Season 1, episode 8
The V&A has collected contemporary objects ever since it was founded in the nineteenth century. In this episode, Glenn discusses the importance and challenges of collecting and displaying fashion with Brix Smith Start and Oriole Cullen. Brix has long been established as a fashion icon since she emerged in the 1980s as a member of post-punk band The Fall. Oriole, a curator in the museums fashion and textile department, specialises in contemporary dress. Together, they discuss how the V&A situates the fast-paced world of fashion within the museum context.
GA: Welcome to the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the V&A. In this episode we’ll be talking about curating contemporary fashion at the museum. Once upon a time, the V&A was considered a pretty sleepy place. People used to call us the nation’s attic. In the past twenty years though, we have re-established ourselves as the centre of London’s creative industries. Working with the world of fashion has been a big part of that transformation. Our exhibitions on Vivienne Westwood and Yohji Yamamato, the British Ball gown and Black British style as well as our long running Fashion in Motion catwalk programme, have attracted huge audiences and transformed the public perception of the museum. Here to discuss temporary fashion at the V&A are: Oriole Cullen, one of our specialist curators in this field, and Brix Smith Start who has been a London fashion icon since her days as a member of the British post-punk band ‘The Fall’. It has been said that already in the 1980s, Brix dressed how every girl interested in looking good is dressing now. Today she runs her own fashion boutique brand ‘Start.’ So Brix, let me ask you, why do you think fashion is so popular? Why does it get the attention of the public in the way it does?
BS: Ok. That is such a mega-huge question and there are so many answers to it. Really, it’s like looking at a human body and trying to count the different veins. But for me, I really believe that fashion is a way that you express yourself and that you show your own personality through what you wear. And it’s the first impressions that people see of you and how you express your creativity through the colour, through the shape, through which designers you follow and it just says so much about you. It’s also a very powerful tool that can change the way that you feel about yourself. It can totally change your mood. So, if you have a low day then you put on hot pink and you have a fabulous day!
GA: I’m glad you mentioned creativity because we always say that above all else the V&A is a museum of creativity. I guess you could say that fashion is the one way that everybody in the world gets to, and almost has to be creative, because they have to put something on in the morning.
BS: Well, that’s exactly right. And you can really be whoever you want to be, but the wonderful thing about the V&A is that it’s so historical. They say that nothing is created in a vacuum; it has all been there before. Fashion is never completely new, there is always a seed that has been planted from something that’s gone before starting with the caveman! Really, let’s go back to the beginning. And so what’s wonderful about the V&A is that it houses so many eras of fashion that people take their inspiration from for now. It’s continuing the cycle. It’s like a library, you can always go back for referencing and there are just so many things that you’ve missed before that can be totally now. It’s amazing.
GA: So Oriole, you work in a fashion department with specialists in historic dress but you are one of our specialists in contemporary fashion. So I’ll ask you the same question: Why do you think fashion attracts such a huge interest from our public?
OC: Well I think the same as Brix that really everybody can relate to clothing. On a very basic level, everybody wears clothing. It’s really interesting to observe our visitors in the permanent fashion gallery because it’s a very mixed demographic. I think the lovely thing is to hear what people say when they’re in there, their reactions. Obviously we have people who are fashion students, people who have a real keen interest in the subject. But then there’s often groups who have wondered in, you know - families. It’s lovely to hear their comments because I think everybody feels it’s valid to comment on it because it’s something they all wear and interact with. So whether it’s: ‘oh my goodness, that looks ridiculous’ or ‘wow, who would wear that?’ to people commenting on ‘oh that’s from this collection’ etc. I think it has just a very wide appeal.
GA: What about the flipside? Is it difficult to put fashion in a museum because we think of fashion as something that is worn on the body and obviously the body moves? It’s a way you experience the world. When you put it on a mannequin and it is still, do you lose something?
OC: Absolutely, I think there is that factor that you do lose. Unlike metalwork or ceramic which are much easier to keep in the long term, clothing is finite; threads disintegrate, colours fade. Unfortunately, displaying fashion isn’t the easiest thing to do so there’s a lot to take in to consideration. But with that in mind, quite some time ago in 1999, Clare Wilcox, one of our curators, introduced the fashion in motion programme. That was really to sort of counteract this idea of showing clothing on a still mannequin, to work with contemporary designers, to bring in their contemporary work and to show it on live models in the galleries.
GA: So can you describe what this is like for people who have never been to one of these Fashion in Motion events?
OC: Absolutely. The original idea was to bring in a small number of models. I think the first show was six Philip Treacy hats and two models and the models wore these hats and wandered around the galleries. People were sort of startled by these moving artefacts in a sense. It was very popular. As the programme grew the audiences grew and it became incredibly busy so we couldn’t really have this meandering walk anymore, so it’s now housed in a permanent gallery. It has become quite a big event so we held it in the museums Raphael gallery which is a beautiful cathedral-like space with wonderful Raphael cartoons. We hold a full show. We work with producers who produce London Fashion Week and we invite a designer in to show a collection. We ask them not to show their last collection which people can reference online but something they haven’t done before. So, often they’ll do a retrospective or they might choose a theme from their collections and do it that way. It’s free to the public and they’re just such an eager audience and I think the designers really like that because it’s a celebration of their creativity. They’re not facing critics; they’re not thinking ‘well how will this be received?’ And there’s always a wonderful standing ovation at the end. It’s a good, popular programme for us.
GA: So it’s almost like an industry catwalk show but then it has this quality of being a museum event as well. I suppose the natural question to ask you Brix is what you think as somebody from outside the museum, not a curator,but a keen observer of fashion. What do you think about fashion going in to a museum?
BS: Well I think it’s important to understand that when it is static and on a mannequin you’re losing a dimension because a lot of it is how it moves, how it flows. It’s really quite difficult to get it right. So I think something like the catwalk shows are amazing because it opens it up to people that couldn’t get in to London Fashion Week and can actually see fashion in all its full glory, in all its dimensions. Not just sitting there beautifully under lights but actually living and breathing. I think it’s a wonderful thing because when people go there like you said Oriole, it’s not about critics, it’s not about judging, it’s about embracing this wonderful art and I don’t think there can be enough of it.
GA: That suggests that one thing a museum can do with fashion is make it more democratic and I wonder what you think about that Brix because you’re now running a boutique. You have this past in the music industry and we know that music is a very powerful way of getting fashion ideas out there to the public. What do you think about fashion as an elite versus a kind of pop phenomenon?
BS: I think there are different levels of fashion that people can relate to and music as well. Let’s talk about classical music for instance. That’s quite an elite music that a lot of people can’t relate to or they don’t even know how to begin to figure out what they like or even know what to ask for in a store. Or they’ve just not been introduced to it and they feel intimidated by that. I think in terms of fashion, you get that as well with the high designer and couture. It’s almost out of people’s league and it really shouldn’t be. Nobody should be afraid or intimidated by anything. All of it is like eating the most delicious, fabulous, richest meal. All of it is to be able to be consumed by everybody and should be and will just enrich everyone’s lives. I know that these boundaries exist but it’s a wonderful place, the V&A, because it breaks them down and it makes it accessible for everybody. So it’s no longer intimidating and you will go there and you will see things that you’ve never seen before but you’ll relate to them on some level.
GA: Hmm. So Oriole, how do you feel about that distinction that Brix is making between couture on one hand - this apparently elite phenomenon - and on the other hand, street style - a very accessible conception of fashion.
OC: Yes, I think they’re both very important and they’re both two areas that the V&A does address. But I think actually the reaction of people to seeing something that they wouldn’t normally get to see or get up close to is fantastic. People respond well to that and we get a lot of feedback from our visitors and they enjoy seeing street style. But there is that feeling that ‘well, I can see that, I can buy that, I can wear it but I like to come to the museum to see things that I never normally would have a chance to look at.’ So, there is that, keeping that balance and making sure that you are addressing both sides of things but obviously giving people what they would like to see.
BS: You know the David Bowie exhibition? That was like the most successful exhibition wasn’t it, ever? So that is really interesting to me because it combines music and fashion in such a way. For me David Bowie was around in the time when I was on the cusp of puberty so it was one of the most evocative times of my life and made a massive impression on me. So everything he ever did, everything he ever wore, I was completely influenced by. So when I went to that exhibit and I would see the Aladdin Sane knitwear or the Ashes to Ashes suit, it was incredible to see those up close. It was almost like seeing the man but even better, in a weird way, to see how tiny his waist was and how beautifully these things were put together and how innovative it was. It was just amazing, and I think, yes, fashion and music together is extremely powerful.
GA: And bringing something to you in real life that you’ve only ever seen in a photograph or in a music video.
OC: Absolutely, and I think with clothes more than any other artefact because they’re worn on the body and as Brix says, you can see the size of the waist, you can see if somebody has left make up on the collar. Even for us looking at historic clothing, it’s fantastic; you look inside a regency dress and you can often see the edge of where the sort-of petticoat ended and skin touched the side of the dress, so you can see the imprint of the body almost on the side of the dress. Sometimes there is the smell of perfume from a 1930s dress.
BS: I have a question for you. When you touch these clothes that come in, because you get up close and personal, do you ever feel an energy coming from a different garment from the person that wore it? Do you ever pick it up and just feel something?
OC: I have to say I’ve never had that sort of electricity.
OC: But I do think there is a sense, whether it’s the style of the garment if they come in with accessories, or a lot of the time we do know the provenance of something. But often you can be looking in the archives and you’ll just know that something was from a particular donor because your eye gets accustomed to it. So, it is interesting, people’s different reactions, and I did once work with someone who wouldn’t be alone at night in the store because they felt they were dead people’s clothes. So, I mean that’s an interesting way of looking at it because not everybody has departed. But there’s something that is so personal about clothing and I think there’s so much evidence of the people who have worn the clothes.
BS: Yeah. I mean I find it very difficult when I go shopping for vintage clothes because I can feel the energy of the people who wore it: if it’s a sad piece or a happy piece. Some of the clothes that have come to you have had extreme lives and you know some of the history and I just wondered what it felt like to be around it?
OC: Yeah. I think you do feel very privileged and it is wonderful to spend time with a garment and to look inside it and to look at how it’s finished. There are always clues to how it has been worn, for example, if somebody has customised it. So definitely you do get a sense of that when you’re alone in a quiet space in a store, maybe two of you working on something. There is quite a special thing.
GA: Yeah, because nothing brings that other person in to the room more than their clothes. Much more than a teapot or a chair could ever do.
BS: Because that was their identity. That was what they put out there.
GA: Yeah. So as a collection, it’s not only about designers but also about wearers and that’s very important isn’t it?
OC: Absolutely. I think provenance, you know, the history of the item – who wore it – is very important to us. I think. also, it’s something a lot of our visitors enjoy finding out about. It’s wonderful for us when we know where the person bought the object or the item, why they bought it, where they wore it to. Often there’s a photograph of them in the garment so that’s really wonderful to see. Or often they’re very well known people but we have items that they were never photographed in, for instance, so it gives you another element of their character.
GA: Brix, when you go home and look at your closets. Do you ever think about the fact that some of those pieces of clothing would end up in a museum some day, or could end up in a museum?
BS: Yes, I do. In fact Oriole and I have had this discussion before.
BS: I actually archived a lot of my clothing from my days in The Fall, not all of if sadly, but some of it. So I’ve got some original bodymap pieces, some that were specifically designed for me, I’ve got a Scott Crolla jacket, lots of things that I wore on stage where I’ve got the photograph of wearing them, things I picked up in the flea market and then I’ve got the garment... Antony Price dresses, things like that.
GA: That’s fantastic for us to have the full story.
BS: Yeah. One of my idols is Iris Apfel.
OC: She’s great.
BS: And I only pray that one day I might be able to have a retrospective like hers but I’m not sure. I think there are other people that are even greater collectors and have... I bet you Katie Grand and Katy England, the two Katie’s have, like, an amazing archive.
OC: Well I think it’s interesting; people have become aware of how important their clothing is which is great. In the last twenty years a lot of people are now holding on to their garments and creating an archive like you said Brix, which I think is fantastic because previously, a lot of the time, and a lot of our donors in the past, they sort of gave away incredible amounts of their wardrobe and occasionally donated to the museum and it’s very sad because you can never recapture that. Although, that’s another interesting strand: the idea of a life of a piece of clothing. Currently, in the Club to Catwalk exhibition we have a fantastic dress on display by Willy Brown, a wonderful designer from the 80s. It’s sort of reminiscent of Russian constructivist style. He actually sold that dress for thirty pounds in the 1980s and recently was walking down Brick Lane and saw the same dress on a stall for thirty pounds! So he bought it and very kindly donated it to the museum. I love that sort of... there’s often wonderful stories with pieces of clothing.
GA: It had been out there in the wild.
BS: Yeah. And what did it do and who wore it? What party did they go to and what kind of life did they have? I mean, I find that so fascinating.
BS: Yeah, the fashion food chain. Really.
OC: Yeah, and the chances of the designer walking by and seeing it then on the stall!
GA: Oriole, can I ask you a little bit more about working with designers? I think one question people may have is: how do we choose who to work with? And also whether there are any ethical considerations that arise there, because I suppose there is a fine line between celebrating someone’s creativity, and promoting their business, and we want to definitely be doing the first and not the second. So, how do we kind of draw that line?
OC: I think that’s very important and obviously you could almost sort of say that by celebrating them you are promoting them, but we’re very clear about how we work with designers. So there’s a number of different levels, for instance, we have our big headline shows – our big exhibitions. But we also have events like Fashion in Motion and then we have our evening talks programme which is very popular too. And then we have exhibitions which may feature elements of different designers. So, as you mentioned, David Bowie. There are designers such as Paul Smith and Kansai Yamamoto, so a big range of people featured in there. So it’s really depending on many things. At any one time we are always in conversation with a number of designers. We stay and keep a clear eye on contemporary fashion and we attend fashion weeks and we build up relationships with designers, sometimes through Fashion in Motion. And that will be something that we want to present to our audience first and foremost, an interesting example of contemporary fashion. So that’s where we start. We think about the audience, we think about the V&A and what we want to do and what we know people will enjoy. And so we have a varied programme for Fashion in Motion. So, we might work with a big name designer for one event and then emerging designers for another. The key thing is to keep a varied content. Occasionally we are approached by designers or big companies who say ‘we want to do this’, but we’re not necessarily going to accept that. We would say ‘well, how does this work?’ And if we feel like it’s something that’s commercial or pushing something then we’re not interested because we want to see the cultural value in it. We want to see the creativity. We don’t want to... we’re not really engaging the business side of things. So it’s something that we work very closely on with our colleagues in the museum in our development department. There are lots of rules and regulations that we have to ensure that we present a balanced view. And of course, the key thing is, some designers love the museum and that’s really important. We approach a lot of different designers and some designers don’t love the museum. They don’t know it and they don’t really engage and that’s absolutely fine it’s not relevant to them. But a lot of them do, a lot of them come in to study the collections, a lot of them take inspiration from our collections. So, that’s great. We enjoy working with them and they enjoy working with us.
BS: I saw so many designers at the Club to Catwalk opening, there were so many.
OC: Yeah. We’re very fortunate. I think we do have a lot of support and so we’re very lucky, because when we pick up the telephone and say we’re calling from the V&A, we get very good responses on the whole, which is wonderful. A lot of designers spent their student days studying in the museum or have referenced the archives.
GA: Maybe we could finish by talking about London as a design capital in this industry, because of course, the V&A is sitting here in London and we’re a global museum. But a lot of the designers you’re talking about Oriole, will be right down the street and coming to our galleries very frequently. Brix, what do you think is happening in fashion right at the moment in London? What kind of things are you seeing and how do you think things are changing out there?
BS: Well, I’m not sure I could generalise about exactly what I’m seeing but what I feel is that London has always been a very fertile ground for planting the inspiration seed in fashion. And I think there is a freedom, like, within Saint Martins and all the London fashion schools. There’s just a freedom here that’s just not like Paris, which is very Paris, and not like Milan and certainly not like New York. I think people come here and they’re allowed to express themselves and I think this is where fashion inspiration germinates from. I really do. You know, I get asked this question a lot: Why is London Fashion Week different from all the others? And it’s because of that; there’s this different creative freedom and it may not be as massive as Paris, and it will never be Paris, but this is really where it starts. I’m sure of it and it seems to start here on the street as well, and musically as well. And it all comes together in this one amazing city and there’s just something in the water. You know, there’s some creative energy that brings all of it together. So, I can’t tell you specifically what’s happening because there are so many different offshoots of what is happening. Certainly there are a lot of great designers out there at the moment coming out of London. Obviously, people like Christopher Kane who’s really cracking through now globally: big, big, big. And then Erdem who is just exquisite, who I know has spent one whole summer in the V&A, at least, looking through all the archives and getting inspiration for collections and stuff. You know, there is so much going on here it’s almost too much to say.
GA: So Brix is describing this cutting-edge city and I think we all feel that living here. Oriole, just as a last question: how do you think that a museum of this size and age of the V&A can work with that kind of energy? Because museums are big kind of fraters, moving rather slowly through history and capturing it as it comes along and fashion is so quick. So how does that relationship work?
OC: I think it’s actually quite complimentary. I mean, the interesting thing about the museum is that since it started it was collecting contemporary design and people often don’t realise that, but the museum started in the nineteenth century collecting examples of contemporary design. We are in a position as a museum that we are not predicting the future, so we’re not trying to collect before it has been designed, in a sense. We have a bit of time to sit back and say ‘Ok, that’s important, that’s important.’ But at the same time we are good at reactive collecting too, if there’s a very key moment where something happens, or we feel something is important, we will acquire that too. So, I think it’s important to be informed and just to be aware of what’s happening as much as possible, and to know your subject. Also, to know the collections in the museum because you don’t want to just collect out of the blue, it’s a good idea to sort of collect things that are complimentary. There might be a reason for collecting one outfit from somebody like Christopher Kane, you know, it might be that you’re looking at three outfits from his collection and you’re thinking ‘well, this one ties in very nicely to a nineteenth century dress with very similar detailing.’ So I think it’s keeping aware of a bigger picture and always being ready to strike when you need to. [Laughs]
BS: It’s like merchandising a store really. You have to just think about all the things you already have and how it all fits together but also be on the edge, the cutting edge of what’s happening and ready to go for the winners. You know, do you have winners that you’re backing Oriole?
OC: [Laughs] I do but if I said that from a museum I’d change the course of history!
BS: I know you can’t do that, but I’m just wondering, in your consciousness do you have names that you’re clocking?
OC: Absolutely. [Laughs]
BS: Ok, we’ll talk later!
GA: [Laughs] Ok guys. That’s been a fantastic conversation and a great window into this world. It’s so exciting, both outside the museum, and I suppose from our perspective at the V&A especially, inside the museum. Brix and Oriole, thank you very much. I hope that you’ve enjoyed listening and also hope that you will join us again next time for another episode of the V&A podcast, taking you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
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The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com