Pamela Golbin is probably the luckiest curator in the world—she has what is in effect the largest walk-in closet in the world. She’s also one of the best.
Golbin is the chief curator of the Louvre’s La Musée de la Mode et du Textile. Contained therein is something close to a collection of 150,000 pieces, which span from the Middle Ages to A/W 2016’s haute couture. A dream.
Golbin’s exhibitions—on Hussein Chalayan, Marc Jacobs, Madeleine Vionnet, Dries Van Noten, Valentino—have all been unanimously critically acclaimed, for their scope, multimedia approaches, subjects, and deviations from normative formats.
“Fashion Forward, Three Centuries of Fashion”, her latest, is quite literally that—300 complete looks, countless more accessories, work by interior designer Jean-Michel Frank, panoramic wallpapers by Zuber & Cie, illustrations from Paul Iribe of Paul Poiret’s work, all on display for the first time in the nave.
But with modern psychology confirming that the more choices available, the harder the decision making process, her access to such an armory begs the question: how does one Pamela Golbin manage it all? In a phrase: with ease. Such ease in fact that she sometimes goes through underground tunnels in the Louvre to find pieces and bring them back to Les Arts Décoratifs to incorporate them into her exhibitions.
While Golbin is known for not adhering to chronology or expectation, the first piece in “Three Centuries” is, by mathematical virtue, from the year 1715.
Tyler Sayles: Why begin with the Régence?
Pamela Golbin: Well, 300 years is always nice [laughs].
The year 1715 coincides with the death of Louis XIV and the beginning of Louis XV’s reign.
Whereas the fashion state during the reign of Louis XIV was characterized by clothes that were very structured, elaborate, and rigid garments, it wasn’t until Louis XV that you get a king whose society are all wearing somewhat of the same things.
This was also the first time you got some comfort for the woman—you saw the introduction of the robe volante, these flowing dresses, lighter weight fabrics, foulard and flounces.
TS: At the opening, Jean Paul Gaultier looked at floral print 20s dress from Jean Patou saying that it “hadn’t aged a bit”. What doesn’t recur in fashion?
PG: You can see in Rei Kawakubo’s latest collection influence from the Régence—the flounces, the exaggeration. Or even in S/S ‘15—the red dress with the panniers.
In the same section—dedicated to the twentieth century—we have a piece by Raf Simons for Dior haute couture A/W 2014 with panniers; we have Courrèges from the nineteenth century… everything comes back.
TS: Have you yet to see something you haven’t seen again, reinterpreted years (or centuries) later?
PG: Yes, thank god. Fashion is about what’s next—you’re always surprised whenever you think you know what it is. Fashion has a way of reinventing by reappropriating the past and interpreting it into the future.
TS: Skipping far ahead, speaking of the future—what do you think about wearable technology?
PG: For the longest time we were thinking ‘I wonder what we’re going to wear in 2000’, then the same for 2010. Let’s say there’s still a lot of experimentation but there’s no standard yet, so we’re waiting. Maybe it hasn’t caught up—maybe it’s not ready for fashion or fashion is not ready for it.
TS: The most recent piece is the padded shoulder hoodie and skirt look from Vêtements A/W 2016—
PG: The million dollar question—why I chose Vêtements.
One thing very important is that all of our exhibitions is that we’re very contemporary. It’s not about being retrospective, it’s about being prospective.
To show the whole gamut was very important for 2015-2016: couture from Margiela, Valentino, Givenchy; then the independent designers like Rick Owens and Dries Van Noten; the Ghèsquiere trousers, Kawakubo’s red dress—all of it.
Last season, there were all of these major so-called phantom houses like Lanvin and Dior, but then there was this extreme excitement for brands like Vêtements and Balenciaga. Not only in terms of the vision but also how to design as a team, how to distribute, how to sell… But the real million dollar question was whether to choose Vêtements or Balenciaga.
The fact that Vêtements brought street-style into the equation was interesting given its scale—we’re going from the court to the street. The piece is all done in sweatshirt material and yet you look at the piece and it has a very couture shape—not only are the shoulders wide, but the waist is small.
TS: Then there’s the slogan.
PG: Right: “May the Bridges I Burn Light the Way”, which adds another layer of interest to the piece in that these bridges throughout the history of fashion have allowed for the evolution of these creative spirits over the years to become what they are now.
TS: There’s both a piece involved from Karl Lagerfeld’s collaboration with H&M in 2004 and an entire sustainably-manufactured collection created by H&M for very low prices inspired by the exhibition. What do you think about this blurring of lines between haute couture, ready-to-wear, and fast-fashion?
PG: Well since there are so many rules as dictated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture the possibility of technically blurring is slim.
TS: Like Champagne AOC.
PG: Exactly. But the notion that something has to be defined as art to be in a museum is not relevant to us anymore. When Warhol did his silk screens no one considered that as something you would put in a museum. The same goes for Marcel Duchamp’s work.
Of course, certain works are more creative and we’re here to promote them in the scope of fashion. But when it comes to ready-to-wear designers, some of them have pushed their research even further than some pieces from couturiers that we have.
We’re lucky as an institution in Paris in that we don’t need to justify the artistic endeavors of each designer in order to exhibit them.
I think, too, if you were to ask more designers if they thought they were artists, they would probably say no, due to the fact that they have to meet very specific demands. Imagine if you told a painter he could only paint in red, black, and blue and only a specific week of the year—there wouldn’t be the same thought process. So we don’t look at designers through the same lens.
TS: In an excerpt for the exhibition’s program the epigraph you chose was a quote from Honoré de Balzac about clothes making the man. He repeats this idea in Lost Illusions saying that while we nearly all dress the same, it still is easy to observe, in a crowd, who is who—“the owner, the proletariat, the consumer, the producer, the man who talks and the man who acts.” Do you think this is still true?
PG: I don’t. Up until recently you wore your social stature as a uniform. It was always very clear what class you were from based on how you dressed—l’habit fait le moine.
Today this is no longer true, but it’s very recent. Today you can rent a gala dress and give it back as if you were Cinderella.
However, even in the 1960s, even if you could afford to rent a dress for a night you simply wouldn’t because of the social class you belonged to. What’s happened is that there’s dispersion, it has become less taboo, and people have more access to fashion.
TS: You noted that you’ve seen a large shift in the demographic that has come to the Louvre, specifically to Les Arts Décoratifs. What do you think about this democratization of the fashion world? What do you think is driving it?
PG: Given the fact that world is now completely connected with very few exceptions, it’s only normal that fashion should become a global cultural element. Fashion has always been a part of everyday life—the fact is, is that today, it’s a global industry and thereby touches a larger demographic. What’s changed is the scale.
TS: I know that you use video in your exhibitions—does this relate to the demand placed upon you, as a curator, to lock in the viewer visually first and foremost if they are to continue? How have both democratization and digital media affected your practice?
PG: In my exhibition on the work of Madeleine Vionnet, I chose to include video so that the viewer could better understand how cutting on the bias revolutionized fashion.
In this exhibition I worked with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to produce films where dancers are wearing the garments—this way, everyone can see how they are, worn on the body, in motion. Each project provides its own specificity.
TS: You’ve been at the Louvre for over twenty years now. You posed yourself the question whether or not you would stay there until you were sixty, and responded that you hoped not. What do you hope to be doing? Do you ever want to create the media you curate?
PG: You know my grandmother passed away when she was 103 years old—a fantastic woman—and I asked her, you know, what did you want to do? And her answer was that you just have to remain curious and ask questions—that that is what keeps you in the game.
I started in fashion because I’m interested in people. Whether or not you are interested in fashion, the fact remains that you don’t live in a vacuum; you have to interact with other people, and in that interaction you have to be dressed. And by the way people dress can tell you a lot about them—socioeconomically, their thought processes… fashion is a good way to better understand people.
I happened to fall into this job and I’ve had the incredible liberty to do as I please and collaborate with incredible people. It’s those collaborations that are most important to me—be it in a museum or anywhere else. If you are in a dialogue with someone else, so much is created, and so much better.
So, it really doesn’t matter—what does is collaboration and curiosity.