Olivier Saillard, fashion impressionist
With the re-opening of the Palais Galliera, director, curator and fashion historian Olivier Saillard is poised to transform how we look at fashion, past and present.
One of the most highly awaited cultural events of the Autumn season was the re-opening in September of the Palais Galliera, the fashion museum of the City of Paris, after a four-year slumber. But for all its reinstated finery, high-energy director and curator, Olivier Saillard, prefers to call his domain the “new-old” Palais Galliera.
Originally commissioned by the Genoa-born Maria Brignole-Sale, later Duchess Galliera, to house her impressive art collection, the museum was inaugurated in 1895, seven years after her death. By that time, the art in question was gone – in a fit of pique, the duchess willed it back to her hometown.
The building served, by turns, as a museum of industrial art, an artists’ salon and an auction house before becoming a fashion museum in 1977. When it closed for renovations in 2009, the neo-Renaissance gem felt tattered, masked by claustrophobic, purpose-built displays, ill-considered carpeting and lighting that eclipsed nearly all its charms. The only holdout was the majestic colonnaded courtyard, an occasional backdrop for fashion shows.
Now restored to its late-19th century appearance – Pompeii red walls, matte black doors, bay windows by the atelier of Gustav Eiffel, mosaic floors and exquisitely painted ceilings - the Palais Galliera is set to change the way the public views fashion. But Saillard, the curator of over 40 exhibitions and author of an impressive array of books, articles, catalogues and poems, dates the true revival of the Galliera to 2010, in a little-known museum on the opposite side of the Seine.
“It’s a strange thing to become the director of a museum that is closed,” Saillard recalls. “That’s why I suggested doing outside exhibitions.” The show “Madame Grès: Couture at Work”, staged at the Musée Bourdelle in the 15th arrondissement, marked a turning point in his career. “Madame Grès was a revelation. With that exhibition, I suddenly understood that fashion is better served when it’s not presented in a window.
It should be viewed like sculpture.”
The show became a talking point for the fashion industry and the general public. “People realised that this woman, who was a sculptor, had turned out clothes that were like sculpture,” he recalls. “After that, I said to myself I must capture that idea of being an auteur.”
That conviction led Saillard to approach designer Azzedine Alaïa, whose work is the subject of the museum’s opening exhibition. It is also the designer’s first-ever Parisian retrospective. “After Grès, it was obvious to me that I should invite Azzedine to show here,” says Saillard. “He trained as a sculptor and, for me, he is the ‘son’ of Madame Grès or Cristobal Balenciaga.” Alaïa also contributed three new creations, which will be showcased simultaneously in the Matisse room at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, across the way.
Displaying fashion as sculpture was not Madame Grès’ only revelation. “We did [the show] on a shoestring budget,” explains Saillard. “That’s not always easy to pull off, but now I am very interested in doing something with nothing. You can see the world in a different way and do things without money; it keeps your mind taut. It’s like writing: all you need is a piece of paper and a pencil and you can create a work of art. I don’t know if what I am doing is art, but I’m convinced that an exhibition’s power comes neither from its décor nor its scenography. For the greatest designers, a show does not hang on details. It hangs on the clothes.” He pauses, adding,
“When you look at a dress by Alaïa, you don’t need anything else.”
It’s also worth noting that the Palais Galliera has no projects planned with other contemporary fashion designers. Instead, Saillard plans to stir up the past.
By seizing on the challenge of “doing something with nothing”, Saillard has already transformed the fashion landscape. With the help of actress friends Violeta Sanchez and Tilda Swinton, he invented performances like Swinton’s 40-minute solo in last year’s “The Impossible Wardrobe”. The actress’s silent, white-gloved presentation of sartorial highlights spanning 150 years of fashion history was one of the most noted happenings in years.
“There again, the idea was to do a performance not according to a budget but according to desire,” Saillard explains. At the same time as the Cristóbal Balenciaga exhibit at the Cité de la Mode in 2012, another Galliera satellite show, on the White Drama collection by Comme des Garçons, prompted the designer Rei Kawakubo to write in an email that “an exhibition, even if it’s expensive, should show that even if it cost nothing it could still be good”.
Where others might see constraints, Saillard sees only freedom. “When I first came to Paris 20 years ago, the one thing I wanted to do was to bring the present into the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. Today, my view is different.
The tyranny of the present intimidates me.”
The Galliera boasts one of the most important fashion archives in the world. It includes 50,000 pieces of clothing, plus “at least” as many accessories and an extensive library of drawings and illustrations dating from the mid-18th century to the present day. The first items Saillard requested to see were from the wardrobe of the Countess Greffulhe. A high society arts patron, salon hostess, literay muse and vivacious redhead, she had a passion for green and bought all her clothes from Charles Frederick Worth and Fortuny. Her collection forms the Galliera’s crown jewels.
“What struck me was that the Worth dresses are very close to [the work of] Alexander McQueen, and for Lee [McQueen] the 19th century was a great source of inspiration,” he observes. “Fashion is not different today from the way it was in the beginning; it’s the same thing. A lot of wrong things have been said about fashion; there is something about the wardrobe and the woman who wore it that is very present in the dress. Fashion is fragile, you have to take care of it.”
For next year’s Countess Greffulhe show, Saillard is building on the idea of asking Swinton to be “sometimes the guardian, and sometimes Greffulhe”. The performance he envisions might revolve around just one dress, like this November’s Eternal Dress happening starring Swinton and Saillard. He has recently taken up sewing in order to learn how to make that dress.
Less a dress than “a shadow of a dress; always the same and always different”, it is designed to reflect 20th century fashion, whether by Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga or someone else. In any case, he adds, if he had been a couturier, he would have made just one dress and stopped there.
Outside the archives, Saillard has been busy discovering “old” fashions too. “I recently came across a collection, about five years after everyone else, and I was so happy. There’s so much emphasis on fashion shows and fashion week that it works against the idea of creativity. Maybe it’s my job, once a designer is not in the spotlight anymore, to say ‘Wait a minute.’
When you know the past, you see the present.
My role today is to see very far, but I want to be myopic —I only want to see what’s important.”
Right now, what’s most important is the moment. “I think of the museum like a promenade, a place of contemplation and being present. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people had to leave their smart phone at the front door, or turn it off like at the theatre?” In his mind’s eye, Saillard is already mounting a show about just one piece, or a small handful of pieces, arranged so that a visitor could come and experience it all alone. “Rather than stage a fashion exhibition, I’d love to create an impression of fashion,” he muses. “That’s what I am going to do!”