Fashion History, on the Catwalk Once More

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

On the eve of yet another cycle of fashion weeks, Olivier Saillard, the fashion historian and director of the Palais Galliera museum in Paris, is coming to New York with a message: “We are in a moment that’s very bizarre in fashion,” he said. “There are too many clothes.”

By his own calculations, the annual round of fashion weeks accounts for 18,000 pieces of clothing, a number he is determined not to add to. For the latest of his fashion performance pieces, a genre he has most likely created, he is traveling to New York with seven models from the heyday of Parisian prêt-à-porter, but with barely a stitch to cover them. (Though Saillard said his performers would be “completely nude,” he clarified that he meant “an idea of nudity.” They will wear bodysuits, and use gesture to suggest the contours of their former finery.)

The piece will debut at New York Fashion Week on Monday, in partnership with the French Institute/Alliance Française, MADE Fashion Week and Milk Studios.

“I have no clothes to present — I have only memories,” Saillard said. “The most pure clothes we could find is in memories, in souvenir.”

The members of Saillard’s cohort — Anne Rohart, Charlotte Flossaut, Axelle Doué, Christine Bergstrom, Claudia Huidobro, Amalia Vairelli and Violeta Sanchez — are a living repository of fashion memory. They worked for designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Azzedine Alaïa and Claude Montana, spending days and nights in their studios, serving as fit models, catwalk sirens and all-purpose inspirations.

Saillard turned their stories into a live-action oral history of Paris fashion in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, an eyewitness account from those whose opinions are not often sought. Its ironic title: “Models Never Speak.”

“It’s inconnu — it’s not known,” said Doué, a model for Montana, of her 12 years in his atelier. “Like Christophe Colomb, going to put the feet on Amerique.”

Bergstrom, who worked with Gaultier, Alaïa and Montana during his tenure at Lanvin, called the process of dredging up memories therapeutic. The result is less gossipy than impressionist.

“It’s sort of bringing a piece of the puzzle of one’s life back into place,” she said. “All those years you spent doing something. Having to re-remember the dress, what it was actually made out of, the feeling that you got when you wore it, when they were making it on you.”

The intertwined worlds of modeling and fashion have changed enormously in the decades since.

“In the ‘80s, in the ‘70s, they had all very specific personalities,” Saillard said, referring to models in those years. “Today they are too much similar. They don’t have any knowledge of gesture. They have no experience of movement.” (“Models Never Speak” grew out of a performance he created in 2012 for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, with five of the same models, for its series on “Fashion in Motion.”)

“I knew Nicolas Ghesquière from Gaultier days,” Bergstrom said of the artistic director of Louis Vuitton, who got his start working for Gaultier. “He did say how much it had changed.”

Regardless, she added: “I refuse the idea that there are past glory days. There are always glory days.”