“I did not know that when I first met you, we would go on to tell such a story,” said Olivier Saillard, as he raised a glass to his star collaborator Tilda Swinton at a beautiful Tuscan dinner last night held in a 12th century former convent where Gallileo’s daughter once lived. The story Saillard was referring to is trio of performances, which he and Swinton have now worked on – The Impossible Wardrobe, Eternity Dress and now Cloakroom – all based on sartorial thought or . You’ve read me go on and on about the brilliant and ingenious ways in which Saillard compels us to think about our clothes – what do they mean and how do they connect between mind, body and thread. One of the primary reasons for attending Pitti this season was to experience this affinity between Saillard and Swinton as they reprised their Cloakroom performance especially for this edition of Pitti Uomo (a video teaser can be seen here).
The significant thing about Saillard’s performances is their length. Cloakroom was timed at about an hour long, and our performance in particular staged at the Teatro della Pergola yesterday was an hour and a half. As fashion happenings go, there are few opportunities to take such a long length of time to really think. To draw importance to the aspects of the fashion industry that we should be celebrating in order to elevate our field. When Saillard performed Models Never Talk in New York, it raised questions about the modelling industry today. When Saillard and Swinton first teamed up in Paris for The Impossible Wardrobe in 2012, they brought rare garments from the Palais Galliera to life, dusting dust off history for a new audience. I didn’t see it but when they performed again in 2013, they brought attention to craftsmanship and process that goes into a garment.
My own expectations were especially high to witness and then process yet another Swinton/Saillard coup Cloakroom was performed in Paris back in November as part of the Festival D’Automne but because of the audience participation aspect of the performance, it meant every one would be quite different. The idea came about when Saillard thought about the cloakroom or coat checks of the theatre or a fancy restaurant. They’re archives in themselves, full of stories and memories. Tilda Swinton therefore was our cloakroom attendant. And as we the audience volunteered ourselves and our chosen cloakroom item to Swinton, she would react, interpret and ultimately elevate that piece of clothing, augmenting it with a memory or adding a layer of emotion to what ostensibly looks like a very ordinary garment.
Only Swinton could enthral an audience whilst holding one of many (many!) black coats. Her presence is thrilling to see in person as she gives herself so wholly to the performance, improvising without it looking disingenuous. She’d humorously turn her back on a man, keeping him waiting whilst he waited for his stub. A neoprene bulky jacket is gingerly stroked with curiosity. She’d whisper to two ends of a scarf as though she were sharing secrets with friends. She’d express fear of a corporate grey suit by ducking under the table. One lady – head to toe in Prada and Miu Miu – hammed it up for the performance, flinging her blue mink coat on the table Devil Wears Prada style. Swinton reacted demurely.
The climax moment was when Swinton assumed a blue jacket and together with Saillard would breathe in and out, puffing out the jacket as though they were lungs. Quite literally a life jacket. Finally Swinton began to leave little mementos – little witty phrases such as “Make a wish when you first wear a new garment”, a wheat stalk, a spritz of perfume or a piece of paper sealed with a kiss. Those with physical mementos will undoubtedly never look at their coats and scarves in the same way again.
In Paris, luminaries like Charlotte Rampling, Stella Tennant, Haider Ackermann and Michel Gaubert handed over their expensive coats and jackets. Here in Florence, the coats handed over were far more subtle and dare I say mundane. Which only makes Swinton’s performance even more remarkable. She held our attention for an hour and a half as she assumed and possessed every piece of clothing in a different way. And she made me think about so many things in the process. How you are perceived by what you wear. How people react to you. How I wear certain things for certain occasions because of what i’ve associated with that specific garment. How a piece of clothing makes you feel once it’s on. How memories are built with clothing. How you can almost rely on something as though it were a trusty companion. How the simple pleasures of pushing hands into pocket can feel comforting.
Too much thought on mere clothes, some would say. Apparently we’ve got bigger and more important things to be thinking about. But if we reduce our industry to pure surface, that’s a depressing thought. I can only clutch on to a fantasy that there’s got to be meaning to what we wear and Swinton and Saillard emphatically demonstrated that.