Fashion is ubiquitous, readily found in stores and in a dizzying amount of imagery in the media. But for a true understanding of its impact, look to museums such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for context. Nathalie Bondil, its director and chief curator since 2007, produces innovative and arresting fashion programming, including the first retrospectives on Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier. The latter is currently on a world tour with stops in more than 10 cities.
Born in France, Bondil is a passionate art historian who pushes the public to see art and culture in intriguing and socially relevant ways. And she does it with a striking sense of Quebecois style: At the 52nd annual Museum Ball recently, Bondil looked radiant in a stunning black ensemble by Denis Gagnon. With the acclaimed exhibit Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Impressionism to Expressionism currently on display and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier slated to open at the Grand Palais in Paris next April, Bondil is on a roll. I asked the 47-year-old curator about the allure of fashion exhibits, artistry in design and supporting homegrown talent.
Why do fashion exhibitions resonate with the public at this particular time?
Simply because our daily lives are filled with fashion. As our present-oriented “fashion society” has sped up with free markets, hedonistic consumption and narcissistic individualism (unlike older, traditional societies that were attached to the past), fashion has become more important than ever, promoted by unprecedented media coverage. It has become normal for the public to want access to the objects of their fantasies. Nevertheless, high fashion is totally inaccessible. Our Gaultier exhibition has so far attracted over one million visitors! It is an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of fashion exhibitions.
Many women revere the “French” approach to style, a kind of elegant ease and simplicity. Is that something you’re conscious of in your daily life?
For me, this is a very funny question, because I don’t pay much attention to what I’m wearing ordinarily. I’m a fan of comfort at home – until I begin my daily “Cinderella act,” as I call it, for my professional life. In all aspects of my profession, ugliness upsets me. I spend a lot of time looking at artworks, of course, but also at the significance of our graphic and design choices. But taste remains subjective: to each their own good – and bad – taste!
You have a great sense of style. Are there many Quebec labels in your wardrobe?
Yes, so that we can keep our jobs and skills here – I believe we vote with out wallets. I pay close attention to where purchases come from; buying local is being responsible. And if someone with my job and my income doesn’t do it, who will? Marie Saint Pierre, Denis Gagnon, Kanuk, Harricana are a few [I like].
The museum paid tribute to Denis Gagnon with a retrospective a few years ago. What do you love about him?
It’s true that I am very fond of Denis, the consistency of his aesthetics, the persistence of his work. He has also managed to adapt to the demands of the market with intelligence by offering affordable though uncompromised clothing. In his studio-boutique, I recently noticed a lot of young Japanese people buying his designs.
Is there a different sense of style in Quebec compared to the rest of Canada?
Despite the world invasion of brands and the local challenge of Quebec winters, which make us all look like bags of potatoes, there is indeed a bubbling creativity [in Quebec], even during hard economic times and particularly in Montreal, where it’s in the DNA. This cosmopolitan city has a personality that is cheeky and rebellious, young and festive, remarkable.
The museum also presented an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective in 2008. Why was it important for you to do that show?
This was the first time ever that a retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent’s work had been done. He passed away just a few days after the exhibition opened in Montreal. During those final days, [Saint Laurent’s professional and romantic partner] Pierre Bergé came to collect his thoughts on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. It was very touching. This fashion exhibition, the first one I’d ever organized, revealed all the incredible beauty and exceptional talents of Saint Laurent’s designers and craftspeople, the materials he worked with and his techniques. Working in the archives of the Maison Yves Saint Laurent, I was stunned by the visual experience of high fashion. No fashion illustration, not even by the best photographers, can replace the actual sensual encounter with these unique works. I was physically convinced of their worth as subjects of a museum exhibition.
Many people argue that fashion is not really an art. What makes a designer a true artist in your mind?
A painting by Picasso or Van Gogh is much more accessible than a high-fashion piece of clothing. High fashion remains inaccessible because it is always unique, extremely fragile, always held privately or in museum storage areas. Who can attend a high-fashion show? I would go so far as to say that it’s not possible to fully appreciate the creations as they pass before our eyes on the backs of models. Each design, which has sometimes required thousands of hours of work, can be glimpsed for no more than a few minutes. Fashion designers of this calibre are exceptional. Of course, some fashion designers are more creative than others. But the same can be said of painters or sculptors – or filmmakers or cooks, whoever. A great artist’s imagination cannot be reduced to the tools they use. Pierre Bergé said, “I don’t know whether fashion is an art, but it takes an artist to create it.