One by one, the women strut on stage. First Violeta Sanchez, then Amalia Vairelli, followed by the rest of the supermodel septet: Christine Bergstrom, Axelle Doue, Charlotte Flossaut, Claudia Huidobro, Anne Rohart.
There’s something larger than life about these women. And it’s not just the fact that they’re gorgeous, in immaculate makeup and hairdos, clad in white smocks, all-black long-sleeved leotards and tights on their impossibly long legs, haughty as queens with a swagger in their hips, blood-red lipstick and endlessly tall stiletto heels.
It’s also the fact that they’re visibly older—they’re in their fifties, I think. These ladies were the darlings of the Paris, Milan and New York catwalks all the way back in the 1980s.
They seat themselves on one of the five clear plastic chairs, stand elegantly alongside or recline on the floor. Then they advance and they begin describing the dresses they wore.
Christine Bergstrom and Axelle Doue
Axelle starts in French, with a memory of an Yves St Laurent tuxedo and mink coat, while Violeta translates into English. Violeta has her own story of the designer herself: how she asked for an evening gown to be made tighter, sexier, and paraded it in front of him before he barked, “I asked for Lady Macbeth, not Mae West!”
But mostly it’s descriptions rather than stories. Endless details of capes and corsets and collars, tassels and sleeves and hems, by Jean-Paul Gautier, Comme des Garçons, Moschino. These are mimed, sometimes in tandem, showing us the lines and the cuttings of invisible couture; a whole movement sequence may begin, as Claudia kicks off her heels, remembering a boyish look she did in 1983, and others follow suit, marching across the floor in their stockinged feet.
It’s almost dance as much as it is theatre—amazing music by MODE-F, Laurent Ballot, Alexander Maxwell, btw—recalling the ritual movements of the catwalk and the fashion shoot. But there’s an aura about these women, every individual one, that goes beyond the conventional label of diva that we attach to actresses and dancers.
Instead, I keep thinking of them as priestesses. Maybe it’s because they’re speaking so reverently about fashion, a realm of the arts that I know so little of. It’s like an esoteric religion.
But in a way, it’s also because they’re not positioned to represent only themselves, or at least, not themselves as they are now. They’re principally embodying the genius of acclaimed designers of the ‘80s—mostly dead white men, come to think of it—and also of themselves as they were in their youth. There’s a bit at the end when they lay iconic photos of themselves from their heyday, lay them on the floor, and fix themselves into those poses, becoming a tableau vivant of glamour, a living frieze of Aphrodite’s avatars, as they lights go down.
And there’s a bit of me that’s mad at that. Why are these fleshly goddesses using their power to support what’s essentially a patriarchal institution? A world of male creators and virginal female objects of beauty. Why aren’t they describing their lives beyond their twenties, or demanding for our unreasonable standards of aesthetics to change, so that their generation can return to the catwalks?
They just describe dresses. Well, okay, they don’t *just* describe the dresses: by simply being on stage, they embody the charisma and sexuality that is still present in older women.
But they don’t talk about the implications of this, how the world should change to accommodate them. In a way it’s true: the models never speak.
Lucky for me, I attended on Friday night, when there was a Q&A with the cast to set me straight.
Violeta: This is a choral work… it’s a work we did together. Olivier throws an idea or a wish, and then pushes us in a direction or keeps us from another, and keeps what he thinks is interesting in agreement with us.
Violeta’s been collaborating with director and fashion historian Olivier Saillard for years, and she revealed that this work has been ten years in the making, with various performances representing his forays, playing with the themes of the production… although it took a ten-day residency before it was decided that the models might be permitted to actually speak.
Christine: When we started working together we were all sitting together like this, and he said, “This will be showing among the shows in New York [Fashion Week]. And we will arrive with our suitcases empty but full of memories.”
The thing is, these aren’t generic memories that Saillard’s extracting. They’re records of a vanished era: the period of intense innovation and artistry that was 1980s Paris, when YSL and Gautier weren’t just making remarkable work (Japanese influences! No makeup looks!)—they were also inspired by specific models.
So these women weren’t just mannequins: they were muses.
Charlotte: At the time it was more a conversation between our clothes and our personalities. The clothes were also constructed by us. And we had to wear shoes by the designers. It was closely related. And today, there’s no relationship between the creation and the interpretation of the model, which I think we all regret…
Models used to talk [in] the years before, because they were listened to. Today, nobody cares who she is, whether she would buy the clothes she wears.
Everyone had stories about their relationships with designers.
Amalia: Even when we were creating a collection with Yves Saint Laurent, when he had a doubt he would ask to try it on me. And if it was not good on me, it was not good. But most of the time... (winks)
Anne: They will ask your advice, and their relationship builds up little by little. Basically it went all through years like that and we all enjoyed it, I’m sure. It was just very pleasant for both sides… If for one season you couldn’t be there for some reason or another, they suffered. They told you, “Why weren’t you here last season?”
Claudia: One season I was pregnant and the whole team of Comme des Garçons didn’t want me in the show, and she wanted me in the show. And the same with Jean-Paul Gautier. I did a show pregnant, twice!
Christine: Not the same baby.
Claudia: And not the same father! You can’t do the same thing today.
Claudia Huidobro and Charlotte Flossaut
Anne: And we don’t know how it ended. Suddenly everybody got tired one day.
Saillard is in fact using these stories of the 1980s to castigate fashion culture of today—a throwaway culture where there’s overproduction and oversaturation of the market: six collections a year, nonstop: dilution of genius.
Which means that hardly any of today’s models get to be muses.
Violeta: We’ve developed friendships, because we had careers that lasted 10 or 15 years. The younger generation is so busy trying to stay alive in the business, they’re like butterflies: they last maybe three seasons, four seasons, next. I’m not sure they grasp what went on at the time and what’s left of it, because today it’s totally corporate. Models were individuals, designers were individuals—today, it’s big corporations.
The girls of today end up doing catwalks like lifeless robots. And they’re identical, all with no hips, no arms, no nothing.
Violeta: When we did it [this show] at the V&A there was a very nice guard, and this guy said to us, “You know, I’ve been here for ten years and I’ve never seen anything like you.”
That’s the difference between now and 30 years ago. Girls were required to have personalities, different personalities, shapes, colours…
Amalia: Thank you!
But it wasn’t just the looks of women that designers were drawn to. Ong Keng Sen noted that what we’d seen on stage was a real display of discipline and talent.
OKS: I think it’s also interesting to see as a theatre director how much you were actresses in a very subtle way.
Violeta: I remember one designer: ten seconds before a model went on stage, he would say, “Give me a Tina Turner,” and she would do a Tina Turner on the stage. It was normal. Some girls had no talent but you had to improve, and the shows were really shows…
Clearly, audience members were wowed as well.
Audience Member: I wonder how you prepare to perform this. I can’t imagine as someone without your memories… I’m wondering how you prepare to do your show, how you come out, because you were so present the whole time?
Violeta: Hair, makeup and champagne.
Violeta: None of us here decided to be models. We were all picked up in a place or another. But we have the je ne sais quoi. And that je ne sais quoi is what we show here. We have cues, certain lines, but all the rest we can do in our sleep. It’s true we were rushing from one place or another, we had do our hair and makeup, but then, it had to look effortless. It was the same time the work, but it never showed.
We all have been doing this twenty years ago. The preparation in a way is ingrained. They have never left us. That’s why hair, champagne and makeup are enough.
Of course, during the Q&A, I had to speak up, specifically regarding a remark Violeta had made earlier:
Violeta: We are sort of museum pieces. We are history, but very well preserved.
And I demanded of them why, when they were such magnificent beauties, why they had dwelt exclusively on the past and not spared a word in the show for their futures. Did they not want the potential of the fashion world to focus on older women? They were still models—didn’t they want to return to Milan?
Their answers surprised me. First, they pointed out that they had spent the last few decades doing jobs other than modeling, and they had been quite happy with that (although this reunion was extremely heartwarming).
And then Christine denied that what we were seeing was the women’s genuine fifty-something selves:
Christine: I think it’s the first time you’ve seen anyone replaying themselves when they were twenty. I don’t think you have a film of Bridget Bardot playing herself when she was twenty.
Meanwhile, Keng Sen thought that kind of didactic activism would have been crude and unbecoming: sheer voyeurism, he says. Having luxuriated in the mimed display of kimonos and capes, he read the show not as one obsessed with history, but one which presented a radical proposal for the future of fashion.
OKS: It’s a seed. The potential is there, the whole sense of a constant renewal. And we go almost in the future. It’s a very futuristic show for me in many ways, because one day you might have fashion with no clothes.
You can be whatever you want to be at a fantastic boutique, and you walk out with no dress… and the future where maybe it’s all in words, a kind of confidence you get, a kind of therapy… You walk out of a shop empty-handed, but with a sense of “I’m going to wear this dress tomorrow.”
… Um, sure. I kind of suspect his interpretation of the show is addled by the fact that he first watched it entirely in unsubtitled French.
But he’s not completely off. There are no clothes, the models proudly remind us. This is a history of fashion without the fashion; an archive without artefacts; a parade of phantom fabrics on living flesh.
In other words, the empress has no clothes. Yet she remains an empress.
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. As long as she gets her hair, champagne and makeup.