CALAIS, France — “It was a happy accident.”
Fashion designer Olivier Theyskens’ eyes shone when recalling the first time he dug into the archives of the Cité de la Dentelle, a museum dedicated to the art of lace in Calais, France, in preparation for his exhibition “In Praesentia,” which debuts on Saturday and celebrates the museum’s 10th anniversary.
Alongside curator Lydia Kamitsis, who also worked with Theyskens for his 2017 retrospective at the MoMu in Antwerp, the designer went through boxes and boxes of garments, textiles, tools and documents retracing the history of lace-making in Calais — where the technique was mechanized in the 1820’s and created a real industrial boom for the region — and was stunned by what he found.
“I pulled out these two silk taffetas dresses from the 1860’s, one royal blue, one ochre,” said the designer. “And realized that I had created the two exact same silhouettes in my own collections. They didn’t only share the same fabric — they were both the same shape and the same color as two dresses I created in 2000, one for spring and one for fall. They were crazily identical.”
The same surreal vibe runs through the whole exhibition, which is submerged in darkness — visitors are handed individual torches to help them read the captions — and consists in a composition of 20 thematic sections mixing designs from Theyskens’ own brand as well as silhouettes created when he was artistic director of Rochas then Nina Ricci, alongside items from the Cité de la Dentelle’s extensive archives.
“Olivier had already done a retrospective on his work, so here we wanted to do something different,” said Kamitsis. “This exhibition wasn’t built to reflect his inspirations but to create something new: We associated elements from Olivier’s personal history to the discoveries we were making little by little in the museum’s collections, like explorers. There were a lot of magical meetings.”
It’s the first time the museum’s technical tools are shown to the public. In the first scene of the exhibition, a wooden lace press stands next to a delicate black bustier dress from Olivier Theyskens’s fall 2019 collection created in collaboration with lace house Darquer, one of the oldest lace manufacturers in Calais — Theyskens actually started working with Darquer after encountering the manufacturer’s work during exhibition prep.
Further along, a frilly black lace dress from Theyskens’ personal archives is surrounded by discarded bobbin stands, the metal spikes of which look disturbingly S&M when surrounded by sensual lace and the pair of dizzyingly high heel-less leather boots Theyskens created for Nina Ricci fall 2009.
“There are around 4,500 to 5,500 bobbins on a Leavers machine,” said museum curator Shazia Boucher of the traditional weaving machine used to make Calais lace. “It’s a whole industry: 25 to 30 different actions are required to make a single strip of Leavers lace.”
Lace runs through the whole of Theyskens’ personal history, from the first silhouettes he created as a fashion student of La Cambre, using strips of vintage lace found in his grandmother’s attic, to a breathtaking bustier gown he designed while at Rochas imitating the house’s signature Chantilly lace.
“When I first started at Rochas in 2002, almost right away I got obsessed with re-creating the house’s own lace, a black Chantilly on a colored background Marcel Rochas often used on his dresses,” said the 42-year-old designer.
“I met with lace manufacturer Sophie Hallette in Caudry, in the Calais region, and together we worked for a year and a half to re-create the original lace,” he continued. “I was blown away by the process of lacemaking: The environment is so brutalist, whereas lace is such a delicate and precious product. The machines are huge and there is black powder — graphite used to lubricate the machines — everywhere. You couldn’t imagine it.”
The exhibition isn’t only about lace, though. Dresses by Worth and Molyneux are shaken up by some of Theyskens’ more out-there creations, such as a tulle bodysuit embroidered with fake hair, and an entire section is devoted to the technique of the bias cut as exemplified by half a dozen silhouettes created by Theyskens throughout his career, different iterations of the same technique at Rochas, Nina Ricci and his own brand.
“Our exhibitions are also a way to bring in a new audience, one that isn’t necessarily familiar with fashion exhibitions or couture,” said Anne-Claire Laronde, director of the museum. “We are located in a region that has a strong textile history as it is the birthplace of lace, one of the only textiles to have been actually invented in Europe. We need to celebrate that.”