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To celebrate the first year of the Whitney Museum of American Art at its new downtown location, Max Mara has created an Anniversary Edition of the Whitney Bag, limited to 400. As a partner of the museum, Max Mara first released the Whitney Bag in 2015, created in collaboration with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, which is part of the firm responsible for designing the new High Line site. The Anniversary Edition will have the same bones as the original, and be rendered in taupe and pear, using a well-known portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (founder of the museum) in a bespoke Bakst costume as the point of inspiration. We spoke with Max Mara Creative Director Ian Griffiths about the bag imposed with flowers, in stores in mid-May.
WHITEWALL: When we last spoke, it was just before the new Whitney Museum of American Art opened and the first Whitney Bag had just been designed. Could you share with us, first, the process of creating that bag with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop?
IAN GRIFFITHS: Our design team and Renzo Piano Building Workshop agreed that the bag should echo the physical structure of the building, the principal element being the ribbed shell that wraps around it. We developed entirely new techniques to reproduce this on the bag by combining traditional Tuscan craft techniques and laser technology. The vision was the same on both sides and the design process very linear—no going back to the drawing board.
WW: What was it like to work with an architecturally focused team on a fashion accessory?
IG: It was the realization of a dream. I trained initially as an architect, and my design team thinks in architectural terms—I guess that is largely because of our long tradition in coats. Coats go beyond fashion, and their design has many parallels to the design of buildings, such as protection, practicality, prestige, the marriage of form and materials, proportion, and finish, all considered as a whole.
WW: Why did you want to celebrate the anniversary of the new location with a limited-edition redesign of the bag?
IG: The collaboration was a genuine meeting of minds. The whole process had the kind of quality that you can expect once in a lifetime, and we wanted to build on that. Since the initial launch last year, we have introduced the bag in various new colors, but the first anniversary of last year’s amazing inaugural events seemed the perfect opportunity to design a version with a new twist.
WW: How did you come to use the portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney as the point of inspiration?
IG: Max Mara dresses strong, successful women, so in any situations we look for iconic women as inspiration. There aren’t many more inspiring than Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The bag is inspired by the museum, and we wanted to reconnect it to the woman who founded it.
WW: Why did your choice of the specific image of her in a custom Bakst costume for the Ballets Russes make sense for this project?
IG: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was a pioneer who defied stuffy bourgeois convention. The costume designed for her by Léon Bakst represents her absolute modernity and her radical individuality. Just compare her look to the standard fashions of the time—in the simplest terms, women were just not supposed to wear pants in 1914.
WW: We read that it was depicted by artists like John Singer Sargent in a drawing, a photograph by Baron Adolph de Meyer, and a painting Robert Winthrop Chanler. Was it important for you, that connection of this image through the eyes of other artists?
IG: The attention of these artists and designers confirms the image’s complete encapsulation of the spirit of the age, or more accurately, the spirit of the age that was to come. The word “iconic” is bandied about a great deal, but this image truly merits the description.
WW: How specifically was that translated into the design of the bag?
IG: We took the distinctive motifs that Bakst used in the outfit: the tropical flower and leaf. We applied them to the bag design using a relief technique so that they sit between the characteristic ribs of the bag. We were excited by this dynamic created between the strong structure of the bag and the exotic ornamentation. The two elements are unified by the very refined pearl shade that we used—inspired by the necklace Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney wears in the portrait by Baron de Meyer.
WW: How would you describe Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of the museum (1875–1942)? What would she share with today’s Max Mara woman?
IG: Max Mara women want to make their mark on the world. They aim for the best and they won’t accept compromise. They embrace modernity. I hope that if Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney were alive today, she would be wearing Max Mara.
WW: In her portrait, such confidence comes across. Is that something you wanted to express in the design of the bag as well?
IG: Max Mara shares with Renzo Piano Building Workshop a belief in decisive, confident design. It’s in everything we do. I think that women trust our brand because the quality of design gives a kind of reliability and comfort to the wearer.
WW: Did you envision Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney when designing the new Whitney bag?
IG: Her captivating image was looking at us from the pin board all the while we were working on the project. We naturally started imagining what she would think about the design.
WW: As a designer, what have been some of the highlights for you in Max Mara’s ongoing partnership with the Whitney?
IG: Contemporary art holds a mirror to the world. Take, for example, the Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition, “America Is Hard to See.” We are dressing women to live in the world that contemporary art is describing to us—hence the ever-closer relationship between the two. On a personal level, I think the most exciting moment was one Sunday when we shot our collection in the museum maybe a month before it opened. Donna De Salvo’s team were in the process of hanging that exhibition. It was like seeing history made.