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Emphatics Excitement Comes to Phoenix: 50 Years of Avant Garde

By Brielle Ashford


Photography by Izeah Guiao 

The magic and artistry in 50 years of  fashion is vibrantly coming alive at Emphatics: the Phoenix Art Museum’s acquired rare archive of avant-garde fashions. The archive is the collection of James and Karin Legato, who owned and operated the Emphatics boutique in Pittsburgh, PA from 1963 to 2013. The collection is characterized by the biggest avant-garde designers of the period, including signature pieces from Thierry Mugler, Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake and Jean Paul Gaultier.

The multimedia exhibit has been in the works for over a year now, and with much anticipation the time to showcase has finally arrived.

The Legatos’ many pieces spark excitement for fashion-lovers and artists alike. The collection is vast, and presents not only beautiful clothing Mr. Legato foresaw as transcending the ages, but rare ephemera from the shows and various outings the Legatos attended as well. The Legatos never intended for Emphatics to become an archive. It is truly a collection of the pair’s most treasured pieces that has morphed into the grand archive showcased in the exhibit with time.

This only adds to the majesty of the collection, as the ephemera acquired by the Legatos over time required “very, very strong connections,” the museum’s Curator of Fashion Design Dennita Sewell said, and that without the Legatos “It would have been near impossible to acquire for us, as an institution.”

The extensive collection of both, Sewell said, speaks to the artistry the Legatos saw in both the clothing and the memorabilia, and the foresight they possessed to save these pieces.

However, the style began in the early years in Pittsburgh with Emphatics Hair Fashions, a little shop where James Legato would lend his artistic eye to hair styling, often in a particularly avant-garde style. He soon found himself unsatisfied without a collection of clothing there to fit his clients in avant-garde from head to toe, and the boutique Emphatics began.


“The goal was to be bold and striking, just like the hair,” Karin Legato explained during the Emphatics Fashion Symposium at the museum Saturday, donning a favored piece of vintage Balenciaga.

Ms. Legato was in college as a political science major working a summer job in a men’s clothing store when she met James, shortly after opening his boutique in May of 1969. From that point the pair were “inseparable,” as she explained.

“He was the artist, and I became his Muse.”

One of the biggest intrigues of Emphatics, during its time as a boutique and today as an archive, is the blending of avant-garde and everyday. The Legatos had a love for haute couture perhaps only rivaled by their love for each other, and their goal was to bring this high fashion onto the streets of Pittsburgh and beyond; not simply to sit on display in a windowsill.

“These were pieces I advocated wearing daily,” Ms. Legato explained. “They were a little different, outside the box… but why be boring?”

CEO of Versace USA Michele Sodi worked with the Legatos extensively, and spoke of their goals at the Symposium.

“The passion of our business and the creative aspect… It was always there with them. [Karin Legato] would try everything on herself, she wanted to know how they fit . . . She really wanted to understand; can we sell this? Is it flattering? Is it practical? I was always in awe.”


Ms. Legato said that throughout the fifty years she was always questioned on how she managed to sell avant-garde in Pittsburgh; not New York or Los Angeles, the location strikes as an odd place for an insurgence of the unusual in fashion.

Ms. Legato said it had little to do with clients’ professions or where they came from, and that the two would use their collection to educate and excite fashion-lovers everywhere.

“As long as you had an open mind, and you wanted to experience something… to dare to be a little bit different, we would give you the confidence to do it.” Ms. Legato said.

The Legatos would bring back the invitations from the shows and the pictures they took of the fashions on the runway, and show them to the clients as they correlated with what they were interested in purchasing.

“It was about the experience,” Ms. Legato said.


Today the experience lives on here in Phoenix. The exhibition, $5 for non-members and free with a membership, will continue to showcase the magnificence of the avant-garde until January 2017.


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