The reputed French historian has gained in freedom of expression since he no longer runs the Galliera Museum, and is also not resting on his laurels and multiplying projects. During Pitti Uomo in Florence, he spoke at the 75th anniversary of Brioni, and later this year, he will publish a book about the Italian menswear brand. We caught up with Olivier Saillard to discuss his past, present, and future endeavors and the state of fashion today.
The past year and even the past decade has been particularly busy for you: you've had new appointments at J.M. Weston, Pitti Uomo, and the Azzedine Alaïa Association, you've worked on a series of Moda Povera performances, and even published a book recently, Le bouquin de la mode...
I've said "yes" to too many things!
Do you have any regrets about leaving your previous job?
I have no regrets about leaving my job as museum director because in France, the main task of this position is to raise money and raise funds to keep the institution alive. I don't want to do that anymore. Or maybe, if I would agree to do it again, it would have to be with a smaller team, in a different setting, like the two exhibitions we did at Palazzo Pitti in Florence. We had the means given to us by Pitti Immagine. However, it was still necessary to improvise and, somewhere, it reminded me of the way exhibitions were put together 20 years ago, when we were not dealing with communication strategies, when we could have fun and, also, make mistakes.
Today you have this freedom within the Azzedine Alaïa Association!
In this context, what interests me most are the exhibitions that look at Azzedine's work and at the collections of other couturiers that he collected throughout his life. Today's designers purchase second-hand clothes from which they draw inspiration, but none of them are building up a collection of archives in the Alaïa style. He began by buying, in 1968, pieces designed by Cristobal Balenciaga, which will be the subject of our next exhibition ALAÏA et BALENCIAGA Sculpteurs de la forme that we will inaugurate on January 20th during Haute Couture in Paris. Except for Hubert de Givenchy, I don't know of any other couturiers who collected the collections of their peers the way Alaïa did. Azzedine Alaïa purchased fashion without counting for years, and even more so at the end of his life — when he was still counting in old francs even though we had switched to the euro a long time ago!
Did you not have any idea how valuable this fund was before your appointment at the Association?
When I did the exhibition on Madame Grès at the Musée Bourdelle in 2011, I asked him to lend me a few pieces... He finally agreed to give me three on the grounds that he didn't have many. In truth, he owned 700 of them! And no less than 300 original Cristobal Balenciaga pieces. He also owns pieces from Adrian (ed. note: Adrian Adolph Greenberg), Greta Garbo's costume designer, which French museums don't have in their collections. He went to the United States and bought all his archives from Adrian's son... Azzedine Alaïa's collection is marvelous. You can sense a very technical approach in his acquisition process, as well as a keen interest in very elaborate pieces that challenged him to do better.
Did he also collect pieces designed by his contemporary peers?
His archives also include many pieces by Rei Kawakubo, as well as by Jean Paul Gaultier, Martin Margiela, Thierry Mugler, Junya Watanabe, and Yohji Yamamoto. I was also surprised to discover pieces by Phoebe Philo for Celine, and some pieces by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga that he liked.
Have your new appointments and projects changed the way you look at fashion today?
When I started my career, I was very keen to bring our contemporary designers into museums, to integrate their silhouettes into my exhibitions as soon as they got off the catwalk. Today, I tend to focus only on designs that are at least 20 years old. Fashion is like wine — good or bad — and time helps to evaluate it. I now think that you have to know how to forget about recent fashions in order to be able to showcase them properly later on, especially since there have been so many recent exhibitions on the subject that we could use a little rest for our eyes and some distance as well. And then, our industry has changed so much in the way it works that it is perhaps better to be interested in the cut, the design and the technique of the clothes rather than in their style itself... Today, everything is duplicated, copy-pasted. I'm overly cautious with current fashions.
Will our previous decade have its place in museums?
(...long silence) When I wrote Le bouquin de la mode (ed note: published in October 2019 by Robert Laffont), I was already afraid to write about the years 2000-2010 and, fortunately, there is Phoebe Philo at Celine who provided some perspective towards the end of the decade. This period was peculiar. It felt like a world — the world of fashion — that continues to dance on the deck of the Normandie (ed. note: French ocean liner) as it is about to sink. Since then, it hasn't gotten any better. Last month, a photo of Anna Wintour taking off her sunglasses and smiling at Chanel's Arts et Métiers show went viral on social networks... Why is it that fashion has so little common sense? Our world is in a bad state, we're overwhelmed by bad news, and yet, our fashion scene only seems to be interested in Anna Wintour's sunglasses. The fashion industry continues to have fun as if nothing bad ever happened. It's very odd.
Throughout the centuries, trends have often been a mirror of time. Does today's fashion tell the story of our times?
Unfortunately, I think it is mostly a condemnation of our times. Last December, Dior presented their men's pre-collection in Miami. Men's ready-to-wear has been trying to keep up with the pace of women's ready-to-wear, even though we've been saying for years that there are too many fashion shows. We have been told at all levels that we have to do less, and yet fashion continues to do more. There is an overproduction of clothing, with no significant difference between a brand and another, and on the street, the trends are not striking. Unfortunately, I doubt that the change will be initiated by the industry. It might rather be started by the consumers and, in particular, younger people who are beginning to associate fashion and luxury with a form of inconsistency and irresponsibility, the latter that is supposed to incite them to buy again and again as if nothing else matters.
In spite of this, are there any new designers that stand out from the crowd, according to you?
Honestly, I don't see much that appeals to me creatively — I don't see enough game-changers. There are a lot of new designers, each more courageous than the other, but I don't see one with the same potential a designer such as Gaultier or Alaïa had at the beginning of their respective careers. Maybe because it's the fashion system itself that needs to be reinvented. In my opinion, the designers who will stand out in the 2020s won't be lauded for their particular style, but rather for their distinctive and meaningful approach to fashion as a whole.