Olivier Saillard Remembers All

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Topping over 140 fashion exhibits during his curatorial career, Olivier Saillard’s eyes have had access to a body of work even the world’s most famous couturiers have not yet seen. It’s pretty impressive creative fodder to draw upon one’s own artistic inclinations and yet, museum curation is only part of the story. Saillard’s creative pursuits have spanned from writing books, fashion design, and dabbling in performance art with notorious celebrity friends, making Renaissance Man a perhaps more apt CV job title.

Saillard’s interest in fashion first came from a very unlikely place—the bitter cold mountains of France. Born and raised in Pontarlier, he recalls his childhood as atypical from the fashion path. “My parents were taxi drivers in an unfashionable village,” he tells CR. “My sister Lucette was 10 years older and a second mother to me. She collected fashion magazines to copy modest versions of YSL designs.”

The pair would whittle away the day in their family attic among clothes of past generations while Lucette sewed clothes and spent hours getting herself ready in full hair, makeup, and fashion pieces. “At 17 she blossomed into a tall, blonde, and elegant woman; she was unique because she seemed to belong to another time, even her name was old,” Saillard says. The younger sibling would make himself useful by hand-painting the YSL labels that Lucette would sew into the garments while also sketching and drawing his own fashion magazine called Le Grand Couturier. This late ‘70s existence of dreaming up one’s own fashion world where one didn’t exist, seems positively idyllic and charming compared to today’s hyper-connected, information-bloated internet times.

After graduation from the University of Montpelier, Saillard left for Paris and parlayed his mandatory military service requirement into a civil service position working at Le Musée de la Mode et du Textile. His talent for understanding and cataloging fashion archives and imagining context quickly caught the eye of Bernard Blistène, the then-director of the Musée de Marseille. Soon, Saillard was offered a position of curator at the young age of 27, after which he soon met Azzedine Alaïa, the museum’s President d’Honneur.

“I proposed that Alaïa do an exhibit, but he wasn’t ready,“ Saillard says. It was the late ‘90s when Alaïa’s flame had flickered momentarily, but the suggestion started a friendship between the two that would thrive off and on until his passing last year. “Alaïa was the most generous designer I’ve ever met,” Saillard remembers. “But he was also the most difficult, often calling me to yell at me about something I wrote or said, especially if it wasn’t about him!”

Saillard moved back to Paris in 2000 to return to the the Musée des Les Arts Décoratifs to head up the fashion exhibits there. In 2005, he started creating fashion performance art, pieces independent of but dependent on his curatorial privilege with his celebrity friends such as Charlotte Rampling, Laetitia Casta, and Tilda Swinton. He staged a ground-breaking performance in 2012 with Swinton called “The Impossible Wardrobe” in which the actress interacts with historical garments versus wearing them at the Palais Galliera Musée where he was director since 2010. When he arrived for the role, he oversaw the institute’s renovation and once again proposed an Alaïa exhibit. This time the Tunisian designer agreed.

It wasn’t an easy process to work with Alaïa. “You have to be with him constantly—three to four dinners a week, consuming a lot of wine and food to make it happen,” Saillard says. Opening on September 28, 2013 to both Alaïa and critics’ delight, the reception made Saillard proud. “It was really a pity that until that moment, he had never had an exhibit in Paris. I was happy to make it happen, just four years before he passed. The last 10 years with him were really intense—it was a very close friendship where he taught me the art of the technique.” Seeing the garments as a curator was different than understanding the art of stitching by seeing how Alaïa sewed or cut a dress. “I watched and learned from Alaïa,“ Saillard says.

Another French couturier whose impact on Saillard is unquantifiable was Madame Grès. The sculptor-turned designer was known for her body-conscious, elaborate draping techniques as much as her secretive demeanor and designs, which continue to influence fashion design to date. Grès‘ legacy and the time Saillard spent studying Alaïa led him to Moda Provera, the curator’s first turn at clothing design. With the help of former Madame Grès seamstress Martine Lenoir, whom he met while organizing the Grès exhibit at Musée Bourdelle in 2011, Saillard debuted a collection of intricately reworked oversized T-shirts with couture draping techniques applied. “The name comes from the Italian Art Movement that uses trash and other low-cost materials; I spent 400 euros buying inexpensive Fruit of the Loom cotton jersey T-shirts online,” he explains. Lenoir quickly got the knack of draping on sewn garments and created over 27 one-of-a-kind designs.

Saillard first dipped his feet into a designer role in late 2017 when he became artistic director at JM Weston after what could be described as a mid-life crisis and initially saying no to the job three times. “I was thinking one day after my father had passed away,“ he says. „I had turned 50, maybe it was time to make a change.” Adding a modern and more colorful touch to the classic men’s shoes, he has also given the over-120-year-old brand a new voice through Instagram. “I have created a dialogue between myself and the imaginary JM Weston as if he is directing me on what to do with the brand today.”

While Saillard feels fashion today often disappoints, the social media platform—with its abilities to create virtual exhibits—does not. “It would be nearly impossible in terms of cost and logistics to curate an exhibit to position a photo from Paolo Roversi, Helmut Newton, and Picasso to gather these three images in a gallery,” Saillard explains. „On Instagram, it is possible because it’s the most-freeing place.” His own Instagram has featured a series of clothes draped in the shape of humans inspired by a recent piece he did with a dance troupe. He was inspired by seeing his coat and scarf on a hook in his office in what looked like an embrace. “It looks like you are still present–it’s a self- portrait of you.” Instagram has been a way to emancipate himself from the confines of a museum display; folding is a no-no with historical clothes in need of preservation.

This year holds even more in store for Saillard, including another fashion book on the topic of fashion in the context of literature. On January 20, 2019, he will open an exhibit called L’Art du Tailleur featuring the work of Alaïa and Adrian of Hollywood for the Alaïa Foundation. “He was one of the few that collected other designers’ work,” Saillard says. This showing, held at the late designer’s bookstore slash café, marks the first time Alaïa’s private collection of other designers‘ work has been displayed.

Saillard often discusses with Carla Sozzani—who works on todays’ Alaïa collections that have been created from the designer’s archives—about what their friend and mentor would think of their work today. “She says he wouldn’t agree with couture T-shirts,” he bemuses. “The first thing Alaïa used to say was to find your own way and it could open every door—as there was not only one dedicated path. You have to find your territory and way of expression. Don’t follow everyone because there is a way for everyone to express themselves uniquely.”

Looks like Saillard took that advice to heart.

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