BoF sat down with Pamela Golbin, chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, located in the Palais du Louvre in Paris, and learnt about her puzzling love of planes, nerdy obsession with problem-solving and how serendipity, vision and a MacGyver-like gift for improvising are essential to working under the same roof as the Mona Lisa.
PARIS, France — Trains, until very recently, weren’t Pamela Golbin’s cup of tea. She much prefers to fly. In fact, Golbin loves flying, perhaps a remnant of a childhood spent in airborne commute between Paris, Caracas, Miami and Buenos Aires, the cities in which her Franco-Chilean family resided at various times.
“I love, love, flying — the longer the flight, the better. Time is suspended when you are in the air, it’s like a parenthesis, and you can do anything you want. Plus, I have no problem sleeping on the plane and never get jet-lag, so I am fully operational when I arrive,” Golbin says.
It is a good thing Golbin likes planes so much, since she still spends an inordinate amount of time in them. In the coming month alone, she will be jetting from her home base in Paris — where, as chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, she is the custodian of one of the most significant and extensive collections of fashion and textiles in the world — to Mexico, Singapore, Australia and New York, where she currently has projects in the works.
This year marks 20 years at the museum for the chic, multilingual and youthful 43-year-old, who, over the years, has staged important exhibitions on the work of iconic fashion designers — including Madeleine Vionnet, Hussein Chalayan, Valentino and Marc Jacobs — many of which attracted several hundreds of thousands of visitors.
And, in the name of duty, Golbin has recently taken to travelling by a different mode of transport than her beloved jetliners: the railway. For the last few months, once a week, Golbin has been taking the high-speed Thalys train from Paris to Antwerp to visit Dries Van Noten, whose retrospective she is currently working on (the show set to open in March 2014). “Dries laughs at me, because while I have always loved planes, I used to be terrified of trains. But thanks to this project, now you can put me on any train and it’s not a problem.”
Growing up, Golbin spent summers in Paris, where her grandmother lived. Madame Golbin would frequently take her granddaughters to the Louvre. And it was at the hallowed museum that Pamela Golbin, only about six years old, saw an exhibition of 18th-century costume that, she says, planted the unconscious seed for her future vocation. At age 18, with the help of her grandmother, Golbin landed an internship at the museum she now oversees.
Golbin went on to study art history at Columbia University in New York and, in her second year, was selected for an apprenticeship program at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. Thus, before finishing university, Golbin had already acquired experience working at the two largest costume and textile museums in the world, and an intimate familiarity with their treasured collections.
It seems logical, in hindsight, that in February 1993, soon after graduating from Columbia, Golbin was appointed head of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, making her one of the youngest curators in the history of France, and one of the very few to have been born outside the country. She has been at the museum, now housed in a 15,000-square-foot section of the Palais du Louvre formerly occupied by the ministry of finance, ever since.
Golbin calls her work routine chaotic, but she seems to float through her heavy-duty schedule with preternatural calm, a graceful composure sprinkled with bouts of hearty, genuine laughter, and an uncanny ability to adapt and improvise, perhaps no surprise for a woman who has been known to change from her travel clothes into an Alaïa frock in the back of a New York taxi.
On a typical day, she might find herself meeting designer friends for a catch-up (both Galliano and Gaultier stopped by on just one day last week), fending calls regarding pieces bought at auction (19 lots last week from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent muse Danielle Luquet) and presenting her intended purchases to the museum’s board. “Like a lawyer, I have to present and defend every [planned] acquisition [for the museum], because every single piece has to be unanimously approved by our entire committee before entering the national collections.”
In essence, her job is all about relationships, Golbin says. Cultivating and maintaining relationships with donors, sponsors and benefactors (all of the museum’s exhibitions are 100 percent privately funded), as well as with contemporary designers, who often give prototypes to the museum.
But of course, the most splendid manifestations of her labour are the major exhibitions, which she mounts about twice a year and, all of which, Golbin says, are the fruits of intense, slowly-honed collaborations. “There is no formula for mounting an exhibition, every project is a fresh start and I have to approach it with an open mind, free of any preconceived ideas I may have on the designer or theme. But it’s always a collaborative process. Most people don’t realise how many people work for how many hours to put on an exhibition, it is actually a very long, thought-out and considered process.”
For every exhibition, Golbin assembles a new artistic team, including an exhibition designer, a graphic designer and a lighting designer, not to mention dozens of contractors. The right exhibition design, in fact, can make or break a show, especially given the wide range of visitors the Musée de la Mode et du Textile attracts. “It has to be visually engaging, stunning and surprising. The visual aspect of an exhibition is every visitor’s first [point of] access, and only if it speaks to them will they go on to the next level.” To which she adds, “Over the last decade, our public has really opened up, we have all types of visitors, from students to people who don’t know anything about fashion to people who are very passionate and knowledgeable.”
“So we have to keep in mind who is seeing our shows, language-wise, cultural background-wise and also in terms of [prior] knowledge about fashion,” she continues. “And it is important for us to layer the message and information that we’re giving and the story that we’re telling so it reaches all these different audiences.”
Proper “layering,” as she calls it, is achieved through effective scénographie, and guarantees that a blockbuster exhibit will resonate and send people home dreaming, talking and gasping about what they just saw. “The visual aspect is the most important; you have to understand intuitively from what you see what I am going to tell you in the [accompanying] texts.”
For the Vionnet exhibit, for example, Golbin placed the small wooden doll on which the designer created all her patterns at the entrance of the exhibit. “The first thing that you saw when you came in was her wooden doll, onto which she created every single one of her patterns over the span of her career.” Golbin thus provided, right at the beginning of the show, a powerful, unexpected and simple key to understanding the designer’s entire universe. Surrounding that centrepiece, she illustrated the three geometric forms with which Vionnet exclusively worked and, having thus laid out the designer’s basic vocabulary, the rest of the show provided context, brought to life through a variety of media.
In some of Golbin’s exhibits, technology is used to advance the curatorial message, but never gratuitously or as a gimmick. “Videos can be a very helpful because people are entranced by the medium. Moreover fashion is about movement, and videos capture that well,” she says. But, significantly, any visitor could have left with a basic and accurate understanding of what made Vionnet a groundbreaking pioneer without having seen the videos or read any of the texts.
And that, Golbin says, is the essence of her job, “Whether dead or living, my job is to define the signature style of a designer, highlight what makes them different, and showcase the signature visual aesthetic, proper to their values, in a way that draws in and stimulates a modern audience.”
As for her collaborations with living designers, Golbin says they have all been very different. Sometimes, it takes some convincing from her part to get a designer on board, as was the case with Nicolas Ghesquière for the “Balenciaga Paris” exhibition, which she curated in 2006, making what was widely considered a bold decision to include the work of the label’s then creative director alongside the architectural gowns, capes and bows of the house’s founder Cristobal. “Designers tend to be ambivalent about fashion exhibitions. Of course, it’s an honour for them, but at the same time these are people who are always thinking about the next, and here you are asking them to look back and think about the past, which can be a bit scary for them, especially if they are nowhere near retirement.”
Once she has gained a designer’s trust, the first thing Golbin does is visit the designer in his professional habitat. “I always first go look at how their studio is set up, because it says so much about them and about their processes.” But that initial visit is just the beginning of a continued back and forth that takes place over several months.
According to Golbin, at the root of all of her exhibitions on living designers is “a conversation that goes on and on and on.” She adds, “It is a very personal and involved process. It is about talking through a lot of stuff, about going through press clippings from the designers’ very early days — and I don’t stop asking questions.” Golbin, in fact, asks a lot of questions, which makes her job not unlike that of a detective or reporter, who conducts interviews in order to determine the essential facts from which he or she can then weave a compelling story.
At some point during this process, Golbin has a eureka moment. “Because my relationship with designers becomes so intense, there is a moment where I, all of the sudden, understand and I know intuitively where I am going to take this. I share my concept with the designer and make sure that they feel that my idea actually reflects what they are about. Quite often, I bring up things that they always knew, but that they never had really put their finger on. That’s when I know its the right way to go. When I hit that point, I sit down and write.”
Writing, it turns out, is a major component of Golbin’s profession. As chief curator, it is her job not only to conceive, plan, and mount exhibitions, but also to write the accompanying catalogues. In total, she has penned over a dozen of books so far and, at the moment, is working on three more. “There are things that can be said in a book that can’t be said in an exhibition or vice versa,” she says. And like any writer, the former math geek relishes the agonising quest for precision through language, culminating with the elusive, absurdly gratifying instance when a word encapsulates — better than any other choice in the entire lexicon — the idea she aims to convey. Golbin gushes, “I have to find the right word, which is so frustrating, and then you find it and its soooo fabulous, you feel so accomplished.”
Certainly, Golbin’s palpable professional satisfaction has to do with the fact that, over the course of her career, she not only has seen her field drastically change, but been a driving force, shaping those changes. “What has been so exciting about my career is that in the last 20 years, it’s a field that has completely been transformed. It all started with Diana Vreeland, but in the last two decades we have seen a worldwide eruption of fashion exhibitions.”
She adds, “In general, museums have become more popular, they have become tourist attractions. Going to a museum went from being a very elitist pastime to becoming a much more democratic activity.” Paired with an analogous development in fashion, which has evolved from being a relatively closed industry into a broader cultural form followed by millions, Golbin has been at the center of a revolution of not one, but two intertwining fields.
Undoubtedly, part of Golbin’s success has been a matter of being at the right place at the right time. And Golbin herself is a big believer in serendipity. “It’s what makes life so interesting. But you can only actually make the most of it if you are aware of those specific moments where you can grab something, or not, and it’ll take you somewhere else,” she says.
Accordingly, Golbin’s advises those wishing to follow in her footsteps to be as open to life and inquisitive as she has been, but also to have a realistic view of what is often falsely perceived to be an easy industry. “You need to have curiosity, if you don’t ask questions, why bother? But you also have to know that it’s a long-term commitment. It is a marathon race, not a 10k. People have a misconception about fashion that [it’s a field in which] you can quickly be a star, but that’s not true. In my career, I have seen so many people come and go — longevity doesn’t come easy.”
“If I’ve stayed at this job for 20 years, it’s because I am not yet bored. I’ve had many propositions to leave and to go elsewhere other than museums, and each time I do ask myself if it’s time to do something else. What keeps me here is the freedom I have to do whatever I want, and the fact that whenever I think I’ve done everything, a project comes along that teaches me that I still have more to discover. But will I stay here till I am 60? I hope not.”
For now, she will always have planes to escape, sleep and think of her next blockbuster exhibit.