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A Fashionable Inspiration
Story by Marlene Montanez

Stepping into the vault for the fashion collection at the Phoenix Art Museum is an experience akin to being a kid in candy store—to anyone obsessed with fashion that is. And for Dennita Sewell, curator for The Kelly Ellman Fashion Design Gallery at Phoenix Art Museum, the kid-in-a-candy-store feeling is one she gets to experience every day.

Clad in all black, Sewell chats animatedly about the collection of 5,000-plus objects in the fashion vault that houses women's, men's and children's garments and accessories dating from the late 18th century to the present. She radiates excitement that is impossible not to notice. "I am very into that! I like this; we're pulling out some pieces!" she exclaims as a jaw-droppingly gorgeous 2002 Karl Lagerfeld-designed Chanel suit is unveiled from its khaki-color acid-free box. The suit is amazing—classic Chanel with black patent boots and a corset belt to match. "The thing about contemporary pieces and what is important to me, is that I am not a stylist," she explains. "I am not an editor; I am a fashion historian. I'm a curator, and my job here at this museum and my goal or my role is not to style the mannequins per se but to do the research to portray the designer's vision from head-to-toe as accurately as possible."

Whether it's sourcing pieces to add to the collection or researching current socially relevant pieces to acquire, Sewell strives to document what's important, what gets people talking. "What designers are significant? Which pieces in their body of work [are] significant? What is a significant style that represents a time period? All those things factor into what we particularly seek out and try to acquire," she says. "Clothing has so much to do with our history and the time period and the technologies of those time periods that we're able [to show] the drive of the society, what they find beautiful in different points in time. I find all those things fascinating and try to portray those in the exhibitions."

Sewell coordinates two to three exhibitions per year at the museum. "There are very few museums across the country that have a devoted space to fashion where they do consistent exhibitions and have the level of activity that we have here," she says. Thanks to donations from people in the community, designers and big-name fashion icons like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, Phoenix Art Museum's fashion collection has attained renown. Its pieces have been lent for national and international use in venues like the Chanel exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the Balenciaga exhibition at the Musée des Arts de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre in Paris. "I could say and tell the public that this here is a great collection," she says, "but [the borrowing] speaks to its reputation internationally; that those people in these different institutions organizing these retrospectives wanted to borrow our pieces is really exciting."

But it's far more than just pretty dresses and vintage shoes for Sewell. "I really feel passionately about touching all parts of the community," she says. "We all wear clothes. Just to involve people and engage them in the museum, I think the more that we learn about ourselves and our history and what we wear is so much a part of ourselves and our world and the way our social structure is composed and thrives that it’s really essential to understand clothing and its role in society."