Models Talk for Olivier Saillard

Palais Galliera curator Olivier Saillard's artistic performances-the last two of which have starred Tilda Swinton-usually focus on clothes, whether it be the essence of a particular couturier, the history of fashion design, or the intricacies of a garment's construction. But in Saillard's new piece, Models Never Talk, which was presented to a full house at Milk Studios, clothes played a supporting role. It's rare that the Paris-based Saillard brings such productions to New York, so the likes of Naomi Campbell, Caroline Issa, and Godfrey Deeney all took a break from sitting front-row to attend the conceptual play.

As you might have deduced from the title, Saillard's latest theatric endeavor focused on models. The curator enlisted seven former French mega mannequins (Anne Rohart, Axelle Doué, Christine Bergstrom, Charlotte Flossaut, Claudia Huidobro, Violeta Sanchez, and Amalia Vairelli) to dramatically recount-and act out-their experiences working with such iconic designers as Yves Saint Laurent, Claude Montana, Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo, Madame Grès, Thierry Mugler, and more. 'Models are an important part of fashion history,' Saillard offered. 'They are important to a fashion designer's process. But suddenly, when they're on the catwalk, they're silent,' he continued. 'I did this performance to pay homage to them.'

Set on a whitewashed stage scattered with white chairs, the show began with the seven models-all clad in black stockings, black leotards, and black pumps-walking out one by one. As each had her opening moment in the spotlight, she struck stereotypical 'model' poses in front of a young man holding a silver MacBook. A few of the women wore a white robe or shirt over their minimal outfits. Aside from that, their only props were their bodies-and these ladies used them brilliantly.

Axelle Doué was first to speak. She recalled a fitting with Madame Grès (who told her she was 'too tall, too curvy,' and had 'too much bottom'), and showed how the designer tailored the gown to her body. She then demonstrated how the dress made her move-its length forced her to kick out her legs with every step. This became Doué's signature walk. She looked like a gazelle while she strutted, her long gray hair flowing behind her.

Later, Yves Saint Laurent models and muses Amalia Vairelli and Violeta Sanchez made the audience laugh with anecdotes about the designer and revealed how his clothes made them feel. They also glided back and forth across the stage, demonstrating how YSL's voluminous gowns made them move differently than his saucy Le Smoking.

Claudia Huidobro was perhaps the most entertaining-she sashayed right up to Naomi Campbell while explaining how she walked for Jean Paul Gaultier or Hermès when it was helmed by Martin Margiela. Similarly, she kicked off her heels and stomped angrily toward the supe when reenacting an '80s Comme des Garçons show. Kawakubo had put her in flats (a fact about which she was less than thrilled) and a dress covered with holes.

As the show went on, it became abundantly clear that these women had special relationships with the designers they discussed-these women influenced them, inspired them, and vise versa. Most importantly, though, the seven models were larger than life. Each radiated with attitude, sass, and pizzazz. They may not have spoken when walking the runways of the '80s and '90s, but they didn't have to. The sway of their hips, the way they turned, and the look in their eyes conveyed so much more about themselves and the clothes they were modeling than words ever could.

For the grand finale, each woman walked out carrying one of her old photographs, placed it on the floor, and recreated the same pose they had struck so many years ago. They received a standing ovation.

'Models today don't have as much character as these girls used to,' said one guest while examining the images. Saillard concurred. 'I think there are too many fashion shows these days. They're too short. And there are too many models,' he mused. 'And today's models don't work closely with the designers. They need to be the owners of their own bodies. They need more personality.'

The seven women in Models Never Talk aren't lacking in that department. After the proverbial curtain closed, they all headed backstage, popped a few bottles of champagne, and lit a few cigarettes before being joined by Campbell. 'You were amazing! ' she shrieked before wrapping her arms around each of the evening's stars (all of whom she appeared to know).

Campbell wasn't being hyperbolic-the models were amazing. And they delivered precisely what Saillard set out to achieve. 'I wanted the audience to experience a moment of poetry-a moment of happiness,' he told me, a glass of champagne in hand. 'We're all here because we love fashion. We love it because of Saint Laurent, because of Gaultier, and because of these women. We love it because fashion is not only an industry-it's an art.' When fashion's at its best, it can indeed be an art. And while there weren't any couture gowns or vintage ensembles in Saillard's performance, its cast helped attendees appreciate true sartorial masterpieces-and the minds behind them-a little bit more.

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