Illustrations of Alexander McQueen (left), Coco Chanel (middle), and Yves Saint Laurent (right), by Yann Legendre (Photos: Courtesy of Rizzoli Ex Libris)
As the chief curator of fashion and textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Pamela Golbin has mounted a steady stream of memorable fashion exhibitions. The shows “Louis Vuitton–Marc Jacobs,” “Dries Van Noten,” and “Fashion Forward: Three Centuries of Fashion,” the lattermost of which ended this week, all testify to her judicious balance of style and substance. With Couture Confessions, her recently published book, she reanimates the voices of 11 fashion couturiers by conducting new interviews from extensive primary source material. Even while manufactured, the repartee—observations, revelations, recommendations, and predictions—amounts to a dream sequence of thoughtful, relevant tell-alls. Paul Poiret notes back in the 1920s how contemporary fashion emerges from the streets, Christian Dior maintains that “dressed up is not necessarily chic,” and Pierre Balmain describes Dior as “a rather fleshy man of average height.” In advance of Golbin’s book signing at BookHampton in East Hampton tomorrow, she dishes to Vogue.com about channeling these fashion legends.
How did you arrive at a book of imaginary conversations drawn from archival source material?
I started my research for the retrospective of Madeleine Vionnet and realized I had so much exclusive material that had never been published of her speaking and telling her own story. So a Q&A format came very naturally out of that. Why should I interpret her own words when she could speak directly to the reader?
The confessions aspect plays out when we read that Dior calls French women “sloppily attired” and notes, not entirely favorably, the “excessive meticulousness” of New York women; or when Madame Grès admits she has never attended another designer’s show. How do these insights add to our understanding of their designs?
I wanted the reader to have a sense of who the person was behind the fashion house. I realized some time back that most people don’t know there’s actually a designer who founded the house. I wanted an Oprah moment with the designers themselves, so that readers could not only understand the challenges but the successes of these incredible personalities that made fashion what it is today.
Often, it feels as if we can hear them speaking.
That’s what I wanted to achieve; I wanted it to feel like readers were in the private studio of each designer as a master class, as if the designer is sitting next to us. What became clear quite quickly is that I was writing an oral history of 20th-century fashion—and that’s why I started in chronological order with Paul Poiret and finished with Alexander McQueen.
It’s easy to take for granted that this book required far more research than cutting and pasting quotes from any one of those Internet quote sites.
That’s probably the biggest compliment—that you don’t realize the amount of work. I would have loved to use some of the quotes on those sites, but few of them have references. A lot of them I could piece together and understand how they mutated at the time. Obviously had I not been with the museum, it would have been a more difficult and challenging situation. [Les Arts Décoratfis] has an amazing reference library and for Dior, Vionnet, and Poiret, we have some unpublished material such as personal letters and correspondence in our archives. I had a researcher in New York who helped me bring together sources; Lanvin, for example, received extensive coverage in China during the 1920s and ’30s.
By creating questions after you had collected the answers, your interview process was entirely reversed.
It was quite a weaving process because you really need to have a rhythm and a logic and when you have a couple hundred quotes for one person in front of you, making them work together is not an easy task—especially when you have 11 to do. Each chapter was made-to-measure for the designer. That’s what makes them so successful; there was no format and I had to fight myself with that because I love structure. I always wanted to weave in very important moments in lives of each designer while putting them into certain contemporary contexts.
It would have been a completely different book had you used photographs versus the woodcut-style illustrations by Yann Legendre.
Yes, because these are obviously imaginary interviews, but it is based on fact; so I didn’t want to go back to 100 percent reality, but I didn’t want it to be completely improbable. I pieced together images and I asked the illustrator, Yann Legendre, to come up with one portrait containing all the major elements of each designer’s vocabulary to open each chapter. Within the chapters, I wanted a more sensual and rigorous feel, so I asked Yann to be inspired by the work of Cecil Beaton’s book, The Glass of Fashion.
How much creative license were you taking? For instance, McQueen’s answer to “Do you feel misunderstood?” came from three different interviews.
You’re right. Obviously given what point in their lives they were at, they would reply differently; but there are certain themes that keep coming back for certain people. McQueen was the most difficult for me to create because I had met him, and his end was very painful, and you could feel a lot of that tension in the interviews; but I felt it was important to give as much information as possible. Since he was so open in his interviews, I did allow myself to piece together answers that were complementary.
What’s the significance of the opening text from John Galliano in which he mentions being stood up by “Mad Ellen and ChaCha Nelly”?
Whether it be someone like John or Dries [Van Noten], designers have always asked me, “What kind of person do you think X or Y was?” or “How do you think he or she would have done this or that?” So I felt very comfortable asking John whether he would consider writing the opening preface and he said, “Of course!” We had often spoken about Chanel and Vionnet when he came to do research at the museum and we had these nicknames, ChaCha Nelly was Chanel and Mad Ellen was Vionnet. Being as whimsical as he is, he came up with this beautiful opener for the book. We had spoken about putting their names in brackets so people would know but he decided otherwise because that’s how we speak of them. And I think he was right.
If given the chance to have a real-life conversation with one of the designers, who would you pick?
One of the challenges of book was how to treat [Cristóbal] Balenciaga, because he never gave interviews other than one just before he passed away; yet it was impossible to think of doing this book without including Balenciaga. So I had to come up with a way to have him in the book knowing that he had not really spoken at all. That’s how I came up with the idea of using his contemporaries and having them speak in his name. I would have loved to have a conversation with him, since I mounted the retrospective in 2006 and I had done so much research and met so many people who had known him, that I felt like I knew him somehow. I think I would have had a lot of fun with him because he had a very contagious humor and he laughed a lot—which is not something most people think about when they think about Cristóbal.
Who would have been the savviest on social media—tweeting, or posting to Instagram or Snapchat?
Paul Poiret, without a doubt, would have been the Snapchat king. He was the Instagrammer of his time; he was the first to start traveling worldwide to do fashion shows; he was the first couturier to visit America for speaking engagements, whether in private residences or public spaces. He really wanted to share his passion with all, and he used all the media outlets available to him.
Regarding Poiret, he cited pressures of turning out so many collections all those years ago. Does this surprise you?
And this was before World War I! One of the surprises I had in researching and writing this book was that, while I knew fashion was always cyclical, it hasn’t changed that much in 120 years. Designers today are facing challenges they faced at the beginning of the 20th century.
The designers’ written signatures appear on the inside covers. Whose do you feel is most in sync with their personality?
Including their signatures gives the feeling of a livre d’or—a book signed at weddings or events—I wanted it to be extremely personal and intimate as if they had left a special note to the readers. I think Poiret’s is very deliberate—and it’s not easy to find a signature for that time period. With Dior, Chanel, and Balenciaga, you can see they just come very naturally.
The Chanel chapter was particularly lively. Was it the most fun to put together?
It was probably among the hardest because there was so much good material. She’s such a fantastic storyteller. Her one-liners were the best of all! She’s so honest and everything she says is perfectly true and contemporary, even though it can be dated from 1920s or pre- and postwar. She had that very biting personality; she was a tough cookie. Karl Lagerfeld today is very much in that realm as well. He has an incredible knowledge that extends beyond fashion history to history in general. They both have that gift.
Can you share an unexpected discovery or standout anecdote?
I like when McQueen shared the fact that he loved synchronized swimming as a boy. You can just imagine him doing this amid 40 girls, and his mother is probably cringing.
The cover of Couture Confessions. (Photos: Courtesy of Rizzoli Ex Libris)