Leong Leong on designing the Met’s Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion exhibit

Styling Preservation

dresses on display in shelving

Everyone’s favorite time to be a momentary fashion critic has come and gone with the 2024 Met Gala, a chance for celebrities to cement their status as style savvy or terribly gauche by dressing in accordance with this year’s theme: The Garden of Time. It coincides with the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Spring exhibition. The 2024 show, entitled Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion, features 220 garments and accessories that attest to the transience of fashion and revolves around the titular “Sleeping Beauties,” in other words garments that can no longer be worn, or even affixed to mannequins, due to their extreme fragility. The institute looked to local studio Leong Leong to bring this concept to life.

Met’s Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion exhibit
Curving white walls, lit from underneath, greet visitors at the exhibit’s entrance (Naho Kubota)

The curatorial intent of the exhibition—led by Andrew Bolton, the curator-in-charge of The Anna Wintour Costume Center—juggles a lot: to organize a rather dense amount of objects within the museum’s Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, display the historic garments in a way that brings them to life all the while maintaining their strict preservation needs, create an immersive way for visitors to experience the clothing without being able to touch them, and highlight how nature is an aspect throughout each of the exhibit’s case studies.

Met’s Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion exhibit
The layout meanders through the room and is punctuated by a series of domes (Naho Kubota)

dress on display in a bell jar
In the Scent of a Woman room, a bell jar displays a garment, a nod to the laboratory aesthetics in the show’s design (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Leong Leong approached the design of the space by focusing on the brief’s common through line: the body. “Fashion is meant to be worn. Architecture is about the embodied experience,” Dominic Leong, founding partner of Leong Leong, told AN Interior. “So I think [Bolton’s] prompt of thinking about how to represent these objects through the senses was really compelling.”

dresses on view
Frosted mirror display boxes protect and reveal aging garments (Naho Kubota)

To organize the many thematic moments of the show, the studio devised an episodic spatial organization that unfurls through curving partitions of drywall and steel frames, punctuated by a series of around 30 domed containers. The layout ties into the nature motif of the show, as it takes its mapping from English gardens. As Leong explained, “In an English garden, you can never totally see the whole. The English garden was interesting for reference, because it’s not ocular centric. It’s not totally based on vision; it’s based on movement.”

dress laying flat
The lighting within the display boxes dims and glows, making the sleeping beauties appear to be breathing (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The garden-like organization guides visitors through different eras in fashion, from the 18th century’s fascination with insects to the end of the 19 century’s avian influence. Throughout display boxes carved into the walls contain the titular beauties. Encased in subtly frosted mirrors under lighting that dims and glows, they appear to be breathing.

dress on view
In the Garden Life room, embossed wallpaper recreates the embroidery of a 1615 to 1620 waistcoat while a projection of it clads the domed ceiling (Naho Kubota)

The requirements of the display system, as well as the ways nature can be experienced through observation, prompted the architects to reference laboratories within the design. The bell jars containing archival dresses, the tubing used throughout the show, the blank walls and softly lit white lights; these elements riff on Leong Leong’s aesthetics of observation while providing a blank canvas to project digital reproductions of the clothes’ patterns or references. Standing under the domed ceiling mimics the garments encased in the bell jars itself. “The exhibition design is kind of this hybrid between the idea of the laboratory and this idea of the garden,” said the partner.

red dress on view
The smells of the garment are broken down by layer and delivered via tubes (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Tactile and olfactory senses were also a major component of the curatorial intent of the show. Artist Sissel Tolaas extracted the smells from the garments. Part of her concept was transporting these smells through tubes that connect the glass cases to beakers that visitors can sniff to smell the clothes through the ages or stages of its wearer’s life. In one room, a scratch and sniff backdrop asks visitors to release the smell of a garment by rubbing the wall. The wall, noted Leong, “is intended to get dirty, which is a really unique thing for museum institutions. Sisal was really adamant that getting dirty was part of the intention. There’s a lot of moments in the exhibition that sort of challenge the expectations of how we experience exhibition design.”

dress laying flat
Fragile pieces are preserved in shimmering boxes, laid flat (Naho Kubota)

Van Gogh’s flowers room
One room is dedicated to Van Gogh’s flowers and its influence on fashion (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Being invited to touch material is another unconventional aspect. One wall is clad in a 3D-printed plastic replica of the floral motif on the Miss Dior dress which visitors are invited to touch. In another room, embossed wallpaper recreates the embroidery of a 1615 to 1620 waistcoat.

spare white walls in gallery
The spare white walls act as a blank canvas for digital projections (Naho Kubota)

Elsewhere, digital animations help the exhibition feel like a futuristic laboratory. The architects and curators worked with SHOWstudio and Nick Knight. Using the Pepper’s ghost illusion technique, the studio depicted a woman devolving into an insect, wearing Jeanne Hallée’s “hobble skirt,” depicting how the design was heavily critiqued for the ways in which it made women hunch over like a bug to wear it.

Arched niches display gowns by Issey Miyake
Arched niches display gowns by Issey Miyake, House of Balenciaga, Jean Dessès, and more designers that attest to the endurance of unadulterated yellow (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

While the word immersive can often feel like a marketing keyword for many exhibitions of late, its use in Sleeping Beauties is integrated into the architecture of the space, highlighting the delicate balance between preservation and resurrection—a dance not unfamiliar to architects.

Met’s Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion exhibit
The layout of the exhibition unfurls episodically with each room dedicated to a new era or theme (Naho Kubota)

“Innovation on representing these objects to make them more accessible is something that was really exciting to be a part of because we’ve also been really thinking about that,” added Leong. “How do you make architecture more accessible? How do you make architecture accessible to like more types of bodies? I think this is a great opportunity to try to just start to move that needle incrementally.”

Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion is on view now at the Met until September 2.