Liz Goldwyn’s passion for clothing was exposed as early as in her late teens, when she participated in the foundation of the fashion department at Sotheby’s New York. Simultaneously, she started her ongoing reference collection of costume. After her time at Sotheby’s, she worked as a global consultant for the cosmetics company Shiseido. At the same time, she started working for magazines, having a column for the Japanese magazine Hanatsubaki, before being appointed New York editor of French Vogue, and then writing for numerous publications such as The New York Times Magazine and the Financial Times. In 2005 and 2006, she directed a film and wrote a book about 20th century Burlesque Queens, both entitled Pretty Things. Since then, she has directed short films such as Underwater Ballet and LA at Night in 2009, and curated programs at institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Le Bon Marché in Paris. In 2002, she also started designing jewellery in the context of her eponymous line, and in other creative contexts.
How would you connect fashion to elegance?
When I think about fashion and elegance, I imagine a woman from the 1950s, on an airplane, with seamed stockings, and a garment belt underneath, a skirt, high heels, and her hair that she’s done the night before, perfectly done eyeliner, lipstick, gloves, perhaps, and all this just to sit on an airplane for a transcontinental flight. I like elegance in fashion. I think of René Gruau, those long lines, the long necks of the figures he used to draw. I also think of Truman Capote’s swans. It’s an air of refinement being put together, in whatever way that might be. When I think of them, I time-travel a bit, to Irving Penn, his version of the archetypal woman.
"When I think about fashion and elegance, I imagine a woman from the 1950s, on an airplane, with seamed stockings, and a garment belt underneath, a skirt, high heels, and her hair that she’s done the night before, perfectly done eyeliner, lipstick, gloves"
What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
It’s everything. If I look at a Picasso painting of Françoise Gilot, the first thing I think is: she’s wearing a Czechoslovakian coat, probably from 1917, or 1919. I always think of the context of what people are wearing. For instance, Kees van Dongen, a painter I love: both Norman Norell and Rudi Gernreich made collections based on his work, the same year. I’ve been trying forever to track down those things. Fashion is not interesting unless it has some connection to something outside of that world. It’s the same thing with any part of the arts: you can’t just take pictures, you have to look at science, to listen to music, you have to be aware of of the connections within the world. If you take something in an isolated box, it loses all significance.
Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did it?
I think it’s a personal language, and also a very good disguise, for your psychological language. I could be completely devastated right now, but I’m wearing this pale blue dress with pompons all over, clear bracelets with sparkles, and I’ve got sparkly shoes. So I could fool you by my language.
The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
It can, obviously, if you look at Hussein Chalayan’s show with the burkas, or even Isabella Blow, when she wore the pink net burka, at the Couture shows, in Paris, as her own statement. If fashion has a political significance, it is probably culturally, as a camouflage. The Contras and Sandinistas, the Crips and the Bloods, in Los Angeles, with blue and red bandanas.
Would you relate the idea of fashion to the one of style?
They’re totally different. Fashion can often be dictated. It’s what people think we should do or wear. Style is totally personal. I never say: “I like fashion”, I always say “I like clothing”, or “I’m interested in style”, because it encompasses a broader world of what kind of books I want to read, what food I want to eat, what kind of art I want to look at…
What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
It depends on the person that’s looking at it. It’s wonderful that it can be completely frivolous, just give you a simple joy. At the same time, some people make you look at it in a certain context: people like Richard Martin, Harold Koda, Valerie Steele, to name some Americans in that field. It’s fun to be intellectual about fashion, but it’s equally important to embrace the pure joy of it.
You wrote a book and directed a film on burlesque. What is the relationship between fashion and performativity?
When you wear something to perform in, it requires a different function than when you are in your street life. Costumes have to be worn, times and times again, they have to be durable. For example, in a typical 1930s burlesque striptease, there were as many as twelve pieces involved. It’s a great challenge when fashion designers have to work with choreographers or set director: I love the ballet Comme des Garçons did, and someone like the choreographer Michael Clark really uses fashion very well. Also Gaultier for Madonna. For my film Pretty Things (HBO 2005), I had a costume made by Costume National, and it was interesting to have to go back and forth, say “this jacket doesn’t work, I can’t strip it off in time, let’s think about the choreography of things”.
Where does the unity between the multifaceted ways you address costume and clothing actually stand?
My own version of “fashion” has to do with history, sexuality and an emotional place, a sentimentality, which goes back to history.
In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the curator and critic Aaron Rose