Highly learned and ever curious about their area of expertise, the best curators are usually multitalented individuals, ceaselessly seeking to enlighten us in the most captivating manner possible. Until recently, though, making the dead speak had not been considered part of their skill set.  

Things change. With Couture Confessions: Fashion Legends in Their Own Words (Rizzoli), Pamela Golbin – the acclaimed chief curator of 20th-century collections, fashion and textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris – has managed to make eleven late designers talk, perhaps more cogently than they did during their lifetimes.  

How? By sifting through a vast variety of archival sources pertaining to 20th-century fashion titans, extracting what they had said or written about a wide array of couture-related topics, turning these snippets into “quotes” in response to her carefuly crafted “questions,” and then deftly weaving these together. As a group, these “improbable interviews,” as Golbin calls them, form a fascinating chronological oral history of 20th-century fashion, beginning with Paul Poiret and ending with Alexander McQueen. In between are Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Madame Grès, Pierre Balmain and Yves Saint Laurent. A feat of research and editing, Couture Confessions is a truly remarkable achievement. 


A DETAIL FROM DRIES VAN NOTEN – INSPIRATIONS, FROM 2014. PHOTOGRAPHS BY LUC BOEGLY.

To put the volume together, Golbin drew on her academic training as well as her cosmopolitan background. Born in Lima to a Peruvian mother and a French father, she was raised between Buenos Aires, Miami and Paris, moving to New York City to study art history at Columbia University, where her thesis was on Abstract Expressionism. “It was far from fashion,” she recalls during a recent chat over lunch in New York.  

But with a grandmother who had been a haute couture client from the 1930s onward and a mother she describes as “a very proactive consumer of fashion,” style was in Golbin’s genes. A summer internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York led to another one at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. “I’d always felt comfortable in museums – they were our playgrounds growing up,” she says. “But fashion chose me.”  

In 1993, at age 23, she landed a full-time job at the Arts Décoratifs, making her the youngest curator in France at the time. “I thought to myself that I would stay a year or two,” Golbin recalls. “More than twenty years later, here I am!” In that span of time, she has curated more than 30 exhibitions and authored just as many catalogues and books on such iconic fashion legends as Vionnet, Balenciaga, Valentino and Marc Jacobs.  

It was her work on the 2009 Vionnet show – the first Parisian retrospective ever of this seminal figure – that led to Golbin’s new book, which features drawings by renowned illustrator Yann Legendre and an introductory conversation between Golbin and Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European editor-at-large.  

“Vionnet had given her entire personal archive to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. It was her whole life – every press clipping published on her, everything she had to say,” the curator explains. As she started to piece together Vionnet’s thoughts, Golbin came up with the idea of stitching together a posthumous Q&A with the couturière – an improbable interview, using Vionnet’s words as they had appeared in print during her lifetime. “The quotes were all hers; nothing was made up. Her voice was so compelling,” she recalls. “Instead of interpreting what she had to say, I let her speak directly to the readers.” 


AN INSTALLATION IN GOLBIN’S CURRENT MUSÉE DES ARTS DÉCORATIFS EXHIBITION, FASHION FORWARD: 3 SIÈCLES DE MODE (1715–2016).

Published in the exhibition catalogue, this “interview” with Vionnet was so successful that many assumed Golbin had met the designer, who had in fact died in 1975. “Readers felt a real connection to her,” she says. “I received letters addressed to her from people who thought she must still be alive.” Realising that this posthumous compilation of archival material was an alluring format, the enterprising curator thought to replicate it with other designers.  

After coming up with the list of the eleven aforementioned designers, she set to work unearthing and combing through interviews published while they were alive, as well as other primary sources such as memoirs or biographies. The book’s 1,500 footnotes are a testament to the extent of her research.  

The new interviews Golbin crafted from this wealth of materials are as informative as they are entertaining. One of the most charming aspects of Couture Confessions is that Golbin’s discerning choice of quotations makes these iconic designers’ personalities vivid. “I wanted you to feel like you were in the room with these people,” she says – and in this writer’s opinion, she has succeeded. Indeed, as Golbin herself puts it, “The most eloquent is Dior, and Chanel is the most incisive and caustic. Schiaparelli is the most pragmatic, Saint Laurent so melancholy but so right, and McQueen is very frank and open.” 

Golbin encountered a single road block in her enterprise: Balenciaga. Extremely private, he gave just one interview in his lifetime, a few months before he died in 1972. But the curator could not imagine excluding this most revered designer – “the master of the masters,” as she calls him – from her book. And so to get around the paucity of quotes from Balenciaga himself, she came up with an imaginary roundtable discussion about him culled from what a group of the century’s most eminent fashion editors (including Carmel Snow, Diana Vreeland and John Fairchild) had said about Balenciaga. This novel solution allows Couture Confessions to make the retiring couturier come to life like never before.  

In scope, Golbin’s book extends beyond this series of constructed interviews, however illuminating and amusing as they may be. In an effort to add perspective and deepen readers’ understanding of fashion, the author made a point to include quotations in which designers expressed what they thought of other couturiers. Many of the answers are predictably acidic. “Some were really not nice about each other!” she says, noting that when Schiaparelli was asked about Chanel, “She said, ‘Oh, she’s such a darling, she’s been doing the same thing for 30 years.’” Coco herself, meanwhile, held herself above all others: “You have no idea how hard it is to work without competition,” she once quipped. 


MUSÉE DES ARTS DÉCORATIFS CURATOR PAMELA GOLBIN, PHOTOGRAPHED IN NEW YORK BY ERIC OGDEN, MAY 2016.

While it is no surprise that cattiness and egotism have long existed in fashion, Golbin says she was stunned by how many aspects of the business remain unaltered. For one thing, her book makes clear that the greatest couturiers have always felt under the gun. “Already, before 1920, Poiret was complaining that he had so many collections a year that he didn’t have time to finish them,” she notes.  

“He was dealing with the huge scale of selling to the American market.” Another constant is that, fashion designers have always collaborated with artists: “Chanel did the costumes for the ballets for which Picasso did the sets; Schiaparelli commissioned Dalí to make patterns for her fabrics,” she says, off the top of her head. “And Lanvin commissioned Armand-Albert Rateau to design the interiors of her stores, and she sold pieces of his furniture inside them.” Finally, as enormous as the fashion industry has become, the heart of the process remains the same. “It starts with a sketch or draping on a mannequin,” says Golbin. “Even though today’s fashion is about brands that are multi-billion-dollar companies, in the beginning they were just a person with an idea.”  

As a person with many ideas and references, in her own work at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs Golbin strives to display clothing with fine and applied art. In her current exhibition, Fashion Forward: 3 siècles de mode (1715–2016), through 14 August, mannequins are paired with such period-appropriate items as Louis XVI wooden panels, 17th-century tapestries, 19th-century panoramic wallpaper and straw-marquetry doors by Jean-Michel Frank. For Dries van Noten – Inspirations,  in 2014, she had secured loans of major paintings by Bronzino, Rubens, Rothko, Richter and Hirst. “Fashion is never without a context,” she concludes. With this latest book, Golbin provides plenty.  

James Reginato is writer-at-large for Vanity Fair.  

Couture Confessions: Fashion Legends in Their Own Words ($39.95) will be published by Rizzoli on 7 June.