If Rafael Gomes offers to take you into SCAD FASH’s conservation lab, behind the unmarked white doors deep within the bowels of the Peachtree Street museum, where vintage fashion is kept in long blue boxes swaddled in layer upon layer of tissue paper, go. Just go.
Gomes, the director of fashion exhibitions at Savannah College of Art and Design’s acclaimed Midtown museum, might show you a piece from the school’s Victorian collection. He could even let you try on the reproduction of a bustle, an opportunity he offers to students to viscerally connect them with the sense of restriction that fashion represented for women in the past. Gomes will cradle a vintage Chanel suit like a newborn baby, marveling at the workmanship. You will stand beside him, nodding your head, as he teaches how our shoes, undergarments, skirts, and suits play a role in defining the people we are and the times we live in.
“I could sit for hours at his feet with my hand on my chin and just listen to his stories,” says Nancy Flaherty, an Atlanta-based fashion journalist and U.S. editor of French fashion magazine Grace In Paris. Gomes has given Atlantans a bridge to the global and historical worlds of design with exhibitions such as gowns by international jetset couturier Guo Pei, the work of fashion icon Pierre Cardin, and costumes from the dystopian TV series The Handmaid’s Tale.
While other little boys in the mountainous outskirts of Rio de Janeiro were playing grocery store and gas station with their Playmobil figures, Gomes was creating tiny outfits for his, draping them in sequins. Raised in a strict household by his father, a Brazilian Marine who often brought those disciplinarian tendencies home with him, and his German-born mother, Gomes was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. The young boy knew at an early age that he was gay and “different from other boys and different from my brother.” When he wanted to take a drawing course, his father enrolled him in judo classes. His mother didn’t push back. “I couldn’t even have a teddy bear, it was so strict,” he says. “Nothing soft.” Even today at age 43, Gomes is still covert about what exactly he does for a living. “They don’t really know what I’m doing. They think I’m a graphic designer,” he says with a shrug.
Fashion was always an inspiration for the curator. At 17, Gomes left Brazil for Germany, where he studied at Munich’s Deutsche Meisterschule für Mode. In 2005, while still a student, he beat out hundreds of contestants from 40 countries to win the annual Triumph International Fashion Award for his evening gowns crafted from bra straps and stockings (some of his previous designs were constructed with car parts and paper). For 10 years, Gomes worked for irreverent British designer Vivienne Westwood. In 2015, he was ready to jump off the fashion tilt-a-whirl and accepted the job of curating SCAD’s fashion museum in Atlanta, a place he knew little about, save for what he saw on The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
The perfect emissary of fashion’s cosmopolitan world, Gomes cuts a dashing, even intimidating figure in his stovepipe trousers, Vivienne Westwood (mixed with J. Crew) suits, monk-strap shoes, thick beard, and Teutonic accent. But beneath the hipster facade lurks a gregarious demeanor and the still-fresh memory of the escape and sustenance that fashion gave him amidst an unhappy childhood. “He’s like Tom Ford,” Flaherty says. “Men love him, women love him. You always want more of him.” Theo Tyson, who graduated from SCAD this year with her masters in luxury and fashion management and worked alongside Gomes as a docent, says the curator was the reason she opted to stay at the Atlanta campus rather than study abroad. Gomes “became my mentor and fairy godfather of all things fashion, freely sharing his knowledge of fashion history, theory, and so much more,” she says.
Heralded for its exhibitions of work from designers like Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta, SCAD FASH has been covered in Vogue, W, and the New York Times, though it may still be a bit of a secret in Atlanta. The jewelbox museum occupies a 10,000-square-foot space tucked away on the top level of SCAD’s Atlanta campus. Since its opening in 2015, SCAD FASH has capitalized on surging public interest in celebrity, glamour, and fashion exhibitions that are, for the most part, unintimidating. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum have both exhibited designers. Locally, High Museum shows dedicated to Dutch designer Iris van Herpen and sneaker culture have been crowd favorites. Gomes attributes SCAD FASH’s powerhouse shows and names to his preexisting fashion contacts and to his constant networking. Also helpful are the college’s deep connections in the industry, from SCAD Lacoste campus neighbor Pierre Cardin (whose work is currently on display) to people like Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley, a school trustee and frequent curator of fashion exhibits at the college’s Savannah campus.
“I feel very at home here,” says Gomes of his life in Atlanta. He’s come to embrace the South, enjoying visits to Miami, Charleston, and Savannah. And he feels an affinity with other residents of Atlanta, who have fled their own small towns or unsupportive families for the refuge of the city. Now, he helps connect them to the ultimate escape: a world of beauty and fantasy, where people can become what they want to be.
See the exhibit
Pierre Cardin: Pursuit of the Future runs from now until September 30; Dressing for Dystopia is on display until August 12. General admission is $10. scadfash.org
This article appears in our August 2018 issue.