Meet the curator reimagining the way we view fashion and art

June 12, 2019 0 By HearthstoneYarns

Image credit: Grégoire Alexandre

Olivier Saillard sits on a sofa bed in the attic of his parents’ house in Pontarlier – a small town in eastern France near the Swiss border – surrounded by clothes from his four sisters. It’s the late 1970s and a precocious Saillard, aged 12, is creating his own fashion magazine, . “Fashion was not part of my family – both my parents were taxi drivers,” he recalls, now 51, “but even as a child, I was very passionate.”

Later, in his twenties, when Saillard opted out of military service for a civil service position at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris – thus embarking on a two-decade-plus career as one of the most inventive fashion historians and art curators working today – he had a moment of revelation. “I was down in the storage room of the musée surrounded by clothes. It was a moment of solitude and suddenly I remembered being back in the attic. So absolutely it was a direct link – my story always comes back to the storage of clothes.”

Image credit: Astra Marina Cabras

The “storage of clothes” is a mundane way to describe Saillard’s unique modus operandi, which is witty, thought-provoking and poetic all at once, transporting audiences on a journey into the past. During stints at the Musée de la Mode in Marseille, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and an eight-year tenure as director of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, he has curated retrospectives on the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, Christian Lacroix, Jeanne Lanvin and his close friend, Azzedine Alaïa. Pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved with an exhibition, garments are often taken out of museum vitrines and placed next to props – in the case of his famed exhibition in 2011, the French couturier’s creations were perfectly contrasted with the classical sculptures of Antoine Bourdelle.

“There’s something forensic about what he does, which is similar to how I work,” says photographer and frequent collaborator Katerina Jebb. “We’re not interested in fashion as a phenomenon, but more the sociology and psychology of fashion.” For his part, Saillard credits his innovative approach partly to his unconventional background spent studying archaeology and art history at university in Montpellier, which gave him “the possibility to see clothes in a different way. Since I was a child I’ve been interested in the past and not the present,” he says.

Image credit: Astra Marina Cabras

Saillard has also virtually defined a new medium of fashion as performance art, having worked with runway icons like Violetta Sanchez (in 2014’s ) and actresses such as Tilda Swinton and Charlotte Rampling. Following an introduction by Jebb to Swinton, Saillard staged one of his most powerful performances in 2012, , which saw a white-clad Swinton interact with historic garments from the archives of the Palais Galliera. “We didn’t see it as a performance,” says Saillard, “but as a 45-minute exhibition that took place in the arms of Tilda Swinton rather than in a vitrine.” Coupled with the emotional response they would elicit from the audience every night, it became as Saillard describes it, “the most beautiful fashion exhibition we ever made.”

“Olivier is part anthropologist, part poet,” writes Swinton in an email. “His unsurpassable knowledge of fashion history and its innate resonance within society combines with his impeccable instinct as a curator to form the basis of a wonderland of playfulness and invention in his performances pieces. I consider myself so privileged to have worked with him for some seven years now.”

Image credit: Astra Marina Cabras

If there’s a through line in Saillard’s oeuvre, it’s that gestures and memories can be more important than the physical object itself. He has exhibited an ongoing project of napkins and tissues adorned with lipstick kisses from women in his life at the Joyce Art Gallery in Paris, and during our conversation, he waxes lyrical about recently discovering an intact cigarette his sister used to smoke in the 1970s.

“After 20 years working in museums, I think I’m more passionate about collecting feelings and souvenirs,” he says. Saillard left Palais Galliera last year to explore new possibilities, including a position as artistic, image and cultural director of the venerated J.M. Weston shoe brand, and the launch at Paris couture week last summer of his first solo collection, Moda Povera (named after the radical Italian art movement of the 1970s), in which simple, oversized cotton T-shirts purchased online were re-draped, stitched and transformed into exquisite one-off pieces in homage to Madame Grès. Jebb doesn’t see any distinction between his curatorial work and his new forms of expression.

“Any creative person has to express multifaceted possibilities. It’s all about using form and ideas – it’s completely natural. It’s the way of creating today.” Saillard calls it a continual process of discovery, “It’s always working, teaching and learning. I am very embarrassed to invent a new thing. I’m much more able to study history in order to explain it.”

Image credit: Astra Marina Cabras

With a book on the history of fashion due out next year and having curated more than 140 exhibitions that have consistently devised new ways of seeing old clothes, is there any dream still left unrealised? “Yes, but I’m not sure any museum is ready for it!” Saillard says mischievously. “I would propose to make an exhibition that would take place with one dress and one visitor at a time. It’s impossible to appreciate art with 200 tourists around you. Being alone in a space with an artist’s work is a privilege – I would love to give this moment to everybody. We have to create this moment of intimacy between art and people.”

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