The Paolo Sebastian: X exhibition celebrates 10 years of high-profile Adelaide couture house Paolo Sebastian and aims to silence the critics who suggest that fashion is not art and doesn’t belong in major art galleries.
The exhibition, currently showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia, is a collaboration with the Adelaide Fashion Festival and presents a number of fashion installations throughout the Melrose Wing. It celebrates the glamour and luxury of couture gowns by designer and 2017 Young Australian of the Year Paul Vasileff, in conversation with the Gallery’s historic European paintings and sculptures.
“We wanted to raise fashion to what I think is its true place of being an art form, and an art form that the general public can connect with,” co-curator Rebecca Evans says.
Evans, who hails from Sydney, took up the role of curator of European & Australian decorative arts at AGSA 18 months ago and brings with her a wealth of experience – she was previously curator of fashion and textiles at the Powerhouse in Sydney.
Evans worked collaboratively with Chris Kontos, the creative director of the Adelaide Fashion Festival, to put together this exquisite exhibition.
“It signifies the importance of collaboration in this city and the state,” Evans says. “At the end of the day there aren’t four-million people here so there is a greater need and desire to bring together resources,” she says.
(photo: Paul Steed)
Putting together an exhibition such as this was not only the work of the designers, curators and gallery staff, it also involved the art conservation organisation Artlab Australia, which made sure the pieces were presented in the best state possible.
A team of three at Artlab worked solidly for four weeks to make sure Vasileff ’s dresses came to life. Kirstin Phillips, the principal textiles conservator, explains: “Paul’s dresses are lovely translucent floating dresses. He designed them to look great on the body and our job is to make them look good on a mannequin, which is a slightly different thing.”
The translucent nature of the dresses presented a unique set of challenges for the staff. “A lot of the dresses have a skirt, which is quite see-through, so we had to make a flesh-coloured tube,” Phillips says. “It gives an impression of legs under the dress but not obviously a petticoat because that would change the look of the dress.”
Kristin Phillips, Principal Conservator Textiles and Mary-Anne Gooden, Textiles Conservator preparing the Dandelion Gowns at the Art Gallery of SA prior
to opening of Paolo Sebastian: X exhibition
Also a lot of the sleeves of the garments are transparent so Artlab had to create a fake arm made from a fabric called crin (short for crinoline) in a flesh colour. The arm had to look as if it filled the dress but didn’t look solid.
The role of Artlab is to make sure the focus is on the dresses. If the audience doesn’t notice the mannequin and only notices the garment then they have done a good job.
“It’s our job to make sure our underneath bits really show off the dresses and do the right thing by them but disappear as well,” Phillips says. “In the gallery context it’s the process of making it look its absolute best while it’s on display.”
Evans deliberately matched Vasileff’s designs with works from AGSA’s European collection to highlight the influence of art history on his work and fashion in general.
For example, the 1870s Bird curtain designed by William Morris has been paired with Vasileff’s Nightingale gown. His Wildflowers collection from last year has been matched up with Camille Pissarro’s 1886 masterpiece Prairie à Éragny.
(photo: Paul Steed)
The exhibition celebrates 10 years of Vasileff ’s label Paolo Sebastian and Evans believes it is the perfect time to celebrate the designer’s career. Derived from his own name, Paul Sebastian Vasileff, the Paolo Sebastian label is recognised worldwide.
“We often celebrate artists and designers at the end of their career with retrospectives but it’s equally important to celebrate artists when they are in the moment — when the public is captivated — and we wanted to capture that moment in the exhibition,” Evans says.
With AGSA director Nick Mitzevich recently announcing a new gallery fashion fund, this renewed focus on fashion is important for growing audiences and helping cement fashion’s place as a legitimate art form.
Header photo: Meaghan Coles