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Sans griffe, Frac, vers 1790 Collection Galliera

The Impossible Wardrobe

Museum director and curator Olivier Saillard and Tilda Swinton seek to make comment on fashion today with a powerful performance

You can already see jaded and slightly weary expressions cast at the shows as we are nearing the end of another season of shows. Many shows in fact, plus countless showrooms appointments and presentation and ultimately an abundance of product. For those that were lucky enough to procure a ticket to the four performances that Musée Galliera museum director Olivier Saillard and actress Tilda Swinton have collaborated on, entitled 'The impossible Wardrobe' at Palais de Tokyo as part of the Festival d'automne, we were privy to a piece of commentary on the state of fashion and a celebration of it, that was more powerful than any fashion show so far this season. Saillard has been coming up with performances since 2005, that seek to start dialogues on fashion, twisting the catwalk format, presenting pre-existing garments with elements of theatre and thus re-contextualising the clothes that Saillard uses as his props. The Impossible Wardrobe is Saillard’s most potently powerful work to date, aided by Swinton's utterly mesmerising performance. Saillard and Swinton play the role of caretakers of artefacts from the Musée Galliera. Breaking convention and taking these priceless pieces out of their locked-up glass cabinets and protective garment bags and boxes, Swinton takes piece after piece of valuable couture – Victorian gowns, Napoleonic jackets, pieces by Fortuny, Poirot, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli and Chanel, hats and shoes – and interacts with them. She stalks down the runway moving with each piece in a different way – holding up a Victorian dress high to praise it, dancing with a dress as though a person was still wearing it, sniffing a jacket that Napoleon Bonaparte wore as if trying to find traces of the diminutive wearer, presenting beaded capes on a canvas board like abstract art, hugging the arm holes of a voluminous Balenciaga jacket and holding out a pair of children's shoes to plead the audience to admire them. She walked back and forth the runway, stopping at the end to peer into a mirror, where the audience never deciphered what her exact expression was. Each passage with every garment was brilliantly articulated by Swinton's expressions and movement. We were given the opportunity to admire these pieces for their beauty as well as the context of the wearer and we questioned whether clothes actually need wearers to truly have a life of their own. In some instances yes, in some cases, no. By the end of the performance, the audience erupted into a grand gesture of a standing ovation, a sight so rare at shows today. There goes another comment on what today's fashion scene is sorely lacking according to Saillard. The singer Kylie Minogue, who was present at the show was in tears by the end. Her verdict was that it was phenomenal. Hardly anyone in the audience would disagree with her.

Filmmaker and artist Katerina Jebb also worked with Saillard and Swinton on a film that played on a loop outside the show space. It depicts Swinton in her caretaker role, scanning in a jacket worn by Napoleon with a scientific detachment (a reference to Jebb's photography work) and then sitting absorbing images of noted women – Elsa Schiaparelli, Marie Antoinette, Isadora Duncan – as they flash past her face. They're intangible images of people long dead and you feel Swinton can’t quite grasp the people behind the garments.  "We work quite silently. We don’t really discuss anything. We work intuitively," says Jebb of working with Swinton, a harmony that was also shared with Saillard as Dazed Digital spoke to the visionary curator after the performance.

Dazed Digital: Was the point of the performance to breathe new life into these garments and to have Tilda relate to the past wearer in some way?
Olivier Saillard:
It’s very paradoxical as I asked Tilda to be the pedestal of each garment. She's neutral and wears a robe the same cotton as the material protecting the clothes. I asked her to incarnate the clothing but not in every instance. I like the contrast between clothes, which were worn and still have life and clothes that will never be worn.

It's also a reflection on the present day fashion show. There are too many shows with too many outfits. It's more powerful to present one dress or one pair of shoes. I want to elevate each item. I don't love fashion when there is too much imagery, too many fashion shows and a lot of people shouldn't present during the fashion weeks. This was a reason to show why we actually love fashion.

DD: The focus on the past perhaps says something about the lack of innovation today?
Olivier Saillard:
It's difficult to say that as I always admire the work of Nicolas Ghesquière, Azzedine Alaïa and Comme des Garçons. They're purists. I'm very prudent with purchases as well as selections for the museum. I want to distance myself from the mass of production in fashion.

DD: How did you choose to the pieces that were used in the performance from the museum’s archives?
Olivier Saillard:
We began to choose both clothes worn by notorious and anonymous people. I think it's very kind that so many anonymous people donate pieces to the museum. We chose interesting and significant pieces that we felt represented a good breadth of fashion history. We also tried to make a selection that complimented Swinton's hair and skin so there were a lot of greens, browns and pastels.

DD: How do you want these performances to evolve in the future?
Olivier Saillard:
I have nothing to sell, there's nothing to buy. I just have a poetic idea that hopefully will get funded to be presented. The more I think about these performances, the more I continue to reinvent the format of a fashion show without having ever to create clothes.

Photography Piero Biasion