Thierry Tessier on the love story between fashion and literature


Deeply embedded in pop culture, fashion has had a parallel and even more intimate relationship for years, even decades, with another form of art which, like fashion, has long been concerned with the expression of ideals. of beauty.

By Virginia Woolf Orlando to the manuscripts of Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote Breakfast at Tiffany’sback on some of the most beautiful love stories between the worlds of fashion and fashion designers and literature.

In early December, Kim Jones chose to present the Dior Homme Fall 2022 collection in London, inspired by the theme of travel, and more specifically Jack Kerouac’s book. On the road. This is not the first time that the artistic director of the French house has been influenced by literature. An avid reader, he was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s work for Fendi haute couture earlier in the year, and was particularly inspired by the androgynous figure of Orlando.

If fashion regularly turns to pop culture, it has never ceased to proclaim its love for the fictional characters of the greatest novels of the past decades or even centuries. Virginia Woolf’s work has also served as inspiration at Burberry, while Givenchy will always be associated with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, both in its literary and cinematic version. And of course who could forget Chanel’s haute couture show in the summer of 2019, for which the decor of the Grand Palais was transformed into a sumptuous library.

Image credit: Christophe Archambault/AFP

Meeting with Thierry Tessier, art historian

So what is at the origin of this link, far from being a one-way street, between two equally close and opposite sectors? Thierry Tessier, art historian and connoisseur of the fashions of the 1850s-1950s, helps us to understand these strong links, yesterday and today, through a look at the characters and authors who have the most influenced couturiers and fashion designers.

What is behind this powerful link between fashion and literature?
Fashion draws on all kinds of trends, whether they come from the streets, music, cinema or the arts. Literature, especially legendary books and poems, has always sparked the creative sensibilities of art directors. In addition, fashion criticism has often created links with the arts. The bridge is thus established. Moreover, characters like Madame Bovary, Madama Butterfly and many other heroines are familiar to everyone. To be inspired by it is to ensure that its references speak and are understood by the greatest number.

Why do literary works still occupy such a large place in the collections of the greatest houses?
One can imagine that luxury brands need to reach the widest possible audience using topics familiar to everyone. Whether it’s the Trojan War, the “Roman of the Rose” or the biography of Marie-Antoinette by Stefan Zweig, they are all communication platforms. It is rare for brands to be inspired by obscure or offbeat authors. It would be too delicate on an international level and could even send a dangerous message.

Each collection, like each fashion show, is nourished by a story, but this one is most often linked to pop culture. How did characters in novels become influencers without knowing it?
I think the answer lies in how a fashion show is designed. As you say, the brand and the art director are trying to create a story. They sometimes use clichés, often classics, with a zest of ultra-specific references. Because the collections must be able to appeal to different types of audiences. An audience of regulars, an audience of enthusiasts and an audience of experts. Some will see Disney princess dresses, others will understand the reference to Empress Sissi, and finally connoisseurs will detect the small detail that communicates a very subtle message. The characters of novels, if they are complex, can fulfill this role of ambassador very well. That’s why art directors choose characters that inspire fantasies, that show psychological development, something that can be discussed.

Image credit: Burberry

From Kim Jones to Burberry, Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is probably the most influential work on fashion, crossing the decades without taking a wrinkle. Why so many fans of this novel?
Virginia Woolf is a fashion icon. Through her life, her struggles, her dynamism, she is a model for many creators. When you are inspired by a character, you get the writer’s aura. If this one resonates with many contemporary fights, it is a double effect. Hence Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau and so many others…

At a time when gender lines have never been blurred, can we say we haven’t heard the end of Orlando?
Indeed, many male artistic directors are homosexual, and 20% of 15-30 year olds [in France] consider themselves as gender fluid according to [France’s national institute of of statistics and economic studies] INSEE in 2021. The question of gender identity is therefore one of the most important issues for this new generation. Certainly we will continue to come across these authors and characters who evoke these notions. But we could also talk about Aubrey Beardsley, the famous English illustrator, who illustrated the works of Oscar Wilde and who is often referenced in fashion, or Robert de Montesquiou, who served as a model for Joris-Karl Huysmans for the character of Jean des Esseintes in his famous book “A Rebours”, which often appears on the podium in one form or another.

Which fashion pieces were created under the influence of a literary work?
The first memory that comes to mind is Proust’s ball in the 1970s, where the café society gathered under this theme. All the dresses were Haute Couture, it was unheard of. Another that comes to mind is Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in New York. For current looks, I think every year we have designers who are inspired by “Alice in Wonderland” or the Arabian Nights.

Image credit: Chanel

Apart from Virginia Woolf, who are the authors who have most influenced fashion?
Dante, Oscar Wilde, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Cocteau, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens and Jules Verne.

Chanel was passionate about books, as was Karl Lagerfeld, an insatiable reader, as were Yves Saint Laurent and Kim Jones, to name but a few. Do you have to be a lover of literature, whatever the generation, to become a designer?
These people are all very cultured and they must understand their generation. In the 1960s, you had to read Françoise Sagan to understand the new generation or Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian” which revolutionized literature as soon as they were published. They study, reflect and examine their lives. They go to the cinema, see exhibitions and rummage through archives. Absolutely everything feeds them, that’s a fact. They are like the sieves of the Danaides who sift through everything.

Kim Jones was inspired by Jack Kerouac for his new men’s collection for Dior, while Chanel has been offering its “Rendez-vous littéraire rue Cambon” for months… At a time when gaming and TV series are taking off in fashion, is it not paradoxical? ?
Absolutely not. First of all, the people who buy these labels are not 18 years old, but between 30 and 70 years old, and have therefore been educated by the books. Secondly, it’s always an opportunity to create a link between the brand and the customer, to justify the often excessive price by offering a unique customer experience — a speaker, an author, an expert who will explain the text to you. Finally, customer awareness is an opportunity to prove the excellence of the brand. It’s a matter of marketing. I don’t know if it’s just for the beauty of the art. Let’s not forget that fashion is not an art. It is classified in the industry. We can be offended, but Chanel has never proclaimed herself an artist. She was a businesswoman who understood her generation very well and knew how to tap into the epiphenomena around her that revealed major trends.

This interview has been translated from French and is published via AFP Relaxnews.

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