PARIS, France — In recent seasons, fashion exhibitions staged at major museums have drawn record-breaking crowds. But perhaps no curator has succeeded in capturing the imagination of the international fashion community quite like Olivier Saillard, director of the Musée Galliera, whose convention-defying, contemporary performance-presentations are one of the highlights of Paris Fashion Week.
Housed in a magnificent, Renaissance-style palace in the 16th arrondisement, the Musée Galliera is currently under renovations (the museum is set to re-open with a major Azzedine Alaïa retrospective in late 2013) and Mr. Saillard and his staff have moved into a plastic, temporary office in the garden. But Saillard is not someone who is easily locked in a box.
Seated at a nearby cafe, the curator enthusiastically recalls a performance he staged with Violetta Sanchez, former model and muse to Yves Saint Laurent and Thierry Mugler. “We were showing clothes so ripped out and torn up, but still so interesting because of the way they were all patched up and how Violetta displayed them. It felt like low-couture. We also had a very funny text and people literally could not stop laughing. That doesn’t happen very often with fashion.” Indeed, it was at that moment, four years after he first began experimenting with fashion performances, that Saillard knew he had invented a new genre and a powerful way to bring Galliera’s impressive archives to life.
Last season, Saillard staged one of his most successful performances to date, The Impossible Wardrobe, featuring actress Tilda Swinton and a film directed by Katerina Jebb. During the forty minute presentation, Swinton reanimated garments — recently liberated from hangers, drawers and trunks — that belonged to Napoleon, Elsa Schiaparelli, Marie Antoinette and others, delicately carrying them down a runway wearing white cotton gloves (conservation rules make the clothes impossible to actually wear) like a beautiful fashion ballet.
“The response moved me,” says Saillard. “It was amazing to see all those people standing. It felt like a shot of adrenaline. It gave me the motivation to keep going.”
Saillard’s performances are not money-making endeavors, something of which he is proud. “I don’t make money with this. Rather, I lose some, but that gives us great liberty,” he says. “And considering that people like what we do, it reassures me about the state of this industry which is often depicted as increasingly commercial.”
Olivier Saillard grew up in Pontarlier, a small town in Northeast France, a few kilometers away from the Swiss border, which happens to be the country’s second highest city and one of the coldest. “You know, when Napoleon was leaving for battle, he always surrounded himself with soldiers from my region, because they were very resistant,” he says.
Lucette, one of his four sisters, used to engaged a local tailor to make her pieces similar to those she saw in magazines. “Sometimes, when I tell that story, people think my sister was wearing haute couture everyday,” clarifies Saillard. “But it was far from that. My parents were taxis drivers. I shared a room with my brother and one of my sisters,” he continues. “What Lucette taught me is that, even when you don’t have money you can have a choice. My sister, she had no money but she had great taste.”
But it was in the family’s attic, which was full of old clothes, where Saillard’s love for fashion grew strongest. “It was like some sort of installation where I would spend days, just lying among the clothes,” he recalls. Then, when Saillard was about twelve, he began to spend vacations in Paris with his brother, who would deposit him at a museum (usually the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay) in the morning and pick him up in the evening. It was on these visits that history and fashion first started to intermingle.
After studying archeology in Besançon and contemporary art in Montpellier, Saillard went to Paris, but was soon called up for mandatory military service. As fate would have it, Saillard, a conscientious objector, landed at a museum, completing his national service at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, where he met the late Nadine Gasc, a former actress at the Comédie-Française who was working as a curator specialising in fabrics. “I learned my job with her,” recalls Saillard. “She took me under her wing. Together we would spend entire summers going through old magazines from 1890 to the present.”
After taking up a curator position at the Marseille Fashion Museum, where he stayed for five years, Saillard returned to Paris where he joined the Musée des Arts Decoratifs and went on to stage a number of successful fashion exhibitions on Yohji Yamamoto, Christian Lacroix, Sonia Rykiel and Jean Paul Gaultier, among others.
Today, Saillard is the director of the Galliera museum, where he manages a team of seventy, overseeing fund raising, sponsorships, garment acquisitions, and, of course, the exhibitions themselves. “I’m not an administrator, I’m still a curator. But I have also proven that I’m a curator who gave himself the possibility to re-invent his profession.”
Thoroughly steeped in fashion history and literally living amongst antique clothes, Saillard has a uniquely detached perspective on the today’s fashion industry, often criticising the ever-faster rhythm of the fashion cycle and what he perceives as unimaginative fashion show formats.
“Shows have become too repressive, without any poetry,” he observes. When asked what he would do if he were to stage one, Saillard says: “I think I would dare to do a 40-minute show. I would say ‘Come or not, but I’m doing it’ and it would probably be just one dress.”
Saillard and his team open Galliera’s impressive archives to designers upon request, but they are not a costume lending company, he insists, and designers are never allowed to dissect garments. Those who visit the archives for inspiration must work from memory.
“Nicolas used to say that, at the beginning, he didn’t have access to the Balenciaga archives,” recalls Saillard, referring to departing Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière, whom he strongly admires for the way he blends history and futurism. “I think that’s one of the things that made him so good, because when a brand has such a strong history, it can suck the blood out of you.”
Julien Neuville is an Associate Contributor at The Business of Fashion.