Purple Magazine
— S/S 2015 issue 23

Olivier Saillard

portrait by GIANNI OPRANDI

rebel without a brand

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portraits by GIANNI OPRANDI
performance photography by VINCENT LAPPARTIENT


After a brilliant and rapid succession of posts at French cultural institutions as a fashion historian and curator, Olivier Saillard is now the director of the Palais Galliera (the Musée de la Mode) in Paris. He has curated the most important fashion exhibitions in Paris, among them last year’s Azzedine Alaïa retrospective. Parallel to this official responsibility, he has been developing a personal artistic œuvre for years, regularly presenting performances on the state of the fashion world. These two activities have a common thread: Olivier Saillard’s personal conviction that fashion is a true artistic endeavor with historical importance, which has a specific vocabulary he wants to underline.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it true that you created your own fashion magazine at the age of 12?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, I did. When I went back and pulled them out at my parents’ house — these little fake magazines written with such naiveté and conviction — I realized that the first thing I did in my life was to write about fashion. I reported on the collections I had seen in the magazines. Everything was fictionalized: the names of the journalists and designers. They were all named Olivier: Olivier Durand, Olivier Breton. I did my own mise en abyme, hoping it would bring me luck!

Cloakroom Vestiaire Obligatoire, Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 2014

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you come from a big family?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I had a brother and four sisters, one of whom was quite a flirt. One of my sisters had her clothes made by a dressmaker in my neighborhood who would copy what she saw in Vogue. For a city in the provinces, this was fairly unusual. I came from a pretty modest background; my parents were both taxi drivers. I think it was a determining factor that I lived with four girls. I was able to imitate the sketches of the great designers.I would do fake Saint Laurents, fake Diors when I was in class…

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were bored at school?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Completely. I couldn’t wait to get away from my town — Pontarlier, in northern France — my family, my milieu. I studied hard so I could get out of there as fast as possible. I was a conscientious fugitive! Years later, when I had arrived in Paris and was working at the Museum of Fashion at the Arts Décoratifs, I realized
I had never really left my parents’ attic. We were a large family, and the only place where I could go to escape was the attic. I had fixed up a sort of large sofa-bed up there, where I would sprawl, surrounded by piles of old and new clothes. Which actually isn’t very different from what I’m doing now!

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s true! How do you maintain all the clothing at the Palais Galliera?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — We have a sort of underground NASA in the 11th arrondissement. There are these beige canvases, and under them we have organized 120,000 pieces, archives that have been in place since the 18th century. There are some amazing things there: the wardrobes of Sarah Bernhardt and the Countess Greffulhe, who was Proust’s inspiration for the Duchess of Guermantes. Countess Greffulhe’s clothing channels Alexander McQueen. She only liked green; she had ecclesiastical garments re-cut to make her evening dresses, which at the time was definitely considered subversive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of studying did you do?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I have a master’s in art history, but at the beginning I studied archaeology. Which is not unrelated to the work you do at fashion museums. There’s a kind of sediment in clothing when it moves from the body to a hanger. It’s the archaeological status of the intimate. I liked going out on dig sites the way I love rummaging through closets. Sometimes, I am called in after a death, when a wardrobe is bequeathed to us. Recently, there was someone who wanted to give me some dresses. When I went, at first I didn’t find it that interesting, until I spotted something. I asked, “What’s in this bag? I’m going to have a look. I think it’s turbans.” But it was a pile of dresses by Schiaparelli!

The Eternity Dress, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 2013

OLIVIER ZAHM — For you, what is the importance of history in fashion, seeing that it’s always driven by the next big thing?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Art history has taught me that you can’t begin working in a discipline if you are not aware of its history, its genealogy. All the great designers know this. I have always looked at fashion as a history of writers… When I first started in fashion museums, I had only one wish — to introduce young designers into the museums. My dream was to help fashion be recognized for a form of contemporaneity. Today, it’s more the other way around. I think that what is precious in a museum is to have a little distance from the current state of fashion and revisit everything from a historical perspective. To take the time. I learned, thanks to Azzedine Alaïa, that it is important to let the designers work before imposing upon them an exhibition, which is not natural for them. At a time when the present is overvalued, I think about how I may best approach these fashion exhibitions. I wouldn’t mind if they actually re-staged some fashion shows because I think that the relationship to contemporaneity in fashion has come to an end. It no longer means anything. In fact, it is now excessive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What is excessive?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — The production. Once I counted the number of shows in a season, the number of designers, and the number of pieces shown in each runway show. There were around 14,000 new items officially shown, at around 360 shows. This overproduction is also verified in literature, film, and art. It allowed me to look at things with much more distance. I try to look more at the quality of the creators and not at the quality of the fashion industry.

The Eternity Dress, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 2013

OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe you only realize the value of certain designers in time?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, maybe some sediment will be left. I used to not pay much attention to Rick Owens. Then I looked again at his work in detail, from his first collection to now. You get a feeling of an œuvre, a coherence. It’s a very specific feeling; I am beginning to see it. Often designers are happy that I come to them after having been with others. Or I may be a sort of curse — when a designer sees me coming, he knows the end is near! [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — What were your biggest exhibitions?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — “Madame Grès” at the Musée Bourdelle was a hit for me, and it was my least costly exhibition. I had just left Arts Décoratifs, and I was tired of having to look for sponsors. I had only €90,000. I also loved the Yamamoto exhibition; we did a reconstruction of his Tokyo studio on an upstairs floor. And the recent Alaïa show, of course.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your first fashion experience was with Bernard Blistène [then director of the Musées de Marseille], who assigned you full responsibility for a museum when you were only 27 years old. You were appointed director of the new Museum of Fashion in Marseille.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Bernard Blistène directed the Musées de Marseille. I had decided to be a conscientious objector for my military service. I arrived at my first meeting wearing a kilt, and Blistène asked me what I would like to do in terms of fashion exhibitions in Marseilles. Happily, I had plenty of ideas, and we hit it off right away. He said, “Okay, come on over.” It was great to work with him from 1995 to 2000. It was like one of those little grocery stores. You rolled up your shutters in the morning, and you rolled them down in the evening. If an exhibition was cancelled, you did another. We stimulated each other. There was no discussion of funding. We had ideas, and we made them work. That was at a time when fashion was not considered cultural in France, much less artistic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say that there isn’t the same consideration for fashion as there is for art?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — People are always dissing fashion and not the other professions. Jeff Koons’s atelier is a company that is much more prosperous than pretty much any independent fashion label. We never blame art for being lucrative, but fashion — always. The designers are a little bit to blame because they’re hesitant about calling themselves artists. I am not saying they need to be doing paintings on an easel, but they should realize that they are indeed creators; they should own that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think that fashion in museums, fashion as it is artistically recognized by cultural institutions in countries like France, has been diminished?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I’ve never heard a government minister talk about fashion, when the most interesting fashion shows are undoubtedly done in Paris. No politicians ever talk about that. We are currently preparing an exhibition for the Cité National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration [The Immigration History Museum], opening in December, that shows how Paris welcomed foreign designers. Charles Frederick Worth was English. We need to thank him for having invented haute couture in Paris. He also invented the system of seasons in fashion. Before then, it was aristocrats who created fashion — one might lift her foot, therefore her hem was higher, and that became a fashion trend. So it was a much more random, fluctuating phenomenon. Frederick Worth, by inventing haute couture, also invented the contemporary portrait of a designer. He would sign his work like an artist does, on the inside of his dresses. He invented the fashion seasons to trigger more sales of his clothes, and this was in 1858. The system wasn’t set in place until the end of the 19th century.

The Eternity Dress, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 2013

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were there runway shows then?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — No. There were only these static presentations. He saw that he sold more clothing when he presented them on actual women, so he decided to do runway shows in salons, using the pretense of a ball, or formal dance. He even invented the designer’s social status — until he came to Paris, a dressmaker or tailor was nothing more than a vendor, a supplier, not someone who might be invited to dinner. But then after Worth, we had Poiret, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, all the way to Alaïa. If you look at the history of fashion in Italy, it’s different. Valentino is not the same as Balenciaga. And Balenciaga and Paco Rabanne fled the war; they came to settle in Paris. We’re lucky that Martin Margiela created his fashion house in Paris. I don’t know if other designers are ready to come to work in Paris, except maybe the Lebanese. Rick Owens did it. Yet all the stuff I just said — I have never heard a government official say any of it. All of our cultural counselors should know this. Instead of talking about our patrimony, our French savoir-faire, the Colbert Committee, all of that. Our heritage is more than this; it’s the living gesture as well.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And all these different professions exist because there is such fertile ground for creation here. The big houses like Chanel understood this, which is why they are buying out fashion houses.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — They’re doing the sponsorship work we might expect from the government.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you choose the designers you want to celebrate in your exhibitions?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — There are always interesting designers. One decade is never less interesting than another, and in fashion, there is no longer real talent that won’t be recognized eventually. There are people we discover rather late, but at least we do not ignore them. I try to think of this museum like that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What is your idea behind a museum dedicated solely to fashion?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — When Christophe Girard — cultural counselor to the city of Paris and mayor of the fourth arrondissement — asked me to apply for the position at Galliera, I hesitated for a long time. I told him, “If I do it, I would like to invent a permanent and an impermanent museum.” I wanted us to work on the idea of a “museum-œuvre,” to give the public the experience of fashion and discovering clothing in a calm, relaxed atmosphere, as if you were going on a walk. My mission is to identify the right designers and help the public to get to know them. My responsibility is to show what I call “authors” — and what I mean by that is true artists — that have an identifiable, strong voice.

portrait by GIANNI OPRANDI

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you insist that visitors to the museum have quality time during their visit?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — The ideal for me would be that every single person could visit the entire museum all alone. When you visit a museum all by yourself, it’s a marvelous experience. We’ve democratized culture, and that’s just grand. But, now there are too many buses of visitors arriving en masse. I would like to persuade the officials and the politicians of the necessity of refining our access to culture, art, and fashion in general and offering secret territories that take time to discover. Ideally, The average person does not go to runway shows. There’s a kind of ambiguity in fashion: everyone can talk about it all the time, but people never get to really see the clothing from the runway shows. The museum is the only place where they can get close, where they can really see it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you personally identify a good designer?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — It is someone who has a unity, a written style. Vivienne Westwood, Nicolas Ghesquière, Yohji Yamamoto, these are written styles. Martin Margiela, too. From the first to the last runway show, there is a definable link. I prefer calling them auteurs to calling them artists. We no longer really know what an artist is; there are now so many of them. But “auteur,” I like that word better. There are auteurs, and then there are entertainers who participate in today’s giant entertainment machine. But the creators I think of as auteurs — there is an absolute necessity for their creation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, it isn’t a commercial obligation.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I think that those who lose track of that need, that necessity — you can see it in their work; it becomes a bit more hesitant and complacent.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you agree with the idea that a designer cannot last a very long time?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes. In general, for maybe 10 years you can be in perfect harmony with time. After that, it’s a negotiation. You have to work on yourself. A designer who goes out of fashion disappears more quickly than a bad artist, who declines fairly slowly. When a designer goes downhill, everyone bails on him; it’s cruel. Azzedine Alaïa had a period, between 1990 and 2000, when there were not a lot of people around him. He’s a bit out there, so he’s also responsible for his own solitude when it happens.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But Azzedine Alaïa has always had loyal clients.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, he does, and he knows what he is doing. You give him a tablecloth and ask him to make a dress out of it; he knows how to do it. That’s his great talent, his genius. But he’s in a class of his own. Normally fashion and time have a much more limited relationship. Comme des Garçons is amazing; they’ve been around for nearly 50 years. But they’re getting a little bit stuck in their use of the extraordinary. It would be interesting if Rei Kawakubo could come back to something a little more ordinary, leaving behind all the monstrosities.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But the excessive, extreme theatricalization of fashion has allowed Rei Kawakubo to remain on a different level, away from generalized platitudes.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, you can totally see that she’s drawing a line between those who make stuff and those who create it. Once, I think I heard Godard say in an interview that there were too many artists and not enough art. That’s what Rei does, deepening the divide between an excessive, exaggerated format for creation — and those who are looking for what will go best with the commercial stuff. I am absolutely astonished by the lack of creativity and initiative in our newer designers to try to change the existing system of presenting and distributing fashion. For example, I came across an article on the 1940s and ’50s designer Charles James, who came to present his collections at a hotel in Paris. He produced only 200 dresses; that’s it. So you had the opportunity to buy it or not buy it, but in any case he would not reproduce them. Perhaps a designer who created 200 dresses per year today would be able to sell those dresses for very high prices; he could live off the sales.

portrait by GIANNI OPRANDI

OLIVIER ZAHM — Redefining the fashion system.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — We’re constantly walking down those runways. It’s bizarre that it is still like that. No one has tried to reinvent the format, except perhaps for Martin Margiela.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now we come to your performances, where you are a true auteur. You write your own commentary, your own semiology of fashion, with just the right dose of humor and provocation. How did you come to this?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — In 2002, I accepted a job as a curator at Galliera, and I didn’t like it at all. I had just come back from Marseille. I left a place where I ran things; I was the director — and at Galliera I was told I would be doing an exhibition every four years. I had come back to an awful apartment near the Gare du Nord, and my feelings of anxiety pushed me into production. I was collecting all these news clippings of crime stories dealing with using a garment, most of which had to do with death. I found one article about a transvestite who strangled himself with the elastic of his skirt, another one with his tie or his pants. I wrote poems evoking this strange factual use of pieces of clothing as instruments for suicide or death. Which, in terms of the garment, is not far from what we have at the museum. These hanging remains are sort of morbid because the body inside them has disappeared. Even a living body would not be inside the garment, so there’s something rather ghoulish about the fashions in a fashion museum. And the visitors seem to feel it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Glamour always has a predilection for the morbid and the dead.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes. That reminds me of Enrique Metinides, who photographed an important journalist who had just stepped out of a hairdressing salon and who was hit by a truck. He photographed the guy at the exact moment of his death. It is a beautiful fashion image; it could be a Helmut Newton or a Guy Bourdin, except that the person is dead. It’s such a compelling image. My poems spoke of that, of the relationship of fashion and the morbid.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because glamour is always a defiance of death, a challenge to the ephemeral nature of the body or its limitations.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — It is such a perfect vision of life that it becomes disembodied.

OLIVIER ZAHM — As it tries to defy the laws of time…
OLIVIER SAILLARD — To freeze it. And then you have a still life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say that, for you as a curator and fashion historian, the garment is more important than fashion imagery?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes. I am less good at picking out a photograph than I am a great piece of clothing. If I go into a thrift store, I am pretty sure I will home in on and spontaneously pick out a great piece. I have a certain flair for that. But not so much for images. Clothing is almost a fetish for me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In one of your performances, you use and manipulate a man’s jacket in all its fluidity around the body. There you are a designer in a way because you create many other garments from that jacket.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, it was a man’s €15 jacket from C&A. That’s what’s at stake in the performances: we do it with or without money. That performance cost me €560. It was a performance about the great schizophrenia in fashion, and the musical chairs of designers replacing other designers. At one time we were calling out the designers at the different houses — Galliano at Margiela — like a sort of final act, ironic, but in the end we weren’t all that far from what ended up happening in reality. And that’s really confusing.

Cloakroom Vestiaire Obligatoire, Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 2014

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you have a profound relationship to clothing as an artist and curator, as did Margiela, who reintroduced the word “garment.”
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, I think he reintroduced it as a collective, vestimentary unconscious. He would work and rework a garment; he would manage to erase surfaces to then reveal others — that laid down a lot of precedents; it’s even our intellectual inheritance. In my performances, we never show garments themselves, but we are creating fashion propositions. The idea is never to create any clothing. In the recent performance with Tilda Swinton, we played with the cloakroom. Tilda played a municipal employee manipulating and interacting with the visitors’ clothing, which then created fashion images.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are your performances more choreographic?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes. In New York, we did a performance with models telling us the stories of their clothing. We had created these fashion souvenirs of the ’80s on piles of ashes. When you’re describing a garment, often you use your hands. We worked with those gestures. I think I am a curator of gestures as much as I am a curator of clothing. I don’t think I am really such a great performer, although I appear in my performances.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, but it’s the work of a magical curator because you make the garment appear through those gestures. And you invite the spectator to call up memories of his or her own culture.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — At one time we thought we could only perform for a fashion-aware audience. But we found that general audiences understood these clearly identified lines of fashion and could fully appreciate them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In “Fashion in Motion,” you categorized the attitudes of the models…
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Yes, we worked on the archaeology of the model’s gestures.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Meaning you had to go look for the models from that time who had those attitudes?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I was fascinated by iconic models like, for exemple, Amalia, who even when she is naked is wearing Saint Laurent. It’s automatic with her; she posed for him for 20 years, and that’s all she knows, Saint Laurent. She was the incarnation of a creator. We once worked on a performance in which I wanted to put the girls on moving sidewalks, so they would be walking for a whole night without stopping. When you look at Fashion TV, with all these women walking the runway, you ask yourself, “But what is this exactly?” The runway is on a loop; it’s almost conceptual. If they weren’t wearing the horrible clothes, it would be great.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you’re developing a kind of semiology of fashion that is in fact a powerful warning about what fashion really is. You remind the designers that there are other formats for runway shows. In a certain way, aren’t you teaching the designers a conceptual lesson about fashion shows?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I don’t know if my performances can be construed as conceptual lessons. But they do remind us of what is essential. I’m not selling anything. It’s very important. I pay the people who participate in my performances at very different rates, generally a dancer’s fee of €500. And I don’t need a fancy tiled floor or a mirrored runway to say what I have to say. What I’m trying to do is to reveal the essence of fashion: a woman is beautiful; a garment is important; the absence of clothing is also beautiful.

Cloakroom Vestiaire Obligatoire, Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 2014.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think that the present and newness are overestimated?
OLIVIER SAILLARD — Very young designers are a little disturbed by this syndrome of newness. It was not that essential before. The designers did not think they were producing an act of novelty. Balenciaga never asked himself that question, for example. This obsession with newness has actually deformed the world. It remains ambiguous because there is no design studio that will not also have some vintage stuff lying around. Although — and they would never admit it — the designers are horrified by the past. Only Margiela is willing to take this on. A garment by Margiela is also,
of course, extremely modern.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And fashion has become a pop culture phenomenon, in the musical sense, almost generational. The fashion world has also become the world of immediate appropriation of desire, seduction, the night, the Instagram pose.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — I think that fashion is no longer bringing subcultures to the forefront. We’ve experienced moments in which we pulled from elements of bad taste or punk culture — great moments in fashion. And I don’t see a subculture becoming a creative base. Maybe it’s because there are no real subcultures. A subculture is immediately elevated into a “super” culture because we have made it into an act of creation. What I see with the designers now is the temptation to do the red carpet or the runway, but there is apparently no interest in leaving and doing something else.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The young designer Jacquemus has brought La Grande Motte back into view.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — The clothing disappoints me a little, but I like that he has sought inspiration in seaside architecture. But he mustn’t become the Jean-Charles de Castelbajac of his generation. Nicolas Ghesquière, now, there have been moments I’ve adored. All the foxtails, the German shepherds — it’s a negotiated culture of bad taste. And at Louis Vuitton, I find that there is a certain irreverence about what could be the ’70s, which was a pretty ugly time. If they continue to work on this irreverence, it may turn into something. But subculture as a format is disappearing.

The Eternity Dress, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 2013

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, fashion is no longer the vehicle for subculture. Instead it is linked to pop culture; from Lady Gaga to all the rappers, the designers are inviting the stars to their shows. When fashion’s only concern is to be overexposed and to be recognized by the greatest number of people, it goes into an entirely different register.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — It’s another form of economy. I am not sure that young designers ask the questions we are asking here. They just want to be part of the enormous global market.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s the pressure of cost-effectiveness. All the big houses are looking for publicity, for exposure on a grand scale.
OLIVIER SAILLARD — They all want that tipping point of absolute invasion. They all want to be tweeted. The nomination of new designers to older houses no longer means anything. I hear Marco Zanini has been fired from Schiaparelli. I don’t know who they’re going to get to replace him. It’s completely incoherent — why are they trying to relaunch Schiaparelli? It seems to be therapeutic relentlessness! Besides, it’s more difficult to relaunch an old house than to promote a new designer.


Olivier Saillard is the curator of the forthcoming show “Jeanne Lanvin” at the Palais Galliera from March 8 to August 23, 2015, art directed by Alber Elbaz.

[Table of contents]

S/S 2015 issue 23

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS






purple BEAUTY

purple LOVE

purple TRAVEL

purple SEX


purple TRAVEL

purple NIGHT

purple STORY


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