, which opened at the National Arts Club in November 2011 and is on view through August 18 at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach, Engman matched every artist to a specific card, wrote an essay for each of them, and produced a boxed set as the catalog.
Ultimately, however, Engman herself is her best creation. Her meticulously curated ensembles are her armor and her smoke screen. She is careful not to disclose her age, or precisely where she was born or grew up. “The Midwest,” she said first, then reconsidered. “Mostly Chicago. But I lived so much in Hong Kong that I feel that it’s more my hometown.” Pressed for details, she fast-forwarded to the four years she spent in London, where she earned a master’s degree from Sotheby’s Institute of Art. It was there that she first met Westwood and Treacy, through the Turkish artist Haluk Akakce. “A lot of different artists and designers have called me ‘muse,’ either formally or informally,” Engman said, naming the artist Terence Koh, the Filipino hatmaker Mich Dulce, and the boys from the fashion label Ruffian. “It inspires me to interact with these really brilliant minds. If there’s one thing I love, it’s feeling awed.”
In 2007, Engman arrived in New York with a mission to make contemporary art accessible to a diverse public. Fashion was the way. Any division between the two disciplines, she insisted, is an illusion. “Whether they’re artists or designers, they’re all striving to create a visual experience that never existed before. They have the same process.” For an event at the National Arts Club, she had the architect Markus Dochantschi design a mirrored projection screen that bounced a film by Akakce around the room, disco ball–style. “For Stacy, it’s never just about the art but the entire atmosphere,” Dochantschi said. “There’s a depth.”
In the car, when I wondered aloud where she liked to shop, Engman offered up Joyce, a boutique she patronized while living in Hong Kong: “It was, like, Oh, my gosh! You don’t realize that you’re in this complete gem of an enclave, you know? But then, years later, I was looking at the things I have in storage, and I was like, Oh, my God. This is an insane, archival McQueen piece! At that time, I had no idea I was getting a McQueen.”
Engman may not sound all that worldly, but she travels extensively. Over one two-year period, to research her master’s dissertation, she visited every art biennial in the world. “Have you been to the Münster Sculpture Park in Germany?” she asked. “That’s my favorite. The last one was just insanely fabulous! I was on cloud nine for a month after that, just seeing so much good art.”
At the Proposition gallery, 45 minutes later, we elbowed through a crowd gathered in the salon that Thomas had decked out with the wildly patterned furniture that serves as the background to her glittery portrait paintings. A mannequin displayed the first dress Thomas ever designed, at Engman’s instigation, for a charity event at the United Nations. “Isn’t this amazing?” Engman squealed. “You’re amazing, Mickalene!” Thomas, who favors cargo pants and work boots, beamed. “I’m taking orders,” the artist said. “I have three so far.” Falling back on one of her stock phrases, Engman turned and exclaimed, “Isn’t this fun?”
As would be true at other events that week—a Livne presentation at Lincoln Center, another for Moncler at a Midtown hotel, a party at Jeffrey in the Meatpacking District for Valentino’s Camouflage collection, a Vivienne Tam runway show—Engman greeted everyone with the effusive spirit of a latter-day Auntie Mame. Eric Shiner, the director of the Andy Warhol Museum, where Engman is also taking her tarot card show, calls her “the art world’s Lady Gaga.” Her friend the publicist Susan Shin added “undercover intellectual.”
Engman thinks of herself more as a catalyst. “I’m not an artist,” she said weeks later, when I visited her at home, a surprisingly modest loft in SoHo. “I’m behind the scenes. My role is to help provide a platform for what I think is the most original, innovative…everything of our time.” She was dressed in a Treacy “lips” headpiece and a Westwood ensemble, with its tulle skirt worn backward and over a flesh-tone bodysuit appointed with large rhinestones. “I’ve always gravitated toward what I love,” she said. “The world opens up with love as the key.”
Her next projects are a red-lips-themed exhibition for the Flag Art Foundation and a capsule collection by artists, to be sold by special order on Net-a-Porter. Designs by Marina Abramovic, George Condo, Koh, and Thomas debuted at Art Hong Kong last month and will also be shown next month in Paris during the couture shows. “It will be an extraordinary celebration of creativity,” Engman enthused. “Isn’t that fun?”