Fashion, Opera – And Now Museums: Christian Lacroix’s Third Life

Karl was the genius,’ said Christian Lacroix, three decades after he had graduated from the Ecole du Louvre to begin his career.

‘Karl saw that my fashion was very, very theatrical and told me, “This isn’t really fashion – the patterns and the colours are all for the theatre,” then sending me off with lots of introductory letters,’ said Lacroix.

In more than three decades, from 1982 to 2018, the baroque designer moved from haute couture to opera, ballet, theatre – and now to museums. After the collapse of his indebted brand in 2009, the couturier brought out those skills that Lagerfeld had seen in him at the beginning. But his current focus is not only on performing art – but also on turning art into a visual performance.

Lacroix served as artistic director of an exhibition, ‘The Rose Empire’, earlier this year (closed July 2018) in Louvre Lens – the northern French outpost of the Paris Louvre Museum. He presented masterpieces of 19th-century Persian art as a stroll through the opulent rooms of a palace and used vivid silks and rugs as a backdrop to the rich aesthetic of the period.

Even before the doors of one exhibition had closed, Lacroix revealed another: a major exhibition opened this summer in Avignon, not so far from Lacroix’s home town of Arles.

‘Mirabilis’ read the colourful exhibition posters all over this once Papal city, where the towering stone buildings draw wonder and awe.

By contrast, the central image for the show looks jokey: a sculpture in stone of the head of a man wearing a pair of black glasses. This figure is surrounded by a crazy mix of a wing-spread butterfly collection, Turkish Iznik pottery; a 19th-century tricycle shaped as a horse; a painted bowl of fruit and images of praying nuns.

It might have been the content of an ancient attic jumbled together. And so it was! Except that the attics were plural: five city museums of Avignon, which have recently been banded together.

‘Liberté, égalité, gratuité’ – or liberty, equality and free – is the concept of Cécile Helle, the Mayor of Avignon, whose idea was to draw together a multitude of museums and encourage those who buy a ticket for the Palais des Papes in Avignon to visit the others as well without paying anything further.

‘As for ‘Mirabilis’ – I am happy to invite people to rediscover the richness of our museum collections unveiled in this cabinet of curiosity – really miraculous!’ she said.

‘Mirabilis’ translates into English as ‘marvellous’ or ‘miraculous’. The chaotic pile of pieces from the attics and cellars of five museums have been edited and put together by curator Pascale Picard with Lacroix as artistic director.

The exhibition looks like a mad, and sometimes magical, mix of objects which were mostly chosen originally as informative: bones of a dinosaur; winged butterflies; the mummies from ancient Egyptian sarcophagi – and so much more.

If that sounds crazy, it has a turn-out-your-attic fascination. These objects, displayed in the Papal Chapel, with its soaring ceiling and priestly windows, all seem to be entirely separate items in which the curator, and especially Lacroix, have found links.

Add animal bones, carved horses, stuffed birds, paintings of religious figures – all divided into displays of different character by the five museums: Calvet, Lapidaire, Petit Palais, Requien and Roure.

And far from seeing his job as imposing order onto this cabinet of curiosities, Lacroix cherished the opportunity to make a historical ‘mix-and-match’.

‘Curiosity, far from being unwise, is actually one of the rarest of qualities,’ he claims. ‘It means the desire to learn and to know, to take a closer look at the most unusual, the rarest, and the most precious things that the world, nature and life have been capable of producing.

‘Since the dawn of time, we have been looking for and collecting the most remarkable objects – the most astonishing, the strangest, jealously preserved or generously given,’ the designer continued. ‘My aesthetic tastes drew me towards the unclassifable, the strange, the baroque and the extravagant – just as much as I was drawn to the removable and the extraordinary.’

It took me a while of searching the chapel to find that compelling curly-haired figure and his eye glasses – before I realised that the two objects had nothing to do with each other. He was a sculpture made for the corner of a mausoleum in the ancient South of France city of Orange, probably around the second century, and put in the Calvert Museum around 1830.

And the glasses? Dug from a field around 1810, the Gallic-Roman object was probably made for a soldier as a primitive lucky charm.

Whether it was the eyes of Lacroix or the curatorship of the five museums which brought these apparently disparate works together, it struck me that this kind of pick-and-mix approach expresses much of that is happening in fashion today: the deliberately offbeat colours, details taken from other eras and mixing 1980s shoulders with new-millennium materials.

So maybe this surprising and fascinating display in Avignon is not so very far from Lacroix’s previous life in fashion. And perhaps he likes it that way.

‘Mirabilis’ is at the Palais des Papes, Avignon until 13 January 2019 www.palais-des-papes.com