“It’s literally like living in a disco ball here,” says fashion designer Michael Schmidt during a video call from the new exhibit that he’s put together spotlighting iconic fashion items worn by mega-stars and all featuring Swarovski crystals. Taking sparkling and dazzling to new heights, the exhibition of embellished costumes opened in November at Swarovski’s Kristallwelten — that’s Crystal Worlds in English — a park and museum, opened in 1995, that’s located near the jewelry company’s headquarters in Wattens, Austria.
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Most items in the exhibit, titled The Art of Performance, are original pieces, including one of Michael Jackson’s famed gloves. “To me this is the greatest piece of pop memorabilia in history so I’m thrilled to have this here. This is an original. It’s on loan from Michael Bush, who was Michael Jackson’s designer. He made all of Michael Jackson’s clothes for the second half of his life,” says Schmidt.
On loan from Bob Mackie and Cher is a Mackie-designed headdress and top worn by the singer for her residency in Las Vegas. “To see it in person, it’s really overwhelming. It’s pleated and meant to evoke feathers and then of course it’s crystalled,” says Schmidt.
His own design of a glove for Lady Gaga, which she wore in American Horror Story: Hotel as Elizabeth the Countess, is also on display.
“She played a killer and she would cut your throat with the nail of this glove. It’s 11,000 Swarovski crystals with sterling silver filigree,” says Schmidt, who is known for his one-of-a-kind edgy-meets-elegant creations for pop stars such as Madonna, Elton John, Beyoncé, Cher, Rihanna, Cardi B and Katy Perry.
Schmidt spent three years putting together the show, which was supposed to open last year in tandem with the 125-year anniversary of Swarovski. But it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It actually gave us a lot more time to pull in other things that I wouldn’t have access to. These pieces were scattered around the world in various archives,” says Schmidt.
Other pieces in the show are recreations, such as a sculptural replica of the chandelier dress — designed by Jeremy Scott and made by Schmidt — that Perry wore to the Met Gala in 2019.
Schmidt also had a reproduction made of the Swarovski-encrusted Jean Louis dress that Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962. (The original is owned by Ripley’s Believe It or Not! which purchased the gown in 2016 for $4.8 million.)
And he recreated the white tuxedo that Marlene Dietrich wore in the 1932 film Blonde Venus. “This was the very first time that Swarovski crystal ever appeared on film, in the famous scene with Marlene and Cary Grant. The original no longer exists,” says Schmidt, adding that Blonde Venus marks “the introduction of Swarovski to the world of filmmaking, and after that all of the major designers of the day, from Adrian to Edith Head, they all used Swarovski on all of the great movie stars of the time.
Additional original items in the exhibit include pieces worn by Bjork, Lizzo, Elton John, Selena Gomez (a crystal floral headdress), Grace Jones, Dita Von Teese and Beyoncé. There’s the actual crystal slipper created for the 2015 film Cinderella, plus a scarf worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch not far from the elaborate headdress worn by Mila Kunis as Jupiter Jones in the 2015 film Jupiter Ascending. Also on display is a leotard worn by Simone Biles. “It was very important for me to have Simone in the exhibition,” says Schmidt. “I wanted to expand the scope beyond singers and movie stars to include sports.”
“What’s really incredible is that all of these moments from the last nearly 100 years have all been touched by Swarovski. There’s never been an exhibition quite like this that connects all of these amazing moments and this company and their products which are really indispensable to the entertainment industry,” continues Schmidt.
The exhibition — which will be on display for seven years (though some items will only remain for a year while new ones will be added) — was designed by Tony-winning set designer Derek McLane, who’s designed everything from Moulin Rouge! and Ragtime on Broadway to the stage of the Academy Awards (from 2013 to 2018). McLane’s creations for the Swarovski exhibit include a crystal-covered mannequin-like sculpture of Elton John on stage, seeming to fly above a piano. “We have very special custom lighting on [the exhibition] so all the crystals sparkle in a spectacular way,” says Schmidt. Another highlight: A sparkling corset worn by Nicole Kidman as Satine in Moulin Rouge, the film.
The Art of Performance is just one of 17 exhibition areas at Crystal Worlds, spaces that Swarovski calls Chambers of Wonder. Elsewhere on view throughout the 17 chambers is an installation called The Chandelier of Grief by artist Yayoi Kusama; a nearly 20-foot-tall tree made of 150,000 crystals co-designed by designer Tord Boontje and the late Alexander McQueen; and a crystal dome with 595 mirrors modeled after one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. The 18-acre park even boasts a carousel that’s made with 15 million Swarovski crystals. “The museum, which is built into the foothills of the Alps, is quite extraordinary,” says Schmidt.
With Schmidt’s gift for eye-popping design, his exhibition is a fitting addition to the mix. “Of course I had heard a lot about Michael Schmidt designing all these incredible costumes and then I went to L.A. and he invited me to his studio,” says Carla Rumler, curator of Swarovski Crystal Worlds and cultural director of Swarvoski. Then and there, at Schmidt’s studio, Rumler proposed doing an exhibition together. “He said yes immediately,” she recalls, adding, “I’m so overwhelmed about the outcome. When I saw it first I had tears in my eyes. Without him we couldn’t have done this. He had access to all the pieces.”