Exclusive Interview: Pamela Golbin

Between Haider Ackermann and Comme des Garçons’s Autumn/Winter ’16 presentations in Paris, I meet with Pamela Golbin, Chief Curator of Musée De La Mode et du Textiles, at La Belle Epoque on rue des Petits Champs. One of Pamela's favorite Paris venues, the restaurant lives up to its name, and is full of old-world charm.

Le Musée De La Mode et du Textiles is located in the Palais du Louvre in Paris, making Pamela the custodian of one of the most significant and extensive collections of fashion in the world. She has personally staged the most important exhibitions on the work of iconic houses and designers such as Madeleine Vionnet,  Balenciaga, Valentino, Dries Van Noten and Marc Jacobs, some of which have attracted several hundreds of thousands of visitors. We sat down with the impossibly elegant Franco-Chilean curator to talk about her illustrious career and the state of the industry today.

AM: You’ve held the position for 23 years. How did it feel getting the position so young?

PG: I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The truth is that I came to Paris because I had the opportunity and thought I would stay here for a year or two and then go back to New York. What better city to work in? And it’s been 23 years and I still think that, ‘oh I’m just going to go back to New York’…

AM: How did it all begin? You’ve said that grandmother, who lived in Paris and was a haute couture client, influenced you?

PG: Well funnily enough it was her birthday yesterday and she was 103, but she just passed away. She had an amazing life. I think in general, the women in my family are very, very strong women and she was one of these. For most women in the 20s and 30s, there weren’t many options. Either you could go to a couture house, go to your local seamstress or you sewed yourself. So it’s not like today when couture is really exceptional, but she was lucky enough to be one of the clients.

I had always spent part of my year here in Paris when I was in my late teens she said “I think it’s time that you started working”. She was able to get me an internship at Yves Saint Laurent, and for technical reasons it didn’t work out, so the house proposed an internship at the museum where I am now. I was 19 and an art historian by training. I went to Columbia University, and my speciality was first WW2 abstract expressionist art, so nothing to do with fashion. But while I studied I was an apprentice at the Met and had a position at the Costume Institute so by the time I finished university, I knew two of the most important collections in the world. So I was then made one of the youngest curators in France.

Madeleine Vionnet, Puriste De La Mode, 2009 / Photo: Luc Boegly

Madeleine Vionnet, Puriste De La Mode, 2009 / Photo: Luc Boegly

AM: How does the process begin?
PG: I go to the designer’s studio and I try not to have any preconceived ideas and to research as little as possible on the designer and his background, because it’s about a dialogue and a conversation, especially the first conversation when you're just getting to know each other. You don’t want to taint it with another story. So I don’t say to myself it’s probably going to be like this, I don’t anticipate, I don’t second-guess. And I’m always very grateful that they let me in because designers are fragile.

AM: All kinds of people come and visit the exhibitions including fashion insiders and people who don’t know much about fashion. How do you feel that fashion is perceived by the wider public?

PG: You know, we have such a diverse group of visitors. For a successful exhibition we have to really address all the visitors so that they all feel comfortable and welcomed. So my job is how to seamlessly bring all the information so that each visitor can get what he or she needs or wants to know. Some just want to see beautiful things, others want to understand how those things are made, others are there because they want to see detailing, others want history, so we have to provide as much information so that everybody can get what they came to see.

AM: You put Nicolas Ghesquière’s work alongside Cristobal’s for the Balenciaga exhibition, and that was something not typically done. What was the public reaction to that?

PG: That’s a great question. Ever since I’ve been working here our focus has been about prospection rather than introspection, but the idea has always been to place it within a contemporary context. So when I did the Cristobal Balenciaga exhibition for me it was really important to have Nicolas participate because if we were speaking about Balenciaga again, it was because of the work he was doing for the house and for me it was very important to get this perspective. From the outset, it wasn’t that easy because he wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to be put side by side. After many conversations, he had no qualms about it, and it was a wonderful moment of understanding, or bringing together, or questioning what is a fashion house today that was founded by one person and has an artistic director that has a very different vision 30 years later. What does that mean? And so I had a lot of praise for that show. I also had a lot of people also who were like, why is Nicolas in this show? He shouldn’t be in this show. It should only be about Cristobal. After the show he was able to appropriate the archival materials and he did a collection that paid tribute to that and it allowed him to move forward, so I think that on many levels whether it be on the public level, for our visitors, or on a professional level, curatorial level and also on a very personal level between what a museum can do and what it can bring to a designer. It really allowed things to move forward so we’re not about just encapsulating the past but really helping create the future.

Balenciaga at Musée De La Mode et du Textiles, 2006-2007 / Photo: Luc Boegly

Balenciaga at Musée De La Mode et du Textiles, 2006-2007 / Photo: Luc Boegly

AM: Can you tell me of a time you felt stuck or you had significant a challenge?
 Everyday! Everyday I’m stuck. You have to be really creative to find a new solution and a new way of working through things. I really enjoy problem-solving and so I look at things and try to find a solution, and so the hardest part of it is to be, to look at it from a different angle, to step aside and see the problem in a different light and maybe find a different solution. Everyday is a challenge, which is I think good because that way you don’t get bored.

AM: What’s the best thing about your position?
 What’s really exciting is that I have always been able to create my job and each project has opened up new horizons. Fashion now  has such a wide spectrum that you really reach out to many different fields and collaborate with them. For me, the most accomplished projects are the collaborations, with designers, but also with creative people or with companies. That’s the most exciting part of my job. To create something new together.

AM: Do you have any comment on the current state of the fashion industry? Do you agree with the sentiment that it’s somehow broken, and that designers are struggling to keep up?
 It’s funny because I’m coming out with a book with Rizzoli called ‘Couture Confessions: Fashion Legends in Their Own Words’ and the most striking part of the project was the fact that all of them talk about the same cyclical problems. So even Paul Poiret in 1910 is quoted as saying “I don’t have enough time to design…I have to do so many processes for so many clients” and everything about the buyers coming too early or too late. All of these existed or have existed for 100 years. And I thought it was fantastic because although there’s this idea of evolution, the issues are still the same.

"The actual issues are the same, which I guess corroborates with the idea that humans are always in the same situations." 

AM: That’s funny, because most appropriate the issue to technology and social media.
 It’s always been there. Maybe what’s changed is the question of scale and the question of time and geography, but otherwise the actual issues are the same which I guess corroborates with the idea that humans are always in the same situations. There’s no doubt about it, we’re in a major transitional period, for many reasons. Whether it has to do with production or distribution, all are issues that need to be addressed because of the scale of things today and who knows what will be the answer? I think what has changed is that there’s many answers and not just one answer. That gives a lot more possibilities. What will work, what won’t, we’ll never know. That’s the eternal question. That’s what’s fantastic about fashion. As soon as you’re sure of something, it can happen very differently, so it keep you deftly on your toes.

Fashion Forward, 3 Centuries of Fashion: Comme des Garçons Spring/Summer 2015 / Photo: Jean Tholance

Fashion Forward, 3 Centuries of Fashion: Comme des Garçons Spring/Summer 2015 / Photo: Jean Tholance

AM: Tell me about the your latest exhibition, Fashion Forward, in which you collaborated with the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
 It began on April 6th and also in the 30th year anniversary of the fashion collection at the Decorative Arts, and so for the first time we’re doing a straightforward chronological survey of fashion from the 18th century to today. It covers 300 years of fashion for men, women and children. I actually invited Christopher, the choreographer and dancer, to collaborate on this project because one of the things that for me has always been frustrating and I haven’t really found a great solution to, is exhibiting fashion on static mannequins. Fashion should move and so what better way to address that issue than to work with a choreographer, and Christopher Wheeldon at that, who is a master of working with people.

"What’s incredible is that you have those magical moments when everything comes together and you say to yourself "this is why I’m here."

Reflecting upon her fascinating career, which has been based in the world's foremost fashion capital, I ask Pamela about her favorite 'fashion moments'. "What’s incredible is that you have those magical moments when everything comes together and you say to yourself "this is why I’m here". And then it takes a while until you get that next magical moment, and you just never know when it’s going to come, but I think that’s the strength of the fashion industry."

Considering her lauded, forward-thinking exhibitions, and thorough, insightful fashion history books, one expects many more magical moments from Ms Golbin.

FASHION FORWARD, 3 SIÈCLES DE MODE (1715-2016) is on now at Les Arts Decoratifs until August 14. Visit here for more details.