For those who like a side of fashion with their culture – or vice versa there’s nowhere in the world like Paris. With 297 museums, far exceeding any other city on the globe, the fashion and culture capital of the world is the number one champion of this rich, illuminating, and sometimes controversial dialogue.
Since the birth of haute couture in the 19th century, the Parisian gaze has appraised a gown, a hat or a shoe with much the same connoisseurship that it regards a work of art. In the world capital of fashion a garment can be a masterpiece in its own right, designed by a creative genius and executed by a legion of artisans under whose skilled hands it comes to life.
Collaborations between artists and fashion houses are now all the rage. But in 1936, when Parisian fashion designer Maria Schiaparelli unveiled her iconic lobster dress, created in collaboration with her friend Salvador Dalí, she rocked the worlds of both fashion and art. In autumn 2022, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) built an entire exhibition around Schiaparelli’s dress and the generative dialogue between her surrealist friends Elsa Triolet, Méret Oppenheim, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau and others.
But the roots of this artful collusion go back much further, to the 17th century when that most fashion-conscious of monarchs Louis XIV tapped finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert to unify Paris’s artisans.
Colbert instituted royal manufactories, such as Sèvres and Gobelins, and organised skilled artisans, from perfumers, embroiderers and jewellers to gilders, muralists and woodworkers, to stimulate the French economy and provide Versailles’s epicurean king and court every possible luxury – along with ample revenues.
Marie Antoinette lavished the guilds with commissions and by the time of the Revolution, nearly a fifth of Paris’s population were artisans and craftspeople, practising some 200 métiers. This savoir-faire went on to be transmitted through generations of Parisians, creating an expertise essential to the capital’s luxury markets of today.
Small hands, big creations
Fast-forward to the 21st century and Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel. A titan in Paris fashion since the 1960s until his death in 2019, Lagerfeld saw the writing on the wall as interest in haute-couture in the late ’90s surged but the know-how designers depended on for the flourishes on their creations dwindled. In the early 2000s, Lagerfeld threw Chanel’s financial might behind a project to save these petites mains, the so-called ‘small hands’ who embroider, sequin, bead, feather, bejewell, paint and otherwise embellish haute-couture pieces. Lagerfeld assembled the workshops of renowned, often 200-plus-year-old houses – Goosens, Lésage, Lemarié, Massaro and others – in a bid to assure their survival.
On January 20, 2022, President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, inaugurated Le 19M, a permanent home for these enterprises in Aubervilliers, on the outskirts of Paris. French architect Rudy Ricciotti designed the striking angular building to accommodate some 600 artisans from 11 houses along with a programme of creative workshops for the public, a café, a boutique and a gallery space whose exhibits underscore the intersection of artisanship and the fine arts. But these are not the only fashion workshops to visit in Paris.
Ateliers and foundations
In 1965, 29-year-old fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s vivid colour-block ‘Mondrian’ mini-dress launched a fashion revolution. Copies popped up everywhere and the dress sparked a new interest in the painter, culminating in Paris’s first Mondrian retrospective 25 years after the artist’s death.
With the backing of investor and art connoisseur Pierre Bergé, his lifetime business partner (and, more briefly, his partner in love), Saint Laurent ushered in an audacious and slightly more accessible new era in Paris fashion. His was the first boutique to pioneer the Rive Gauche, a nod to the artsy habitués of Montparnasse and Saint-Germain’s cafés who were his muses and models. “Yves Saint Laurent was interested in the arts as a whole (cinema, music, visual arts etc.). He himself was a collector, and this set of references, influences and inspirations nourished his repertoire of forms,” says Elsa Janssen, director of the marvellous Musée Yves Saint Laurent, where the designer’s studio is perfectly preserved as if he’d just popped out for a cigarette.
For fashion lovers a pilgrimage to YSL’s 5, Avenue Marceau showroom is a must. The museum mounts eye-popping exhibitions underscoring his legacy and colossal influence on fashion to this day. “The museum’s mission is to make the public rediscover 40 years of creation that have marked the history of fashion,” says Janssen.
Last year’s city-wide exhibition, ‘Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées’, underscored YSL’s influence, installing exquisitely lit pieces from his iconic collections like sculptures in five of Paris’s top art museums, including the Louvre, the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Centre Pompidou, to “build bridges between Yves Saint Laurent and different artistic worlds”.
Who knows where Saint Laurent would have landed had his mentor, Christian Dior, not dropped dead of a heart attack at 52, two years after hiring the wunderkind designer? At 22, Saint Laurent found himself at the helm of an empire so vast and influential it’s hard to imagine, considering the revolving-door creative directors of today. But the designers turned out to be kindred spirits, each revolutionising fashion in his own unique way.
The golden age of couture
In 1928, 23-year-old Christian Dior got his start as an art dealer showing Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Dalí, a personal friend, all the while peddling his fashion sketches to the likes of Schiaparelli, Balenciaga and Nina Ricci. Lucien Lelong finally hired him, launching the fledgling designer’s meteoric career.
Highlighting Dior’s gargantuan impact on fashion, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs’ 2018 blockbuster show, ‘Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve’, demonstrated anew that fashion could deliver the crowds, and the revenues, as well as any master painter. At MAD – and its soul-mate, the Palais Galliera – fashion is treated like any other artistic field, informed by and informing our cultural and artistic trends and norms. Riding on the momentum of this groundbreaking exhibition, in 2021 the Paris headquarters of Christian Dior inaugurated La Galerie Dior in the great couturier’s original showrooms and atelier (also recreated as it was during his lifetime). The dazzling collection features emblematic pieces from Dior’s career, along with those of every designer who has helmed the label in his wake. Stop in at the gallery’s chic café and restaurant or shop till you drop at the flagship boutique, all in the same building.
Paris’ fashion museum par excellence
A five-minute walk from La Galerie Dior on a leafy street in full view of the Eiffel Tower, the stately Palais Galliera is Paris’s bona fide fashion museum, housed in a splendid 19th-century neo-Renaissance palace that reopened in 2013 after a five-year restoration.
Speaking with Art Interview, Miren Arzalluz, the director of the Palais Galliera, was unequivocal about the love affair between art and fashion: “Their relationship is undeniable… A Balenciaga dress from the ’60s is absolutely incredible in terms of volume, abstraction, architecture, sculpture. Some creations go beyond practicality, the commercial aspect, all of these considerations. They are works of art in their own right.”
The Palais Galliera draws from its collection of 200,000 works to mount blockbuster shows that put fashion in its artistic, social and political context: the radical vision of Gabrielle Chanel, who liberated the female form; the convergence of art, identity and fashion in the life and work of artist Frida Kahlo; the explosion of late 20th-century creativity in the ‘1997 Fashion Big Bang’ exhibition, which closed on July 16.
Palais Galliera’s 2013 inaugural show kicked off with the exquisitely draped and detailed works of designer Azzedine Alaïa four years before his death in 2017. Alaïa’s extraordinary creative legacy is lovingly preserved in the designer’s former Marais headquarters.
A hidden gem
A few metro stops from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs on a quiet street in the trendy Marais district, the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa is one of the city’s hidden gems. Set in the late couturier’s skylighted atelier, it mounts brilliant exhibitions dedicated to the master, whose form-fitting creations enhanced the silhouettes of generations of fashion icons from Greta Garbo to Naomi Campbell. Peruse the bookstore, grab a bite at the café indoors, or relax as you muse on the fabulous world of fashion in the leafy courtyard.
PARIS MUSEUMS AND FASHION EXHIBITIONS 2023-24
Paris-bound fashionistas will have plenty to keep them enthralled. These current and upcoming shows further enhance the rich dialogue between fashion and art.
La Mode en Mouvement, Palais Galliera (until September 7, 2025)
Mode et Sport, Musée des Arts Décoratifs (September 20-April 7, 2024)
Iris van Herpen, Musée des Arts Décoratifs (November 23-April 28, 2024)
Yves Saint Laurent-Shapes and Forms, Musée Yves Saint Laurent (until January 14, 2024)
LV Dream: Louis Vuitton, a café, chocolate boutique and gallery all in one, retelling the 160-year history of the historic Parisian luxury house (ongoing).
From France Today Magazine
Lead photo credit : The Palais Galliera’s
showcased dresses by
Gabrielle Chanel ©Jennifer Ladonne
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *