FLORENCE, Italy — Fashion exhibitions are terribly fashionable nowadays. This is due, in no small part, to the Anna Wintour-ignited media craze that swirls around the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute exhibition and the accompanying Met Ball. It’s also because of fashion’s seductive power, intrinsic glamour and relative accessibility. A dress is a dress, which means it does not leave viewers feeling culturally inadequate, as contemporary art tends to do. Then, there’s the growing mythology that surrounds fashion designers.
Indeed, it seems blockbuster fashion exhibitions are here to stay. People like it, so why not? What’s more, the PR opportunities are endless, because entering the rarefied world of a museum can raise a brand’s cultural credibility, dignifying even the dullest designer. Welcome to the era of art as marketing.
“Ten years ago it was extremely difficult to convince designers to lend pieces to museums or be part of exhibitions,” says French curator Olivier Saillard, director of the Musée Galliera in Paris, who has staged his own fashion blockbusters — including “Madame Grès” and “Balenciaga: L'Oeuvre au Noir” — and pioneered a particular genre of convention-defying fashion performances.
“Today, on the contrary, we get insistently approached by both designers and fashion houses in order to create displays and expositions,” he continues. “In a way, it is understandable: an exhibition lasts a minimum of three months, while a fashion show a mere ten minutes. Shows are a live experience, that's for sure, one that keeps generating an avalanche of images, but as a tool to display clothes are probably showing signs of wear and tear. Everything goes too fast and has become soulless, while a well-conceived museum installation can impress and move for a long time.”
Emotion is pivotal for Saillard. He has a very personal approach to exhibition-making: deeply atmospheric and scenographic — too much so, according to his detractors — and a far cry from Andrew Bolton’s stark and didactic take, as seen currently in the piercingly cold Comme des Garçons exhibition at the Met.
Saillard is currently in Florence, installing his latest project — “Il Museo Effimero della Moda” — in the history-drenched and slightly dusty rooms of the Galleria del Costume e della Moda on the top floor of the magnificent Palazzo Pitti. The Galleria is one of the few Italian cultural institutions to include fashion in its collections, with pieces ranging from 18th century costume to fine specimens of haute couture and current designer fashion. (There still isn’t a proper fashion museum in Italy — not in Milan, nor Rome, nor Florence, the three main epicentres of the revolutions that, starting in 1951, birthed the Made in Italy phenomenon).
“I've been thinking about this hole in Italian culture a lot,” says Saillard. “Italy is a wonderfully varied country, whose true richness is exactly the diversity of regional cultures. The idea for this project is that of an ephemeral museum: a show space that lasts just for a limited amount of time and will subsequently move to another city to take a new form.”
Call it a museum-like take on fashion's intrinsic fickleness and you get the idea. It's a clever and poignant move, which will surely put some museum curators on the defensive. Not that Saillard isn't used to breaking the rules. He is a fierce opponent of using mannequins, for instance, favoring installations, such as the one in glass cabinets for the Jeanne Lanvin exhibition at the Galliera a few years back, which consisted of dresses laying flat. “Fashion is something that should be seen on a living body as it moves, or, if not, just imagined. A mannequin is a dead body. Clothes shown flat, on other hand, are a stimulus for the imagination.”
Saillard has also worked with his long-standing partner in crime, the actress Tilda Swinton, in order to show clothes live, but not worn. In the Florence exhibition — due to open on June 13, the first day of Pitti Uomo — there will be clothes displayed on chairs and other props, but also on busts inside glass boxes.
Fashion to me is the essence of fragility. It is fickle because time is fickle.
When I meet Saillard, he is busy setting up the show. His work method starts with a well-defined idea, but then comes to life in a long process of trial and error that's basically like writing an essay in space using clothes and props. The exhibition, a reflection on the ephemeral and morbid qualities of fashion, has been almost a year in the making and consists, essentially, of a dialogue between the collections of Musée Galliera and the collections of Palazzo Pitti, covering a span of time that stretches from the 19th century to the present day.
The project is vast and ambitious, but Saillard has approached the task with trademark lightness. He had Palazzo Pitti replace the old, very 1980s glass cabinets with new, more streamlined ones; frames and other props were culled from the attic, in order to create a mise-en-scène that is more like a work in progress than something conclusive. The result is a dreamscape that sucks spectators in, as if they were visiting a ghost attic or someone else's house.
“I tried to capture two opposing qualities in this project. For me, fashion is torn between appearing and disappearing,” says Saillard. “I personally like clothes that look like time has passed on them, not least because they fit with the patina that, in Italy, you constantly find on architecture and the vestiges of a glorious artistic past.
The Ephemeral Museum will display about 200 pieces: a few of them are being shown in Florence for the very first time, others perhaps for the very last. There is a Madame Grès wedding gown, for instance, which has turned grey over the years, and a desperately frail Vionnet that, after this exhibition will go into eternal storage. “Fashion to me is the essence of fragility. It is fickle because time is fickle,” says Saillard.
The Ephemeral Museum comes, as is typical in Italy, with a dose of controversy. Some Italian curators, such as Maria Luisa Frisa, have objected that an Italian museum should express an Italian point of view and not borrow from what has been successfully made abroad. Which, in a way, is true, but also implicitly and rather anachronistically means that a national museum should have a national curator.
But the truth of the matter is that Saillard nailed the job with absolute poignancy. “I think we are living in Europe and should avoid thinking in merely local terms,” he says. “I would be perfectly happy to work with Italian curators at the Galliera.”
Fashion exhibitions can be wonderful cultural tools: a way of talking about the present using artefacts from the past. In this sense, the Ephemeral Museum is a way to talk about fashion’s transience at a time when trends come and go at the speed of Instagram. Saillard does it by focusing on something that contemporary culture stubbornly refuses to acknowledge: decay. Death is part of life — even of the life of a dress — Saillard is telling us, because what's destroyed is just as lively as what is brand new. Fashion’s fixation with the newest of the new, on the contrary, is utterly inhuman.
“I think the fashion system is completely screwed at the moment but I have no illusion, nor pretence, I can help fix it in any way. I am convinced that new things will happen soon anyway. Not in terms of shapes or forms, as everything has already been made, but in the way things are presented,” concludes Saillard. “My main aim with the project is to help viewers understand that we all make wonderful fashion exhibitions every day, when we lay or store clothes all around us. It's like painting a self-portrait.”