If you've ever wandered through a major exhibition of an important designer's work, chances are that Florence Müller curated it. Or wrote the book on it. Or both. As one of the world's leading fashion historians, Müller grew up in Paris visiting museums and earning degrees in art history before focusing on fashion. She is the former director and curator of the Union Française des Arts du Costume in the Louvre, and has extensive experience with museums and collections – not just in France. She has also worked as an independent curator on dozens of books and more than 100 exhibitions around the world, ranging from Chanel, Piaget and Lancel to Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. In 2015, Müller moved from France to Colorado, where she is now the Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Curator of Fashion at the Denver Art Museum.
Recently, Müller co-curated the hit Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve exhibition in Paris that celebrated the historic house's 70th anniversary. She visited Toronto in February as a guest of the Royal Ontario Museum and senior fashion costume curator Dr. Alexandra Palmer. Ahead of delivering the closing keynote to the ROM's current Christian Dior exhibition, Müller spoke with The Globe about the state of fashion's place in the museum and in the world.
You have done a number of exhibition iterations on Christian Dior, from Couturier du Rêve to Impressions Dior. How do you start with your themes? Is there a brief from the institution or the brand?
No, I'm always dreaming in my head about what the best way is to reveal one couturier, and I always try to show several things. First of all, what is specific to this couturier? What he has brought to the history of fashion – the new path – because everything I have done is always about very strong designers who have a prominent place in history. The other thing is beauty – to seduce the visitor with the beauty of fashion, and then teaching them information.
When you started in the 1980s, aside from the Met's Costume Institute, few understood fashion was a legitimate subject for an institution. Now, there are material culture studies, and fashion-based museum shows are popular. How has the attitude changed?
It was very difficult in the 1980s: Fashion was seen as advertising. And in a museum? It was almost impossible to show a living designer. When Diana Vreeland did the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Met, the first one, it was a scandal. She was famous enough to have the power to do it, but when we had the exhibition [in Paris] it was still questionable to have a "fashion brand" in the [Louvre] Museum. When we did the first exhibition on Christian Dior in 1987 – in Art Décoratifs while I was a curator there – it was just on Christian Dior, it was still too risky to speak about his successors like Marc Bohan, who was at that time the artistic director.
Christian Dior seems like a good example to compare how much has changed: In Dior's first decade, he produced 22 collections in 10 years. That's not nothing, it's still about 150 designs in a couture collection, twice a year – but it seems less than the four-seasons-a-year output expected today. What do you think of fashion's current speed, metabolism and churn?
I think [designers] are used as sponges, very often washed by the system. It's, of course, too demanding and it's not by accident that you have so many stories that end very badly, in all sorts of ways. Not to mention Alexander McQueen, which is the most dramatic story that ended, I think, because he was so under pressure. I'm not sure if it's a very good system. Of course, that's linked with competition. It's linked with the new technology, the fact we have all this constant demand of new things that last for one second. I'm not sure it's all a good idea. In fashion, you have to reinvent yourself all the time. It's really very difficult. It's also why it's so extraordinary and why I'm still so fascinated by these people who are treated very often so badly, and not recognized for this enormous amount of creativity they have.
In this Dior and other recent exhibitions you have curated, the original owners and donors of the artifacts are being brought into the frame via oral histories of the garments. What's that about?
I like this so much! It's a new phenomenon. I think, from a personal point of view, I had the desire to speak the story of women who wear the dresses, the way I do myself. It's linked with the fact that we can take photos of ourselves endlessly, because it has no cost with our phones, we can have this dialogue with ourselves endlessly. Suddenly, you understand and want to show that fashion is a way to tell the world who you are. Or how you want to be seen. Fashion is helping yourself to build your own novel, your own storytelling. And of course there is another component: On a historical scale, it's that designers are making these creations, and women, in the way they are wearing them, are themselves making the real history of fashion.
Your upcoming exhibition in Denver, Drawn to Glamour, showcases fashion illustration work from the 1950s, its last major heyday before photography really took hold. Do you think it has a chance of revival?
Today it's not used as it was then; [illustrator] Jim Howard made a living very easily through department stores and advertising. But there are many who want to bring it back today, and among fashion students and young trendy people, illustration is fascinating. It's a way of bringing a more artistic component into the fashion image. Fashion photography has become perhaps too much, too well known, a little bit boring. Anyone can take a photo. And you have many photographers that look the same, less expressive of someone's artistic identity. Illustration can be more narrative than fashion photography. I could see a comeback.
Part of your role as curator now is building and expanding Denver's costume and fashion holdings. With interest in fashion artifacts arguably at its height both from institutions and private collectors, is securing and acquiring important pieces more challenging than it once was?
Yes, it is! But I was able to find some very good examples of fashion creations [such as Ralph Rucci]. I try to concentrate the acquisitions on what is still not too difficult to acquire … especially the designers of the eighties and nineties.
Historic houses and brands not only maintain their own archives but in some cases, as with the two new museums the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent opened last fall, they now also have their own in-house permanent exhibition spaces. Do you think this poses a problem for curators working on future independent and multidesigner institutional exhibitions?
On the contrary, I think it creates more opportunities for independent curators. And it emphasizes that fashion is a powerful subject, not a secondary subject. As you have museums on Dali or Picasso, you have museum on YSL or Dior. I could even say that it was really strange that Paris, the historical capital of fashion, [previously] had not one museum devoted to a couturier.
Christian Dior continues at the Royal Ontario Museum until April 8. For more information, visit rom.on.ca.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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