The Louvre's Pamela Golbin Talks Chanel's Rival, Madeleine Vionnet, At Wolfsonian

All of fashion's elite -- Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior -- hail from France, so it's only natural they were all inspired by legendary French dressmaker Madeleine Vionnet. You've probably never heard of her, but the "queen of the bias cut" is the reason we ladies no longer have to wear corsets, padding, or stiff dresses.

With her dress designs, she accentuated the female form, creating the body-skimming looks we still see on today's runways. She also brought the then-unusual chiffon, silk, crepe, de chine, gabardine, and satin fabrics into middle-class closets.

The book Madeleine Vionnet -- edited and partly written by the chief curator of the Fashion and Textiles Museum at the Louvre, Pamela Golbin -- is making its way to the Wolfsonian as part of a book talk and reception tomorrow night. Golbin, who was raised in Miami and educated at Columbia and the Sorbonne, has been curating exhibitions for one of the most popular museums in the world since 1993.

New Times caught up with Golbin before the book reading, to talk Miami influences, fashion, and Vionnet's rivalry with... Coco Chanel?

Vionnet and one of her creations.
Vionnet and one of her creations.

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New Times: So you were raised in Miami?
Pamela Golbin: I was raised in Miami. I went to Ransom Everglades for Junior High and High School. So I guess that counts as being raised in Miami? [Laughs].

Do you feel like Miami influenced your sense of style and fashion choices?
Umm ... you know, maybe I should start by saying I'm quite a mixture of different cultures. I'm Franco-Chilean, born in Peru, and raised here. And I think that Miami was such a wonderful place to grow up, because it was such a melting pot -- not only of South Americans, but of Europeans, as well. So there's a wonderful mixture. And it was a time where South Beach wasn't really what it is today. But all of Miami was really moving forward. So fashion was definitely an expression that was very creative at the time. All designers were very well represented in Miami, so that it was a great fashion center as well.

So then what was it that first inspired you to get into fashion?
First of all, I'm an art historian by training. I went to Columbia University and majored in Art History and abstract expressionist art. So it's a little specific. But whether it be through my paternal grandmother who was a client of Parisian Haute Couture or from my mother, fashion was always a part of our lives. And fashion design was always seen as a very creative and wonderful element to appropriate into our personal style -- my sister and I. So I guess it was by chance that I got into fashion in museums.

There's a big difference going from art and art history into fashion.
Well at the same I was studying art history in New York, I was also interning at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan while I was at school. And during the summer I was also interning at the Fashion Museum, which I also ended up being a curator. So by the time I actually finished my university studies, I had over five years experience at two of the most important museums that had costume collections in the world. Especially at the time -- this was over 20 years ago. There was no real program of fashion history or fashion in museums. So it was a learning process that was done directly inside the institutions. And I had that privilege to be able to see the two greatest collections in the world. So when I finished my studies, I was named the youngest fashion curator in France. So I stayed there, and I've been at the museum as the curator -- now curator-in-chief -- for the last 18 years.

Have you incorporated anything with a Miami flavor or Miami influence in anything that you've done at the museum?
Well I think that I always have Miami in my heart because I did spend such crucial years here. Junior High and High School are very important and formative years. I don't know how to describe Miami style if I had to, but it's definitely part of my vocabulary that I use on a regular basis. How, exactly, would be a more difficult question to reply to. But I guess it is just part of my culture.

You've published books on all the major designers, among them LaCroix, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Balenciaga... why was Madeleine Vionnet next on your list?
Well I'm quite lucky, because I oversee one of the most important collections of costumes and textiles. Madeleine Vionnet is the icon and the most important fashion designer in the 20th century. It just so happens that she herself made an incredible donation to the museum in 1952 and she gave all of her personal archives to us. So we do have the largest public collection of her work in the world. It was a project that I've been wanting to do for about 20 years, and finally all of the elements came up that allowed us to do it. We were able to do the first major retrospective in Paris of her work, and the book accompanied that exhibition.


 Did you write the book as well? I noticed that you're credited as one of its editors.

Yeah. For every single exhibition I write the book. Often, depending on the subject matter, I always edit and I oversee the book, and sometimes I do ask other people to write in it. For Madeleine Vionnet, what was important was to talk about the decorative arts. She was particularly important in the architecture of her house, so I did ask somebody in France who did quite an excessive amount of research in the decorative arts that she commissioned in her fashion house in the '20s and '30s. So in the book, there's also a part that has to do with the decorative arts. Which is a great tie-in for the Wolfsonian, because they have such a beautiful collection.

What's the significance behind bringing the book to Miami now, since it was published last fall.
Well, to be honest, it was just kind of a chance occasion. I had decided to spend my summer holiday here for the next two weeks, and a friend who is on the board of the Wolfsonian said, "Do you want to do a talk for us? Because we're launching a series called The Visionaries" and I said, "Sure, I'd love to come." And that's how things happened. It just seemed like the perfect fit to speak about my job and the things we do in Paris, but also to showcase the Madeleine Vionnet book that came out a couple of months ago.

A lot of South Floridians -- even the most stylish ones -- don't know who Madeleine Vionnet was. They've probably seen her work before because she's influenced so many designers, but they don't know who she is.
It's funny that you say that, because not only Floridians, but in general, her name has always been a very -- how can I say? A lot of people don't know what her work is about. They might have heard her name. Most of the designers have been influenced by her, so it's a very closed circle of people who knew of her work, and it was mostly through photographs. But they had never actually seen her work. So the exhibition as well as the book were landmark projects because it brought her to the forefront. And actually, the brand has since been bought, and it was in part due to the fact that we mounted this exhibition project and the book. So it was a direct consequence of what the museum did for Madeleine Vionnet. So I'm very excited to be able to talk about her and just share with all of the people that will be coming just a little bit about the incredible heritage that she left for us in the fashion world.

Which -- if any -- of Madeleine Vionnet's fashion staples would you suggest to South Floridians? Something that she's known for that you think would work well in Miami.
Well, basically she invented the bias cut. Which is for me a stretch dress that is body conscious. She's the one who invented that. The bias cut is cutting the fabric on a diagonal base so it actually follows the lines of the body. It was made before stretch fabric existed, so that any dress that you pick up today goes back to the technical skills that she invented in the '10s, just before the first World War. So it's a pretty incredible endeavor.

I also noticed that she brought a lot of fabrics to the forefront that designers had never really used before, like chiffon and silk.
Yes. Her favorite fabric was crepe, because it's a very subtle fabric and very flexible, and goes with the body. It was all about light fabrics that could easily be worked. She was working in a convent and there was no Lycra or Spandex, or any of the synthetic fabrics that are a staple in most pieces that are designed now. So she actually achieved what you can achieve now in modern fashion without the kind of technical fabrics that exist today.

What can readers expect to find in the book?
I think it really to do with designing the perfection of fashion. If there is one word that comes up with Madeleine, it's perfection. She perfected the art of Haute Couture -- whether it be stylistically, whether it be technically. But also, she set the standards for the fashion industry that are still being felt today. For example, all of the laws having to do with counterfeiting -- meaning copies -- which is just a big ordeal today. All of those laws were set by Madeleine Vionnet in the '20s. All of the social laws that were passed to give seamstresses paid holidays, social security, social services like doctors -- all of that was actually drawn up by Madeleine Vionnet. So whether it be through her skill as a dressmaker, her incredible visionary element when it came to being a businesswoman in the industry, or whether it be her stylistic vocabulary, in every single field she was really the most innovative of all fashion designers.

How would you compare Madeleine Vionnet with Coco Chanel?
Well, her and Chanel were quite the opposite, because Chanel didn't know how to sew. They were a bit of a nemesis one to the other because she closed her house in 1939 just before the war and never reopened afterward. Her name kind of stayed just with the people who really know about fashion, but not in the mainstream. And because Chanel's company was bought and really relaunched after her death in '71, obviously it's a very different story. But these are two incredible women that were contemporaries of their time.

Do you know if they knew each other or ever worked alongside each other?
No, they didn't like each other at all... at all. They were extremely different. They were opposites. Vionnet was all about the beauty and the perfection of the dress, and Chanel was all about her. If she ever designed anything, it was first designed on herself, and it was only about her, whereas Vionnet always stepped back and it was always about the beauty about the woman -- who she dressed -- but never about her. Chanel was very much a social butterfly in the '20s and '30s in Paris, whereas Vionnet was a very private person. She never went out. She had a very sophisticated crowd of friends, but she was never someone who went to parties or who liked galas. She was just a very private person. So in every sense of the word, they were pretty much completely opposite. Chanel was all about the uniform, too. She came up really early with that Chanel suit that she just reworked over and over, whereas Vionnet was all about how to express the most beautiful proportions of femininity through her work and it was a constant evolution. With Chanel it was just this was it and she reworked the same thing over and over again. It was really incredible to work with Vionnet's heritage to see how different each one of them was, but complementary, as they were both extremely important to fashion history in the '20s and '30s.

Pamela Golbin discuss Madeleine Vionnet tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Wolfsonian (1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach). The book talk is free for members, the FIU community, and students; otherwise admission costs $10. RSVP is required. Call 305-535-2645 or email rsvp@@thewolf.fiu.edu.


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