Saillard Olivier

Fashion frontiers

Each of Olivier Saillard’s exhibitions is a kind of topographical exploration. With his Spanish Season, the director of the Palais Galliera plays on fashion’s borders, marking out new frontiers.

Olivier Saillard knows pretty much everything there is to know about fashion in all its shapes and forms, in all its guises. He has seen its vogues and vagaries, its patterns and processes, its twists and turns. Yet there’s no point in asking the director of Paris’s Palais Galliera to tell you the stories behind it all, because fashion history, at least the chronological, scholarly kind, is certainly not what interests him most. He describes himself as an “uninhibited historian.” It sounds a bit surprising, to say the least, given that the Parisian scene is corseted with fashion’s emotional rush. Being uninhibited in the face of fashion’s (very deceptive) frivolity is like daring to unravel all of its certainties and knitting it all back together in a new way. For Saillard, the nerve center of this “knitting” process is the Palais Galliera, where he has a space under the roof. Outside his office, which is lined with black files and white boxes like some kind of design studio on a quest for new materials, the landscape of fashion, as Saillard sees it, basks in its own ambiguities. He began breaking down borders on his arrival at the museum, in 2010, when the Palais Galliera was in the midst of a large-scale renovation. The new director had a brilliant idea: to bring its collections to lifebut elsewhere, in other venues. The Musée Bourdelle took in the draped designs of Madame Grès; the fantastical white creations of Comme des Garçons moved into the lab spaces of the Cité de la Mode; and haute couture flaunted its airs in the Paris city hall. Suddenly, all kinds of discussions began; what seemed static began to speak. “Away from home, the message you convey is more intense,” he says. “And when fashion is shown outside of fashion museums, it loosens up a bit, breaks free from its slightly intimidating, confined feel.” These fun new outings continued even after renovation work was done. The Palais Galliera organized its own projects, and from time to time took them on the road. This year, Saillard has come up with a Spanish program, in three movements: first, a look at Balenciaga at the Musée Bourdelle; then a show on traditional Spanish costumes, at the house of Victor Hugo (a Hispanophile); and in the fall, a retrospective of Mariano Fortuny’s work, at the Palais Galliera. Between the intellectual majesty of Balenciaga and the aristocratic elegance of Fortuny, Saillard turns his spotlight on the language of the people. That of the anonymous virtuosos who sew the garments of ordinary life, of the bright embroidered colors, of ceremonial skirts for girls whose hems are undone by time and wear. Of hats for men made of wool so stiff you could drink from them, or those with small concealed mirrors for primping from time to time. Saillard sorts through the images, marvels at a photograph by José Ortiz Echagüe. His message is neither ethnographical nor sociological; he merely contemplates and absorbs these pieces, with his fashion specialist’s eye, as he would do for a haute couture dress, for the simple pleasure of it. “Twenty years ago, when national costumes were put on show, people would yawn. Today, they’re surprising; they’re so extravagant that they look like Comme des Garçons.” Taken out of folk museums, traditional clothing explores new horizons. But beyond the aesthetics and inventiveness, Saillard is aiming to get across a much more mischievous message than that. “The idea is also to show that other forms of haute couture are possible. Bad sewingand that’s just a way of putting it, because these women sew incredibly wellor sewing everyday garments, is as noble as making haute couture.” The boundaries are blurred, and that’s the way he likes it.

Parisian fashion has always seen shifting horizons and crosscurrents, influences and directions. The city has constantly grown by opening up to the world. The inventor of haute couture was an Englishman (Charles Frederick Worth); the Japanese came along with new ideas about volume; Spanish seamstresses fleeing the civil war brought their craftsmanship to the ateliers. Saillard views this perpetual transcending of frontiers as a source of inspiration, one that has “always made Paris the most creative capital.” When this “uninhibited historian” examines his own sense of geography, he creates new lands. They are contained here in these black files in this office under the roofbut they are almost impossible archives, because Saillard works with words, what’s in the air, what’s alive. With each idea and each encounter, he writes, stages, proposes new connections, shifts the world of fashion into the world of art. There were the “shopping poems” printed on Post-Its, and performances with the former model Violeta and actress Tilda Swinton, both of whom have been working with him from the start. In these performances, dresses are literally “carried,” held “at arm’s length,” jackets reinterpreted, coats narrated, sweaters drawn in the air, almost mimed. The garment being absentor consisting at most of some archive itemsonly words remain, for you to conjure up yourself. These suspended moments, which veer between witty and moving, have the effect of a monastic refuge on the audience, mostly made up of fashion movers and shakers. “When Tilda was carrying the clothes in her arms, I got the feeling that she was creating poetry. A kind of living poetry, without words.” For Saillard’s work appeals to emotions triggered by the intangible, with just an invisible ladder handed to you, for escape. His performances have become must-see events. It’s his turn to discover the artist’s angst, the fear of repetition, of running out of ideas. But today, there’s another project in the works. “I have a new idea with Tilda. . . . Frankly, if we do it, it will be scandalous.”

“Twenty years ago, when national costumes were put on show, people would yawn. Today, they’re surprising; they’re so extravagant they look like Comme des Garçons.”

Costumes espagnols entre ombre
et lumière Jusqu’au 24 septembre.
Maison de Victor-Hugo. 6, place des Vosges, Paris. Tél. +33 (0)1 42 72 10 16.


Costumes espagnols entre ombre et lumière

Jusqu’au 24.09.2017

Maison de Victor-Hugo. 6, place des Vosges, Paris. Tél. +33 (0)1 42 72 10 16

Benoît Astier de Villatte, artist


Benoît Astier de Villatte