Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Interview: Florence Muller on Yves St Laurent blockbuster

You don't have to be Takashi Murakami to know that fashion meeting art can lead to big press and big business. Now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is putting a new spin on the trend with the first-ever 40-year retrospective of Yves St Laurent. Last week I got to chat on the phone with the show's chief curator, Florence Muller, a Paris-based fashion professor and a writer for Surface magazine. The National Post ran a condensed version of our chat with some great pictures in their print edition today. If you're they type who knows the difference between harem pants and hammer pants, read on after the jump for the expanded interview.

The following is an interview with Parisian fashion historian, curator and writer Florence Muller on the occasion of the first-ever Yves St Laurent retrospective opening in Montreal on May 29, 2008. This interview took place over the phone on Friday, May 23.

Q Art and fashion are becoming every more associated with each other—think Murakami and Vuitton, W mag’s art issue, and now this exhibit. Why is this connection developing? How is fashion art?

A You know YSL was one of the first to do this connection in the 60s. It was not so evident during this time and it was really new. Nowdays it’s become much more evident. Through the 90s there was the idea that art and fashion can be connected in different way; artists like Vanessa Beecroft had a fascination for this world do luxury together with a point of view that was critical of it and. The people involved in these luxury brands were very interested by art and started building a connection support exhibition events in artist fields. And through the 90s and recent years this connection has been perceived as completely evident in terms of activities, in terms of developing events, exhibitions and support.

But I can say that during the beginning of YSL this was not so evident, and this was more revolutionary; this connection between what was considered art and fashion was considered not so important. I can say that I have also lived this revolution because when I started to work on the idea of the museum of fashion the Louvre through the 80s it was still very difficult during the to say that fashion is also a form of art.

Now everybody understands that it’s a form of art, and what is important is that it has its own way of expression, its own vocabulary, its own way of developing an artistic resource and point of view. But now the ideas are more sophisticated. Fashion is not considered now like replicate of art field; it has its own rules and its own specificity and you can consider fashion with this specificity as an equal in the art field.

Q Now this exhibit argues that in addition to YSL being art, YSL was influenced by people like Picasso, Mondrian and Braque. How is this so? How do we see this in the clothes?

A He always said that he was naturally very involved in the artistic field, because he was a drawer and a painter and at the beginning he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do, but he had a practice of art and a lot of connections with the art and literature fields. Many people near to him belonged to this world.

So I think it’s a very natural connection, a connection which is very alive you know, and very elegant. And but what he had started to do as a painter is find a way of thinking about this with the specificity of fashion, with the specificity of haute couture. It’s not just the work of taking a painting and putting it on a dress. But at the same time, it’s not very visible; if you don’t know the specificity of haute couture you don’t know how complicated it is to render the bird of Braque into a sculpture that is around the neck of the model that holds the drapery of the dress. Really there is huge work on finding a way of doing something which is not anymore a painting and which starts to be more sculpture, in fact a sculpture alive on the body of the model.

For example the Mondrian dress… it’s a shame no one can see the inside of the dress. It’s very savant. The work on the dress is very complicated. You feel it is very minimalist and simple, but there is a huge construction behind this effect, which is the idea of translating the painting into a shape that is around the body in three dimensions. And to have this effect of something flat and geometric, you have to really calculate each piece of textile because the dress is really like a mosaic, each colour of the geometry of the dress is a piece that is sewed to the other. And it’s really very complicated work, very specific to the haute couture.

Of course during the time it came out this dress had a tremendous effect. And there were some ready to wear brands who copied this dress into a print. It’s a much more easy way but this dress by YSL is really like a masterpiece.

Q So it’s like a sculpture, but on someone’s body?

Yes, perhaps what’s specific to haute couture is the fact that it is made with textile, a material that is moving always and you have to capture this quite alive material, to put it on the body. To have an effect one must absolutely calculate the fact that the body is in movement; that’s why it’s so difficult compared to a sculpture. But it has something to do with sculpture, absolutely.

Q This exhibit also argues that “YSL gave women power”… How is this? How did YSL give power through fashion?

A He started in a very precise moment in the 60s when there were all these new ideas about transforming society and feminism. And he gave the answer in terms of garments to all these movements to the women’s liberation. He has worked, as you know, on the masculine suit and he translated it for women. He has understood that men had power in society, of course because of history, but also because their costume is like an armor, an armor for everyday. The masculine suit protects the body with this structure, with the fact that’s it’s built very strongly. It’s built very strongly from the shoulders. The shoulders are built to give the impression of a strong body and when you have this masculine suit you immediately give and image of the body that is standing straight in a strong way.

But he has added this idea a very important other element, which is if the woman starts to be strong enough in society, she can also show her femininity. She has not just have to use the masculine image like a monk. She also can add on this feminine seduction. And it’s why his suits a the beginning were very masculine and very very soon after he adds the use of a blouse in silk chiffon instead of a shirt with a tie and he replaced the belt by a scarf in muslin. You will see in the show a suit like this, white with a pink blouse and belt. And he has made the mixture of the two things: the strong image of the masculine suit with the feminine seduction.

Q What about people who are worried about the way the fashion industry might encourage women to develop eating disorders, to be thin, to not have power? How do you see that in this context?

A I think of course that fashion is a huge example to follow in actual society. Of course it builds the aesthetic of the moment, of course it has an influence. But I don’t think it’s the only answer. I thind there is other phenomena, for example like the idea of youth. And I think if you see many young girls who want to stay very thin I think there is the idea of refusing and saying no to the fact that you are growing up. For me it’s an expression of the fact that they probably don’t want to become adults, they want to stay more and more like a teenager or like a very young girl and the thinness expresses this. I can also observe this on women of a certain age that wants to stay very very thin; it’s also a way of saying no the time passing, no to the idea of death.

Fashion is not the only explanation I think it our society refuses to face the usual evolution of the life. You know, beginning middle and then then, comme on dire, the viellesse, the fact of becoming old is seen like a defeat.

And of course we can say that in more practical way there is a huge competition in our world, and to keep your professional activity you need to seem very young and the fact to be young is connected with the slimness.

And it’s terrible you know, of course, but fashion is not the only factor responsible.

Q Getting to the current day and age, How did YSL impact what women wear today? Our culture today? Our fashion today? What might someone walking down the street today see and not know is influenced by YSL?

A You can see it everywhere but perhaps you don’t know if you haven’t seen the exhibition or book maybe you wouldn’t notice it. Now it is sucha part of the normal image of the street. For example the trenchcoat is everywhere, it’s back and back again and again in fashion season after season. No one knows perhaps, that he had helped drop this military coat into fashion. Of course this mixture between masculinity and femininity for the winter season in the last shows was everywhere. This theme it is really a huge preoccupation for many designers but if you don’t know the story you will not notice it. It is like many inventors who open a field; after many decades nobody remembers them. There is a heritage which is not well known. But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t he origin of this.

Q More personally, what is your favourite item in the show that you would like to wear? How would you wear it?

A There are several but if I can say one I would say perhaps the jumpsuit. It’s a knitted jumpsuit in a dark purple which was belonging to Nan Kempner. Because it is a very pure garment , because it is like an overall; it is very minimalist, very elegant and sportif, you can wear it in many different occasions and it makes a perfect line your body. Of course one of the Mondrian dresses; my favourite is the very very minimalist Montdrian with just a few colours like beige and brown and black and that’s all. Yes there is a silhouette you will see in the show of summer 1971, from this very shocking show about a quotation from the 1940s in the 1970s. In it, there is a print like camouflage print on the body which is worn with a scarf in fox. And I like this because itais altogether very subversive with this mixture of military touch and the drapery of the dress; it is really the essence of the haute couture.

Q What does Yves do now, after 40 years of production?

A I’m not sure; I don’t know how to answer. I think he is doing what he couldn’t do during these 40 years of intense activity. You know, before starting this fashion adventure he was liked to do drawings and to be alone and to be concentrated on his readings. So maybe that is what he is doing now.

Q Just to be totally clear, what do you say to people who think that fashion cheapens art?

A I think people who don’t like this encounter between these two fields, I think it’s because very often people don’t know very well how fashion functions, and they don’t understand that fashion has its own rules and its own way of working. And very often in art people say “Oh they are just stealing this from the painter.” Because they don’t know how a work on a dress is different from a work on a painting. And if you spend time in an atelier you will see it is something different. In many ways, you can’t compare you can’t say that it’s same thing. It’s not the same thing. I think it’s a lot more rich if you understand they are two different ways of working.

But that still has one point together: the fact that designer can be free in front of the white page or cloth. A designer when he has a project of a collection, he is free in his mind to what he wants to do. Of course the only limit is the body of the woman, but with haute couture, with everything that is not just industrial, you have a large part of your work which is free and where you can are in the same position of an artist in front of a painting. There is this feeling of freeness in terms of creation.

But it’s stupid to say art and fashion is exactly the same. That’s why there is a malentendu around these things sometimes. And during many years through the 80s and the 90s when this movement of urban fashion started to be very efficient, there were many designers who said, “Oh I don’t do art” because they were afraid of this too direct equation….. Many designers said, “oh no I’m just doing garments.” Like Comme des Garcons’s designer is considered a very artistic person, she seems to be doing avant-garde research; but when she is interviewed she says she does industrial fashion. Of course it is an elegant answer. But they don’t want to pretend to be perceived like artist in a naive way.

Yves St Laurent’s retrospective continues to September 28 at the Musee des beaux-arts in Montreal.

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