FP: So you knew your history, but what about the process of curation?
VS: Well, in some respects, the process of curation is like the same work you do for a book. You do research, you come up with a hypothesis, you test it. On the other hand, you’re telling a story with objects rather than with words and arguments. Although you’ll certainly have text—labels and wall text and probably a catalog—you really have to tell the story with objects, assuming that people are not going to read the text.
FP: Is there a trick to that?
VS: The organization of the objects is obviously important. The way you get them to speak to each other so that people looking at a group of objects begin to get a sense of what’s going on. The choice of objects and the arrangement of objects is the way you tell a story. It’s not a book on a wall. You’re conveying the message in another way.
FP: Through arrangement?
VS: Through choice and arrangement. I learned a lot from Fred Dennis about arranging and presenting objects. I also learned by looking at the work of other curators, particularly Judith Clark. Her “Malign Muses” show was a real epiphany for me; it was a new paradigm in presenting clothes. She studied architecture and had a very creative and novel approach to organization and presentation. It helped me create a much more theatrical ambiance. It had a real impact, for example, on “Gothic Dark Glamour.” I started seeing even more clearly the importance of creating a mise en scène, of actually having little vignettes that will help tell the story.
FP: You’ve said that “Gothic” is one of your favorite exhibitions. Why?
VS: It was a turning point. I wanted to explore how both [designers and goths] were responding to a whole history of literature, art, and music. For example, there was an open coffin with a vampire-like Thierry Mugler outfit and costumes from the film about Dracula—so you could get that vampirism was something that lead into this imagery of the gothic.
How do you build large sets and have them create a sort of feeling of claustrophobia, of paranoia? Of things about to disintegrate? I worked with a really good art director, Simon Costin, who worked a lot with Alexander McQueen. I’d say [to him], “Well I want you to try to present the ‘psychology in stone,’”—but, as it were, in cardboard. I definitely want a ruined castle. He came up with this idea of huge, disproportionate walls at angles that dwarfed the figures and then had the mannequins looking away from each other, so no one was relating. That was important. I told him I wanted a laboratory. He did this laboratory with rubber walls and faces pushing in through the walls like hallucinations. I said, “Can we do a graveyard?” And he came up with this fenced-in area where we had mannequins inside the fences, again to get the sense of despair, decay, paranoia, and claustrophobia.
FP: Recently, you have done a couple of shows featuring individual collections, specifically those of Daphne Guinness and Susanne Bartsch. What problems can arise when you work on this type of exhibition?
VS: The same ones as when you do a show about a living designer, who may have his or her own vision of how he or she wants to be seen.
Daphne was just pure heaven to work with. I was the one who pitched it to her and she was very modest and said, “Oh, no, no, I can’t have a show.” And then she came to see a show [at F.I.T.] and she turned to me and asked, “Are you serious about doing a show?” I said, “Yes. Look around. There are 80 dresses. You have 80 dresses don’t you, Sweetie?” She opened her closets here and in London.
Susanne pitched the show to me. Normally we don’t take outside shows, but schedules had changed and I needed something I could do quickly. I went to the Chelsea Hotel and she started pulling things out of boxes and out from under the bed. The more stuff she pulled out, the more excited I got.
She had a very clear vision of what she wanted in the show—for one thing, she wanted more. This is always a problem when you’re working with designers. Susanne was still smuggling stuff into the show the morning it was opening! She put accessories in paper bags and tried to smuggle them in. With Daphne, it was really easy—all I had to do when accessorizing was say, “No real diamonds!”