August 21 2014

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Sculpting Fashion: Olivier Saillard Talks Alaïa at the Musée Galliera


Azzedine Alaia by Patrick DemarchelierFor the past four years, Paris’ famed Musée Galliera has been closed for renovations. This week, the historic fashion museum reopens with Alaïa—the first Parisian retrospective dedicated to Azzedine Alaïa’s work. “For me, Alaïa was the obvious choice—he stands alone,” offered the Galliera’s director, Olivier Saillard, who has curated the museum’s roving shows since 2010. (The 2011 Madame Grès show—hosted by the Musée Bourdelle—as well as Tilda Swinton’s mesmerizing Spring ’13 performance, The Impossible Wardrobe, were both Saillard’s work.) Here, in an exclusive preview, the curator speaks to about bringing a “new-old” museum back to life, what sets Alaïa apart, and how Swinton has inspired him to take up sewing.

How did your vision for the Musée Galliera take shape?
It was a funny situation because I was named the museum’s director after it closed for renovations, so I started doing outside shows. In my mind, the “new-old” Galliera—I call it that because we’ve restored it to its nineteenth-century appearance—really began to take shape with the 2011 Madame Grès exhibit at the Musée Bourdelle. We did it on a shoestring budget. You could say that Madame Grès changed my idea of what the Galliera should be. Ever since then, I’ve been convinced that an exhibition’s power comes solely from how you see the clothes. When you look at a dress by Alaïa, you don’t need anything else.

How did you approach Alaïa about the exhibition?
I first mentioned it to him years ago. Two years later, he invited me to dinner. I don’t really remember when he said yes, because he never says no, even if that’s what he means. Then, a year ago, he put his collection on hold because this exhibition was coming up. I’ve never met another designer who would do that. What’s interesting about Alaïa is that he takes the time to understand and see things. He approaches his clothes like a sculptor or an architect or a writer, and he often says, “I make clothes; women make fashion.”

Alaia's Houppette dress and corresponding sketch

What went into selecting the clothes for the show?
Azzedine gave me all the [printed material] he had, and for a year and a half we looked at everything that had been published about him. We spoke at length, and finally I selected the fifty most important dresses, and he agreed. Then he added more. Just last week he called and said, “What about this one?” I said, “Why not?” The problem is, I like them all! The seventy or eighty pieces in the show range from his first collection, in 1979, to today, primarily in black, because Alaïa is a sculptor and black lends itself best. Then he made three new ones that are a real study in volume, which are being shown over in the Matisse Room at the Musée d’Art Moderne. It’s the first time they’ve ever shown fashion.

Do you have a favorite piece?
The houppette (powder-puff) dress is one of my favorites; it’s like a sculpture. But there are so many, like the famous bondage dress. We’ve divided the show up into Azzedine “eras,” with a section of African-inspired macramé, black leather, a series of white dresses that start with a white shirt and wind up with different materials in bas-relief, dresses that wrap around the body, and Alaïa’s most important suits. Then we end with iconic pieces and dresses that make the twenty-first century. We had a white macramé bustier that I mentioned seeing in red somewhere, and Azzedine said he’d done it for Tina Turner.

Lindsey Wixson in a leather Alaia look; Alaia's croc coat

Besides polishing the Alaïa show, what else are you working on?
We’ve got a performance called Eternity Dress coming up in November, with Tilda Swinton, where I will sew a dress on her. I’ve never sewn a dress, so lately I’ve been learning how. It’s a single, timeless dress. Further down the line, I’ve been thinking about Countess Greffulhe. Hers was the first wardrobe I asked to see. She ordered all her clothes from Charles Frederick Worth and Fortuny, and she loved green. There is something about the wardrobe and the woman that is very present; the Worth gowns are quite close to [those by] Alexander McQueen. I was thinking that Tilda could be a guardian for the exhibition, and sometimes become Countess Greffulhe.

What would your dream exhibition look like?
Whatever the theme, whatever the piece in question, I would love to let one visitor at a time come and experience a presentation alone. That’s my dream: being alone, face-to-face with a piece is beautiful. If I could, I would make everyone leave their smartphone at the door. I have no idea how I’m going to pull it off, but I will!

The Musée Galliera will open to the public on September 28 (free entry on September 28 and 29). Alaïa runs through January 26, 2014.

Photos: Patrick Demarchelier; Peter Lindebergh; Paolo Roversi; Paolo Roversi; Azzedine Alaia, all courtesy of The Musée Galliera