Purple Magazine
— Paris Issue #31

olivier saillard

olivier saillard

interview and portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM

the most prominent fashion curator
and historian in paris recently
opened a discreet studio in
the 1st arrondissement to design
his own collection

OLIVIER ZAHM — Parisians have long suffered from the weight of history. But hasn’t that weight turned into an advantage and a strength today, when everything seems to exist solely under the spotlight of novelty, or even false novelty? As a historian of fashion, what do you think?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — In Paris, the weight of history can be restrictive, but when it comes to fashion and haute couture, this city has never been intimidated by the arrival of foreign designers. This is not necessarily the case in other fashion capitals. The Milanese tell me, “Milan Fashion Week is doomed in the long run because no one here wants to attract foreign designers.” London has the good fortune to have its own young designers. They’re scared of competition! No one in Paris has ever been afraid of foreign creators coming from London or Belgium or elsewhere. However, Paris as an artistic epicenter has vanished, to the benefit of other cities. This is what’s happened with art and music, for example, since the 1960s. But with fashion? Wave after wave of foreign designers have set up shop in Paris, and that continues to this day.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain the attraction of Paris?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Charles Frederick Worth, the founder of haute couture, was an English designer who settled in Paris in the late 19th century. That speaks volumes about the city’s great openness and permeability. I’d say it’s key that Paris has had fashion houses since the 19th century, with ateliers that are still in operation. That hasn’t happened on a massive scale anywhere else.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Does Paris still attract fashion?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, and it began early, in the ’70s, with Japanese designers like Issey Miyake and Kenzo. They were embraced right away — and acclaimed. Their fashion shows were like parties. Then, in the ’80s, there were Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. Next came the wave of British and Belgian designers in the ’90s. Without designers from all over the world, Paris would no longer be Paris. I think that’s why the history of fashion in Paris isn’t due exclusively to the prestigious fashion houses established here for ages. It’s due to the foreigners who’ve come over. It’s the iconographic and financial balance between big fashion houses and new designers from everywhere that keeps Paris alive. There’s another obvious point, as well. The two big luxury groups that dominate the fashion world, LVMH and Kering, are French — that’s something the French, who are often a little timid about money, don’t much want to admit, but I think it’s fortunate for Paris.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The French don’t really value the history of fashion as an academic field. It’s as though fashion were just a superficial field of design.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Right. It’s still felt to be that way. If you deal with fashion, and you’re a guest on a television show or at a conference, you’re last in line. [Laughs] And they give you only three minutes to talk. The history of fashion has mostly played out here, but Paris lacks a space to give fashion and its great auteurs their proper intellectual appreciation and legitimacy. This is what I tried to do when I was in charge of the Palais Galliera [the fashion museum of the city of Paris].

OLIVIER ZAHM — You are undoubtedly the best French historian of fashion. Where does the importance of fashion history lie?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Artists are generally somewhat aware of what’s been done before them, unless they’re very bad or very arrogant… I studied art history and learned why one artistic movement followed another, while still being linked to the previous movement and contradicting it if necessary. The same applies to the rather frantic history of fashion, but few people know it, even within the fashion world itself. There are, therefore, great movements and great breaks with the past in fashion, fundamental collections that sweep everything else away — even today! In my view, it’s important to be aware of that, so as not to repeat things. In fashion, though, things don’t happen in quite that way. People will do the same things over and over again unabashedly, or without even knowing it. I won’t go so far as to condemn it, but it’s rather depressing. This is also because the history of fashion is hard to teach.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Does that explain why copying is so widespread in fashion?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Copying is integral to the work of today’s designer. Things were different in other periods, but copying is not a problem anymore. Worse, it’s almost become the rule nowadays! It’s no secret: the studios go to flea markets to buy clothing that’s a few weeks old, or 20 or 50 years old. They take the clothing apart and make something else out of it, or reproduce it identically. Copying, I find, has become widespread and commonplace over the past 20 years. In the old days, a designer who saw something that already existed would purposely take the opposite tack and say: “No, I’m not going to head in that direction. I’ll veer off somewhere else.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right. The idea was to contradict the past, to move beyond it…
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Exactly. To take things someplace else. Azzedine Alaïa always bought the clothes of the big collections to observe them, but he was doing that to see how he measured up, not to do the same thing. I’m sure that Demna [Gvasalia] at Balenciaga — whatever one might say about his Margiela heritage — is not doing the same thing. It’s different. He’s finding his own way. I think Demna has a keen knowledge of Margiela — and not only of Margiela — that allows him to move forward, too.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Taking up a heritage is not the same as copying.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Indeed, but with Demna, there’s a history of copying that forms part of the work because fundamentally it belongs to the history of Margiela, and his procedures and “Replicas.” So, we might say the damage was already done. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — I find he managed to extend the history of Martin Margiela in a contemporary manner with Vetements and, in a different way, with Balenciaga.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes. The irksome thing is that the designers who are carrying on someone else’s critical heritage aren’t working at the right fashion houses. Which is to say that Demna does better Margiela at Balenciaga, whereas John Galliano does better Schiaparelli at Margiela. They’ve all fragmented off into a head-spinning brand schizophrenia…

OLIVIER ZAHM — You often speak of auteurs rather than designers. I’d never heard that word applied to fashion. Could you explain why you use it?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — It came to me one day with Azzedine Alaïa because fashion designers always get embarrassed when they’re called artists. They like their relationship with the living world, the real, the ephemeral… And that made me think of the term “auteur.” An auteur is a signature, a style. You can see it. You recognize Vivienne Westwood, whatever the collection. There’s a sort of — how shall I put it? — retinal persistence that allows us to spot her from collection to collection, even if she never repeats herself totally. Just as we’d recognize Jacques Fath and Christian Dior, or Alaïa and Comme des Garçons. It’s not true that fashion’s auteurs are always making a break with the past with every new collection, or that they’re constantly doing something new. But they do work a furrow. They invent a sartorial vocabulary, a line, an attitude. And that resonates and endures.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Paris is a literary town. In the end, maybe the Parisian relation to fashion has as much to do with words as with images.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Maybe. The French love words, analysis, commentary, criticism, poetry. I do, anyway!

OLIVIER ZAHM — Saint Laurent was obsessed with Proust. Karl Lagerfeld is a big reader.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — And a bibliophile. It’s also true that in Paris, there’ve been couturiers very much bound to the written word. Sonia Rykiel saw herself more as a writer than as a designer. Christian Lacroix writes very well. Then there was the couturier and great patron Jacques Doucet, who owned the world’s largest library and was advised by André Breton. I think it also has to do with the endless battle for recognition and social status. In Paris, couturiers are always striving for greater appreciation than they get. It’s not enough to be a couturier in Paris. But I don’t know whether that taste for the written word persists in more recent generations.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What I mean is that fashion has a hidden relation to literature, perhaps to a greater extent in Paris than anywhere else.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I think so — or hope so!

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve made the relation to literature into a sort of trademark. You prepare your texts — the words and descriptions of the clothes — very carefully for your fashion performances. It’s a bit like the fashion shows of yore, where every dress was described as it was being presented.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — That’s it, exactly. When I was laureate of the Villa Kujoyama in Japan, I worked up a project around “gray” literature. That’s what they call texts that circulate but are anonymous, all the unsigned texts in a library. I took an interest in this author-less literature, especially in the area of fashion. It’s enormous! And I realized that the written word always had a place in fashion. The only one who really spoke up was Christian Dior, who wrote his own press kits. In 2005, when I did my first performances, I wondered how I could reveal the essential quality of fashion and clothing. And it occurred to me that it could be conveyed by its absence, by its disappearance, by pure evocation. So, I worked on descriptions and recollections.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you read a lot?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Oh, yes. I hardly get out anymore because I read so much. [Laughs] I say yes to dinner invitations and cancel at the last moment because I want to read. I hardly go any shows anymore. It’s practically become a little neurosis…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your performances are like fashion theater — fashion theater with no fashion!
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, an evocation of fashion, a reflection. “Models Never Talk” — a performance I did and liked a lot — had seven models aged 50 to 65 telling their stories. The women wore black body stockings and described the clothes they’d worn for a designer’s fashion shows, while miming the poses and attitudes they’d taken on. There was Amalia [Vairelli], for example, a sublime black model, who’d worked with Yves Saint Laurent for 20 years. When you describe a garment, your hands rather spontaneously get into the act. We worked a lot on gestures. It almost became a choreography. When they moved, you could recognize Saint Laurent, [Thierry] Mugler, [Jean-Paul] Gaultier, and Comme des Garçons.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This goes to show that there isn’t just a style behind the clothes — there’s also a body in motion.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes. I think every designer kneads the body’s clay differently. The great designers have that awareness of the body. They make the body into a form of its own. The Azzedine Alaïa body is really not the same as the Comme des Garçons body, which in turn isn’t the same as the Dior body.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There was that speed and jerky movement to the fashion shows Nicolas Ghesquière did for Balenciaga.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — It was beautiful. For me, he’s one of the last great designers. You’d walk out of his super-fast show and find that it had put everything else out of date. It was beautiful, dynamic. He went to work on the body, as well. Suddenly, shoulders were perched up high and legs were long.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you see fashion evolving? Are you pessimistic, or do you think that nowadays everyone can do their own collection?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I do a little designing myself. [Laughs] I’m designing my own collection for the first time!

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have a very particular take on design. We might call it “meta,” design about design…
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes. My designs are about the history and craft of fashion. “Design about design” — that’s well put. I’m going to use that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you like our era?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Our era reminds me of the 1970s. A very productive decade: too productive, full of colors, a rather hideous overproduction on the whole that sort of denied design. There was too much enthusiasm and consumption. Then came the 1980s, and the designers stepped up to establish a certain quality. What’s changed nowadays is the distribution system. Twenty or 30 years ago, there was only a single Chanel store in the world, on the Rue Cambon. Today, there are probably more than 500 throughout the world. Today, all the big cities have been preempted by luxury and fashion shops, along whole streets.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Fashion has redesigned cities and neighborhoods.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Precisely. So, when you’re a young auteur just starting out, like Marine Serre or Y/Project, how do you compete with a geography like that? It’s hard. I think that maybe e-commerce is the solution. Creatively, I think there’s going to be a great need to return to minimalism. The future Helmut Lang will be welcomed with open arms! Because enough is enough. There’s just too much stuff coming out. Two years ago, I did a quick calculation of the number of collections coming out in a season, between the shows in London, New York, Milan, and Paris. It amounted to about 360 to 400 shows, or about 13,840 outfits on the catwalk per season. And this is only the brands that do shows, so you can imagine the rest! And I’m not including the fashion weeks of Shanghai, Tokyo, Brazil, and Portugal.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In addition to the explosion in collections and brands, fashion feeds the representation of portraits in magazines, music, cinema, events… Fashion is becoming a kind of grand, amorphous media that muddles its own vocabulary. It’s no longer the privileged design space where Mr. Balenciaga…
OLIVIER SAILLARD — …could design in solitude, turning away the press. Martin Margiela, with whom I organized my last exhibition at the Palais Galliera, used to tell me that these days, it would be impossible for him to do what he’d done. He wouldn’t be able to clear the mental space. He’d be too busy dealing with social media, making appearances, and so on. Not to mention the after-sales service that designers have to provide. He told me that he wouldn’t be able to do it anymore! Now, I don’t totally agree. I think you can do it, but you have to take care of yourself, put a little space between you and the rest. That’s for sure.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Martin quit before fashion became a big media vampire.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — And yet, Margiela by John Galliano isn’t bad at all, as surprising as it might seem at first.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a fairly modern Maison Margiela.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Right. I think one of the reasons for that success is that John Galliano is no longer in the spotlight. He can work calmly. People aren’t always pestering him for interviews and Instagram posts. He’s improving because he’s a bit isolated.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s what Demna has managed to do, as well: maintain a certain isolation.

OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, and Nicolas Ghesquière has always maintained his isolation. Or, in any case, I find that overexposure, when he indulges in it, doesn’t suit him and that he functions better in secret.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you leave your director’s post at the Galliera fashion museum?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I’ve done 140 fashion exhibitions since I started my career at the fashion museum in Marseilles [Musée de la Mode de Marseille]. I wanted to leave the Galliera after the Margiela exhibition. I figured that if I was going to quit the profession, I’d end it with an important exhibition. Comme des Garçons had just done a big retrospective in the United States. What remained to be done was Martin, who for me represents the last great break from the past in fashion.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Before the next one…
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Before the next one. There will surely be others. But Martin is practically a fashion school unto himself. There was a seismic shift. A truly fresh take on the system, and sales, and shows… And I imagine it’s reassuring for young designers to see that he remains a stirring example. He shows you that everything’s possible, regardless of your means. There’s no need to walk the red carpet to establish your brand! Maybe you need to see what’s happening out on the streets — that’s always the more virtuous approach, really.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’ve decided to give up museum curating. Now, you’re a director with the shoe brand J.M. Weston, and you design your own collections. You’ve gone over to art direction and design.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — When I turned 50, I felt like making a break. It felt to me like the end of an era. I agreed to take charge of design at Weston and to launch a t-shirt collection — me who had never dealt in real clothes before.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you come up with the idea for that first collection?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — The point of departure was my exhibition on Madame Grès. I’d met Madame Lenoir, one of the last to have done the pleating on Madame Grès’s dresses, and I asked her whether she could apply her draping and pleating technique to t-shirts. We worked with Axelle Doué, who’d been a fitting model for Madame Grès, a big girl with gray hair. So, the idea for the collection was to work with two living legends, Madame Lenoir and Axelle Doué, on some t-shirts.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you buy t-shirts?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Online. So, the collection didn’t cost me much — 450 euros in t-shirts. I insisted on maintaining the contemporary side of the t-shirt, its great accessibility. Lots of XXL t-shirts because the draping needed quite a bit of slack. Normally, for draping, you start with uncut fabric. You do the draping, then you set it on a body. Here, we were doing the reverse. We were taking already-made t-shirts for the draping, so the constraints were very different.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there some nostalgia in your work?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, no doubt. I like the idea of connecting with what fashion once was, something precious and rare. I like that you can tell one auteur from another in the clothes. One t-shirt will seem very Schiaparelli because it’s turned into a cape, and another will seem very Saint Laurent. All of that with the technique of Madame Grès. But what also pleased me very much in the collection was showing that it’s possible to develop a new economy. We’ve done such a great job hammering it home that you can never succeed unless you get into a big luxury group or unless you make millions, so that design students have lost sight of simplicity. In the 1980s, you’d do a collection because you really felt like doing one. That’s how it all started. For me, the future of fashion lies in staking out positions. Maybe you can live very happily if you keep possession of your designs, on a small scale.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In an almost artisanal manner.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Exactly. And besides, the world is ready for that because we can now sell online. The Internet has paved the way!

OLIVIER ZAHM — And therein, maybe, lies the certain Parisian charm that you embody. Despite its economic and social problems, this city somehow hangs on to a certain form of resistance: resistance to profitability as the sole possible vision.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes. Success comes through self-fulfillment, and not necessarily through the endless opening of store after store. We don’t need any more stores…

END

Camille Vivier, photography — Léopold Duchemin, style — Yuji Okuda at ARTLIST, hair — Anthony Preel at ARTLIST, make-up — Bertrand Jeannot, photographer’s assistant — Thomas Santos, stylist’s assistant — Jade Sakhoun, model

[Table of contents]

Paris Issue #31

Table of contents

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