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Elsa Janssen from the Yves Saint Laurent museum on the Gold, by Yves Saint Laurent exhibition and the designer's archives

Translated by
Dec 22, 2022

On the occasion of the "Gold, by Yves Saint Laurent" exhibition, inaugurated on October 14 at the Yves Saint Laurent museum in Paris, FashionNetwork.com met with the director of the museum, Elsa Janssen. In office since March 2022, after ten years as director of exhibitions at Galeries Lafayette, she tells us what is behind the legendary designer's museum and reveals her plans for 2023. The exhibition will remain open until May 14, 2023.

Elsa Janssen - musée Yves Saint Laurent

FashionNetwork.com: How did the idea for this Gold exhibition, which you curated for the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, come about?  

Elsa Janssen: The idea was born from a feeling I had while looking through the archives of our collections. I saw gold glittering everywhere. With the museum's curatorial team, we began to explore the textiles and accessories that featured gold, and we came across an immensity of possibilities and choices. When you are the director of the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, you investigate, you dig, you read, you meet with people, you do a lot of research. What I liked about this "gold" theme is that it allowed me to highlight the most solar, the most beautiful, the most joyful, the most glorious side of Yves Saint Laurent. It also allowed me to explore his connection to art history.

FNW: The way this exhibition is presented is new, mixing fashion and art. What is your approach?

EJ: What inspires me a lot is to continuously envision and rethink the fashion exhibition. How we present fashion and especially how we celebrate the modernity and genius of Yves Saint Laurent. For me, it must be inscribed in modern times because a genius transcends the ages. What is important to us is to inscribe Yves Saint Laurent in time and therefore make him converse with today's talents. What also motivates us is the visitor and his experience, that he feels real emotions when seeing this exhibition.

FNW: How did you go about it?

EJ: I tried to enhance, to place this exhibition in a true experience of beauty. On the one hand, by trying to present the works of Yves Saint Laurent in the best possible way and, on the other, by calling on new professions, expertise or talents that, perhaps, were not necessarily called upon before in fashion museums, such as the set designer Valérie Weill, the editor Anna Klossowski and the artist Johan Creten. It is neither a retrospective nor a didactic exhibition. We really are an exhibition with a physical and visual dimension. I try to create paintings, to create frames and to elevate the fashion exhibition as much as possible to a visual and physical exhibition, pulling towards an art exhibition.

 "I think a great fashion designer is an aesthete"

FNW: Have you managed to attract a new audience?

EJ: The idea is to have a demanding program, but one that is intelligible to the general public. For example, the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the museums initiated by our president Madison Cox, where one hundred and twenty pieces from the permanent collections of the Centre Pompidou, the Musée d'Orsay, the Musée d'Art Moderne, the Musée Picasso and the Louvre were presented, attracted a lot of people. All of these museums confirmed how much this invitation had energized the public.

FNW: Did fashion attract more visitors?

EJ: Not fashion. It was the dynamic that was created around the experience. You don't just put anything in front of a Picasso, a Fernand Léger or a Bonnard! There is such evidence of artistic gesture in Yves Saint Laurent and his conversation with art. Of course, the designer is well known. On the other hand, fashion makes the general public more comfortable and perhaps people would never have gone to visit the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, which are however, I remind you, free. And here, thanks to Yves Saint Laurent, they were attracted, and they were able, through this exhibition, I hope, to experience modern art as well.

FNW: What do you think of the relationship between fashion designers and art?

EJ: I think that a great fashion designer is an aesthete. He knows the history of art, loves art, and speaks the language. Art has always been a form of inspiration, whether it is contemporary art or older art. A great fashion designer can be inspired by art history, but also by nature and beauty. I think that they are aesthetes who are cultivated and that there is a real sincerity in this vision of art.

One of the main pieces from the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition - © David Bailey / Vogue Paris

FNW: What does your role as museum director entail?

EJ: I am at the same time responsible for a collection that today is made up of 8,500 couture pieces, 4,000 Left Bank pieces, more than 55,000 original sketches, as well as thousands of photos and archival documentation, visuals, sounds, etc. Everything is here. Our job is to take care of this collection, to make sure that it is visible today and in the future. In terms of preventive conservation, these textile pieces need darkness, an extremely precise level of humidity. We have to make sure that they do not deteriorate over time, while at the same time carrying out restorations. In addition, we must of course valorize it. 

FNW: How can such archives be valorized?

EJ: Through a program of in situ exhibitions, therefore in the museum, but also through exhibitions outside the museum. These can be organized in co-production with cultural institutions. We are currently preparing an exhibition with the Cité de la dentelle et de la mode in Calais on the transparency of Yves Saint Laurent's work. It will be held next June at the Cité, then in January 2024 at our home in Paris. In this case, we work together with a collegial curator. We also do major retrospectives abroad. In 2023, 150 textile pieces will be presented at the National Art Center in Tokyo. This will be the largest exhibition of Yves Saint Laurent ever seen in Japan. We are also promoting the collection through numerous books.

FNW: Do you have any current projects?

EJ: Yves Saint Laurent is a figure who continues to inspire many authors. A comic book project is underway for example. Everything in the designer's work is subject to further study. The masculine/feminine, imaginary journeys, shapes, colors, tributes to artists... We also have scientific partnerships with universities and fashion schools. We welcome researchers who come to work and meet the people in charge of the textile, graphic art and photography collections.

"As early as 1966, Yves Saint Laurent put an M, M for museum, on all the pieces he wanted to archive"

FNW: How are the museum's archives characterized?

EJ: What I notice is the particularity and the protean character of Yves Saint Laurent's archives. He drew compulsively, up to 200 drawings a day! Fashion drawings of course, but also drawings related to his relationship with the performing arts, personal drawings. There is for example the whole series of Paper Dolls, or even drawings that are a bit satirical. Today his drawings have become very valuable and in sales they have become very expensive. Unfortunately, they are more difficult for us to acquire. But we are lucky to have a lot of them.

FNW: These treasures have been preserved thanks to the foresight of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Can we speak of pioneers for fashion archives?

EJ: Yes, they were pioneers in the conservation of pieces. As early as 1966, Yves Saint Laurent put an M, M for museum, on all the pieces he wanted to archive. This is something that many houses have not done and they are now trying to catch up. What makes us strong is the rigor inherited from the two founders of the house, with Pierre Bergé's admiration for Yves Saint Laurent and his conviction that the pieces created by the designer were comparable to art. When the foundation was created, they set up a whole conservation system with sliding shelves. So the facilities are there, and today the main investment is in the teams. The museum employs fifteen people.

Les Papers Dolls - Yves Saint Laurent museum - DR

FNW: How is this museum funded?

EJ: Half of it is funded by its own revenues, notably by our ticket sales. We are fortunate to have a large and very loyal audience. The other half by private sources.

FNW: How is it structured?

EJ: The Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent Foundation was created in 2002, shortly after the announcement of the designer's retirement, and was established in the private mansion on Avenue Marceau, which had housed the fashion house since 1974. It holds the assets of the house, namely the collection, the building, the heritage, and has delegated to the Association Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, when the museum was created in 2017, the conservation, exploitation and outreach of the collection. The foundation, on the other hand, is now focusing on patronage actions in the field of textile training. Above all, in 2017, Pierre Bergé ensured that the collection obtained the designation "Musée de France", that is, within the meaning of the Heritage Code, an inalienable and imprescriptible collection. It benefits from the protective legal status of National Treasure and is protected by the State.

"Anthony Vaccarello and his teams come to observe the collections at the museum"

FNW: Do you have a connection with the Yves Saint Laurent museum in Marrakech?

EJ: The museum in Marrakech belongs to a structure that is in Morocco. It is a pole that houses three entities, the Majorelle garden, the Pierre Bergé museum of Berber arts and the Yves Saint Laurent museum. We work closely with this museum and its director Alexis Sornin. Currently, Olivier Saillard is preparing an exhibition entitled Trait Portraits, which will open in March in Marrakech.

FNW: What is your relationship with the Saint Laurent brand, which has belonged to the Kering group since 1999?

EJ: We have a very good relationship. Anthony Vaccarello and his teams come to observe the collections and they lend us pieces for our exhibitions. We have a common heritage which is Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent. I guess for the current creative director, the idea is to be aware of this heritage, while continuing to move the brand forward.

FNW: What has been your career path?

EJ: For over ten years, I was the director of exhibitions at Galeries Lafayette. I managed an exhibition space that was the Galerie des Galeries, on Boulevard Haussmann. I set up about forty exhibitions and I questioned myself a lot about the connection between art and fashion and about what an exhibition in a department store was. It gave me a form of freedom. I went in search of an inventiveness, where I could invite talents from different worlds of contemporary creation.

FNW: Who did you work with in particular?

EJ: I was lucky enough to work with fashion designers like Christian Lacroix, Kris Van Assche, Jean-Paul Lespagnard. But also with musicians like Philippe Katerine and great artists like Alex Prager or Xavier Veilhan. I had a lot of fun creating exhibitions, always conversing with these worlds, never compartmentalizing in fact. To consider the experience of the exhibition as an experience that could be thought by different authors, in which we can find music, sound, art and fashion.

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