Richard Christiansen was starstruck the first time he saw Dolly Parton in concert. “I grew up on a farm in the outback of Australia, and the first concert I ever saw as a little kid—and I must have been six or seven—was Dolly Parton when she came to Australia, and, to me, she represented everything that America was about. She was completely over the top, and she was incredibly optimistic, and she represented possibilities and reinvention, too,” reflects the founder of New York City agency Chandelier Creative.
That first encounter with Parton sparked a lifelong appreciation of the legendary performer and her flashy style, and when Christiansen heard 10,000 of the costumes that have adorned her hourglass figure over the years were stashed away from public view in a refrigerated warehouse in Tennessee, he started imagining the possibilities. “I wanted to do a book or some project with these costumes,” he says. “It’s creatively, from a fashion point of view, an untapped resource.”
Christiansen reached out to Parton’s people about a year ago, and ultimately teamed up with The Dollywood Foundation to produce a fundraiser for Parton’s Imagination Library, which promotes early childhood literacy. “It’s a national charity, and it’s done a lot of great work. It hasn’t ever really taken off in a big way in New York state, so the goal was to ignite some excitement and get it going in New York,” Christiansen says.
The private event was held in New York City on December 12 in Annie Leibovitz’s old studio in Chelsea where 50 of Parton’s most iconic looks were on display. Christiansen worked with Parton’s creative director/wardrobe designer Steve Summers to curate the exhibit. His favorite look? “She did this crazy performance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the ’80s with a huge gospel choir, and she wore a long gold dress. In terms of showmanship, it’s a great outfit,” he says.
That dress was in the one-night-only exhibit, highlights from which you can see in the gallery accompanying this story. A dress made of pearls also made the cut. “I’m not sure of the exact weight, but it must be 30 pounds. It’s so outrageous. When I lifted it out of its garment bag, it took both hands and someone else to help me,” Christiansen says, noting, “Apparently, it’s her favorite dress.”
Being able to handle clothes worn by Parton was an incredible experience for Christiansen. “As a little kid, I was like, ‘Oh my God, she is the biggest star in the world,’ and then to be able to come full circle and have access to the archive and her clothing, it was a little bit of a surreal moment, and it was fantastic,” he says. “I think it’s probably how many Elvis fans would feel today thinking about his wardrobe. This is an incredible collection of clothing that’s so iconic to one person. These things could never really be worn by anyone else, and you get a sense that it is very special to be able to pick and choose and edit them and hear all the stories from all the different costumes.”
Gavel & Grand is hosting an online auction to benefit Parton’s Imagination Library, and you have until January 9 to bid on items including a custom-designed gown Parton wore for a photo shoot with Terry Richardson.