Art of fashion

The work of fashion designer Dries Van Noten has been placed alongside major artworks in a stunning show at the Louvre. Irishman Patrick Scallon played a key role persuading galleries around the world to give up their treasures, writes Deirdre McQuillan


At three in the morning under cover of darkness in Paris, a 16th Bronzino portrait of a young sculptor was lifted carefully from its position in the Louvre and transported along the unlit corridors of the building to another side of the palace. This was the first time the painting had been moved since it was originally bought by Louis XIV in Florence, and it is one of the star pieces in an extraordinary multi-disciplinary exhibition currently at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs celebrating the work of Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten.

“It is not a career retrospective. It is about creativity,” says Pamela Golbin, curator of the exhibition and chief curator at the museum. For Van Noten it is an introspective “about the way I look at things, intuition and emotion”.

It is broad in scope and ambition; there are more than 400 items on show. Pieces from the designer’s collections are juxtaposed with clothes and artworks that have engaged and stimulated his imagination since his student days in Antwerp in the 1970s, drawn from museums, galleries and private collections. A butterfly gown by Schiaparelli from 1937, for instance, is displayed in front of a 2007 work by Damien Hirst with thousands of butterfly wings, just some of the startling relationships that triggered ideas for a fashion collection. There are dresses from Balenciaga and Dior, to Westwood and Versace; exceptional works of art from the 16th century to Rothko, Picasso, Francis Bacon and music from Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols.

Masterminding its execution alongside Van Noten is Patrick Scallon, a 50-year-old Irishman from Irvinestown, Fermanagh, who has been working as the designer’s communications director for the past seven years. Negotiating with galleries, artists and photographers for loans and permissions has been a formidable four-year task demanding considerable skills of diplomacy and persuasion. Though most artists were happy to take part, some were initially reluctant.

“A lot of them were afraid of their work diminishing in value by associating with fashion. This exhibition is breaking the mould without being pretentious. You were confronted with a lot of their snobberies and a lot is self-imposed. Sometimes you forget that they are watching us more than we are watching them,” observes Scallon wryly when we meet in Paris.

Fashion and art often collide, but their convergence is illustrated provocatively in this exhibition, which is attracting record attendances – in its first month some 2,900 daily – as well as museum curators from all over the world intrigued by its pioneering combination of different creative fields. The run has now been extended to November and a version will open in Antwerp in February. Advanced negotiations are underway for its move to New York in 2015.

The logistics were formidable. The Hirst work, for example, weighs more than 100kg and the doors of the museum space had to be removed to get it in. Ten people from the Louvre had to be sent to London for three days’ training in how to handle it properly. The Bacon works from the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin were of particular importance since Bacon’s use of colour directly influenced Van Noten’s 2009 controversial women’s collection, with its flesh tones. In one section, on the peacock male, a Van Dyck painting and portraits of Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust are shown alongside items from a winter men’s collection.

A tall, commanding figure usually dressed in clinical white jackets or blue suits, Scallon commutes between Paris, where he lives, and Van Noten’s headquarters in Antwerp. A genial manner disguises a sharp, well informed and shrewd personality that’s highly respected in the industry and who in another life might have been a successful career diplomat.

The eldest son of Fermanagh businessman Oliver Scallon and his wife Fidelma, and a relative of politician and former presidential candidate Dana Scallon, he was educated at Ring, Co Waterford and Gormanston College, Co Meath, later studying politics, philosophy and economics at UCD.

After doing a European Commission stage (student traineeship) in Brussels, he decided to stay on in the city, and a chance encounter with the business partner of a then up-and-coming young Belgian designer, Martin Margiela, led to a temporary job that was to change the direction of his life. What began as three weeks turned into 17 years with the elusive designer, working as communications director and eventually artistic director. “I was the only person outside the company that people met and it allowed me to grow creatively,” he recalls. “People saw me as the gatekeeper and what attracted me was less the clothing and more the behavioural aspect. It was a period of great personal growth and that of the team. It was less about fashion as communication and more about the creative journey of an idea,” he says. When the company was taken over and Margiela left (he now studies picture restoration), Scallon joined Dries Van Noten as communications director in 2008.

Sitting in his office in the Rue des Archives in the Marais, Scallon describes how closely he works with Van Noten on every aspect of the company’s communications as well as fashion shows, exhibitions, events and creative associations.

“Working with him was a personal challenge. He was not just an incredibly polite, well mannered aesthete at the edge of the periphery as was the case, but an active, important and powerful independent central player in the industry. He is now one of the most lauded out there. Many designers are now owned by powerful international brands, it is tough these days to remain independent, people now have respect for independents.”

Van Noten does not advertise and his fashion shows, which get bigger and grander every year, are key statements in projecting his image. “We need to sell clothes and even more so when you are a small company. What you see on the runway at our shows is what we make and 95 per cent of the fabrics are exclusive,” he points out.

As head of press teams in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Hamburg and Antwerp, Scallon knows these cities intimately, visiting galleries, artists and seeing friends. His brother Murray, for example, is a designer with the Italian company Zegna in Milan. Scallon travels extensively, often independently, for work and is well used to forging relationships and associations with designers, bringing artists “into the fold” where his own taste can be introduced. He was responsible, for example, for persuading the “godfather of punk”, Malcom McLaren, to compose the soundtrack for a show in 2010, just before the musician’s death.“I am very focused and absorbed in what I do, but having a creative passion fills your life,” he says. He came out at 28 (“it wasn’t easy”), and though he now lives alone, has had “profound” personal relationships outside the industry. “I always needed to switch off and not think about fashion, yet it was always in the room.”

He turned 50 last year “and all of a sudden having never thought about age, you realise the industry is changing and you are falling into this elder statesman role. We have always had three or four fashion students working here and I spend my time having dinner with them, so I am constantly surrounded by young people.” He returns to Fermanagh annually and his parents and sisters, Paula and Helen, visit him in Paris.

“What I love about the exhibition is that we shouldn’t care whether it is fashion or art; fashion is a creative force full of talented people and it is a collective process. Dries is very good at associating things not normally associated, and this exhibition is about levelling the playing field between the two.

My job is to facilitate things for others. I have always been reluctant to say that I am good at what I do, but I am certainly passionate about it.”

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