The first fashion show I ever went to was Rodarte FW 2008. Like many of my friends, I could have cried. I did not.
On September 8, on the eighth installment of Crossing the Line, FIAF’s fall festival of interdisciplinary works and performances, I find myself sitting in seat BC16. That’s what was sharpied on my ticket.
4:02 P.M. and the performance has yet to start. Two minutes isn’t too terrible in fashion time.
Harold Koda sits directly behind me as calm and collected as a Poiret in the Met basement. I think many could learn from his detachment.
The lights seem to dim minutely. Sound floats in. One by one women walk out and pose like a phrase repeating itself with stops and caesuras and variable elocutions. The venerable Christine Bergstrom, Axelle Doue, Charlotte Flossaut, Claudia Huidobro, Anne Rohart, Violeta Sanchez, and Amalia Vairelli, seven former models from the ‘80s, enter and sit on the scattered white chairs or floor.
They wear high-necked, long-sleeved black leotards, cut high on the thigh, and in the back, to show off sumptuous pairs of leggy opaque black tights. One leg landing in front of the other in criss-cross: the walk of the runway. Their thin black belts at the waist move up and down, recalling those alignment belts at the ballet barre. Stop, pose, pause.
The women cut sharp figures of measured exactitude against the spartan white backdrop of the cyclorama. Though a few initially wear white button-downs or robes, they eventually slink out of them with expert grace. Co-presented with Milk Studios and MADE Fashion Week, there is no doubt that this is staged, complete with lighting and the sounds of a lilting piano.
As a kind of impressionistic story telling, they re-ghost their experiences putting on, wearing, and walking the runway in couture and ready-to-wear looks through words and gestures. They mime and recount intimate moments at fittings with designers in Paris as if the garments were still here. I count 17 looks in about an hour.
- a Madame Grès
- little white YSL dress with mink coat
- YSL again, the ‘90s, tighter, pink, silver, Saint Laurent says, “What is that? I asked you for Lady Macbeth, not Mae West!”
- photographed by Helmut Newton
- Gaultier, wild, double-breasted jacket, pulls at collar
- Gaultier ‘98, gown, whalebone to floor, effect of a cage, parasol, whalebone, pink satin
- Comme des Garçons, ‘83, no make-up, dark, thick eyebrows, no shoes, black
- Yohji Yamamoto
- Margiela for Hermés, one-piece, fitted sleeves, very thin white blazer
- very narrow pearls, feathering, spiky on the shoulders, gloves, Mugler couture
- Alaïa ‘86
- Christian Lacroix, long skirt, cape, 1980s
- Sonia Rykiel, ‘85, long black sweater, long jacket, wild
- Moschino, black stilettos, red lips, black Stetson, golden claws, black, long loose jersey dress that says “holy chic,” 30th anniversary
- Geoffrey Beene, nicely fitted grey flannel, 3-quarters, green belt, red shoes, layer at knee
- Claude Montana fitting for Lanvin, ‘81, bare body, black tights, very high heels, we’re in front of the mirror and he says to look like the drawing
The body is very tight and controlled. The figure is elongated and shaped to move by shiny black, pointy-toed stilettos. It is withheld with disciplined poise. It is apparent the body is stylized with rigorous severity, leaving to question Saillard’s original intention of leaving the clothes behind towards a “body à la place des vêtements,” or a body in the place of clothes, as he remarks in Vogue.com’s video.
It is impossible to ignore what the women are already wearing and how those clothes mold their movement and identity on stage. It is never possible to leave behind the clothes as Saillard desires in his program notes. We are left to carry their weight and baggage, their visual precision and immediacy. Clothes possess a startling material intimacy to the body and our viewing. It’s to do with how you’re sensing what’s happening at what resembles a fashion show, rather than just what you are looking at.
To write about live performance, one must at the initial surface level write about the event, what transpired in the space over a duration of time. The object of study is subject to the complex inter-related elements of space, body and time. To write about fashion, one usually writes about a material object, whether that is a garment, collection, or a person, perhaps related to an event. What makes fashion news or reviews in the general media is a physical, tangible thing.
Of course, performance muddies all this and often asks you to consider multiple elements and relationships in one space all at once. Perhaps this is plainly obvious or simplistic, but it has yet to be widely written about when it comes to performance and fashion.
Saillard’s Models Never Talk dematerializes the object of one set of clothes and asks us to see them and the people who have historically inhabited them on the runway and in advertising and editorial differently. However, the body’s histories and associations with the physicality of clothes cannot be neutralized, especially in the context of Milk Studios, a well-known photography studio where editorials are often shot, and the middle of fashion week. So while we may not have the YSL Le Smoking suit Amalia Vairelli gestured before us, we do have the uniform that Saillard has presumably chosen for the performance. Not only does the performance call for dealing with these clothes in addition to those narrativized for us, but also the situations they create, perceptual or emotional.
How can we let ourselves be moved by the material absence of clothing, while in the presence of other garments? How do we let the people themselves move us?
Not new in art history, what happens when you use non-performers in a performance? More specifically, what happens when you ask former models to re-assume their social performative choreography of posing, pouting, and other gendered behavior on the runway? Their monologues were prized, humorous and stirring, even if somewhat stilted in delivery so that some moments came across as forced. I would guess this is symptomatic of being unaccustomed to group choreographies of gestures more dramatized than usual in fashion. See at the 1:00 min mark:
Is Saillard’s Models Never Talk performance art or a re-framing of performative behavior and social choreography in fashion? I am too hesitant to become loose with terms for glamour.
Even fashion media does not know what to quite make of it. Style.com calls it Saillard’s “latest theatric endeavor,” while fashion journalist Robin Givhan for the Washington Post calls it “a stage presentation” and a “unique show, which was part personal monologue and part performance art.” Wallpaper Magazine names it “a performance art piece,” and AnOther Magazine says it’s, “the latest performance piece curated by” Saillard. Recognizing this slipperiness, Matthew Schneier, Style reporter for the New York Times, describes Saillard as having originated another one of his “fashion performance pieces, a genre he has most likely created.”
The Wall Street Journal sent their dance writer who called Saillard a “‘performance maker’” creating a “specially theatricalized and somewhat skewed take on couture’s défilé.”
In an ever-growing performance saturated climate, it is tempting to call everything performance art. And, as one writer put it in T Magazine earlier this year, “‘performance artists’ are less common than ‘artists who work in performance.’” If indeed Saillard has developed a new genre, I would like to know under what tenets or perhaps what those could play out to be.
As fresh as it is to hear these women’s perspectives previously unknown to a larger public, it does not elude critical discussion beyond preference and the allure of bright lights and iconic status in fashion. Also, I am ambivalent to presume that they are breaking their traditional silence through this performance as is suggested by Saillard’s program notes, at the direction of a male fashion historian and curator, albeit a highly well-informed one.
It is true that former model Bergstrom has described the process of the piece as nostalgic and almost therapeutic, according to Schneier at the Times. And yes, the very nature of photography and runway does not allow for models to have an audible voice as Saillard notes in the program. No, these former models did not have social media campaigns as many of today’s models do, as Givhan points out in the Washington Post. But, haven’t they always been talking?
To claim that the female model has been “denied a voice” as Saillard does here is to solely and squarely position oneself from a privileged place of looking that has not heard her. Furthermore, it is to continue on-looking as an imagined collective witness audience that would only re-establish stereotypes and hegemonic relations rampant in the fashion system at large. To propose that Models Never Talk is giving models agency that they did not previously have beforehand may be a misplaced sentiment, or a radical critique of the fashion industry bundled in romantic idealism.
Perhaps, what could just begin to open up further thinking is this quotation from designer Moschino in the ‘80s and early ‘90s: “Fashion is gone, all that is left are the people and the clothes… I’m interested in the social, psychological, geographical, and spiritual implications of our way of appearing. Clothes should be screens on which we project our spirit. We all need love, tenderness, simple things. The smallest, stupidest fabric dolls offer us the intimate sensation of existing.’”
If clothes are the screens onto which we project our spirit as Moschino suggests, Saillard could be seen as reaching for a liberation of sentiment put into the clothes, while still trying to allow the sentiment to enter in from another place.
Towards the end of the performance, the former models walked out with previous editorial shots of themselves. They placed them on the ground. They assumed their previous poses in the images. Never was it so palpable in the room the impossibility of re-assuming the purported reality of the images and the gorgeous passing of time.
These computer print-outs were left on the ground after the performance. They fittingly appear here from the eye of the audience. I am sure they were re-collected for the next 7:00 pm showing, but I wonder if they were deposited in the trash afterwards without a second thought, or with care.