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Olivier Saillard measures Tilda Swinton’s couture appeal in Eternity Dress

media Actress Tilda Swinton Vincent Lappartient

Couture and performing art come together in Eternity Dress at the Ecole des Beaux Arts - The National Fine Arts School - in Paris. Picture a packed 19th century amphitheatre, with its hard wooden benches in a semi-circle under a high-domed ceiling and walls plastered with a fresco of 1841 by Paul Delaroche showing the allegorical Greek goddess of renown, Pheme, handing out crowns.


normally you'd find a painting or sculpture lecturer, stands a tall, svelt, pale woman with carved, asymmetrical blonde hair. Barefoot on a plain wooden pedestal wearing a fine skin-colour mousseline silk shift is Tilda Swinton, the British actress, who is also a favourite with clothes and jewellery designers.

The man with the tape, taking her measurements is Olivier Saillard. He's the new director of the Musée Galliera - the Fashion and Costume Museum in Paris which reopened in the autumn of 2013. The amphitheatre setting was important he says, because he’s wants the audience to take away something they will have learnt.

Against a medley of musical genres, he and Swinton show us how to make a couture dress from start to finish. It takes them one hour.

SAILLARD says he refuses to approach fashion or couture as a fast-consumption field, instead he wants people to understand the more human side.

“I was inspired for this performance by the present system of fashion. I think there is too much fashion show and fashion weeks all over the world and I cannot imagine that all the garments can be interesting. So it’s a reflection of how to make a dress before it is presented, and how making a dress can be a pure moment. Unlike what we might think.”

The performance is subtle, graceful, touching, funny and instructive. At one point, wearing the plain cotton model dress, Swinton lists, in French, the different types of collars or neck-lines, from A to Z.

Then Saillard and an assistant alternately add and remove a range of different sleeves, in different fabrics as Swinton pivots, half-twists, on her box in a casual three-way choreography.

In the closing scenes, model-client Swinton, on her pedestal, drapes materials flowing from long bolts around herself and strikes a pose with each one. You can almost hear the imaginary cameras clicking and whirring as she fixes a half-smile. She finally picks a midnight blue, mid-weight fabric and has to decide on the length and the shape of the back.

Once she’s slipped smoothly inside the finished knee-length dress with its slash/drape back and long straight sleeves, Swinton has one more costume change. Shoes. After striking contrasting poses in another short choreographic sequence, off with the beige heels which go with say, Balençiaga, and on with the square-toe lace-ups fitting for a little number by Comme des Garçons for example.

Swinton repeats the sequence of poses accompanied by a list of the names of fashion houses who Saillard believes are the pioneers and shining lights in their domaine from Madame Grès to Maison Martin Margiela.

Eternity Dress is refreshingly simple on the surface, it's straightforward, and sparing in use of theatrical device: Saillard's focus on couture, and Swinton's mastery of subtlety, underlying wit and natural grace.

Couture off the catwalk, couture as performance, couture in the heart of fine art. With fine art at its applied heart.

Fashion is forever says Olivier Saillard, and art has no boundaries.

“I think the fashion designers are like authors. Many authors write many books; they are all different but always the same style. Anyway, everyone today is an artist - you can be an artist in your own kitchen, and a well-known artist can be bad. ”

Eternity Dress is part of the Paris Festival d'Automne, as is the exhibition dedicated to couturier Azzedine Alaïa which marked the re-opening of the Musée Galliera in September.

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