Whether in reference to the students or the tutors, Central Saint Martins is “about the people that are there”. That’s the view of Alistair O’Neill, tutor of Fashion History and Theory, among myriad other roles, but ask anyone at 1 Granary, the magazine and the building, and it’s a sentiment that holds.
You may not be familiar with the Fashion History and Theory pathway, with its academic leaning in a college celebrated for its applied arts, but you’ll have no doubt seen Alistair’s recent projects proliferate your Twitter feeds, followed by #BlowExhibition or #Valentino hash tags. Perhaps you’ve experienced them in person at London’s Somerset House.
Valentino: Master of Couture and Fashion Galore, a celebration of the life and legacy of Isabella Blow, were exhibitions with Alistair at the helm and, uniquely, a Saint Martins presence in the opportunities he provided for his students, who contributed to each show. “I’m both a writer and curator”, but beyond that, an engaging mentor, whose inconceivably vast knowledge of fashion, photography and film had us questioning as a class how you would even begin to acquire that sort of knowledge. So, in order to find out, we asked.
“I find fashion very, very rich material in which to try and understand recent history.”
We will admit to searching online to try and find out more about you, but it’s actually quite hard to find anything about your background before you started your MA at the Royal College of Art. What were you doing before that?
I did a foundation course in Art and Design at Kingston College, and I wanted to pursue fine art, so I went on to do quite an unusual course for its time at the University of Brighton. If you wanted to study fine art, you had four options; you could study painting, sculpture, print- making, or something which they then called Alternative Practice.
It’s quite strange to think back on it now, and reflect that you had to do that kind of course if you wanted to do work which was installation-based, about both still and moving image, and sound, so it was quite an experimental course. A lot of my work was motivated by issues of taste and style, and also, in a funny way now that I think about it, articulations of history.
So what motivated you to move from something practical to the History of Design (MA) at the RCA?
By that point, I’d already become very disillusioned with the idea of wanting to become an artist… I met a very inspirational tutor called Alison Clarke, and she really helped me appreciate that there was a design discourse alongside an art one, and it’s from there that I started to become interested in museums. One of my first roles was in acting as a student voice for the 20th century gallery at the V&A, and it’s from there that I really got to learn about the MA course that they run with the RCA.
When did the focus of your studies shift onto fashion?
I’ve always been interested in fashion, I just never really found a focus for it, and then I suppose it just really developed in relation to what I was teaching, and the kinds of things I started to first write about.
“I think constraints are always creative if approached the right way.”
Was teaching something that you’d considered as a career quite early on?
When I was at the RCA, I taught at Camberwell Art College on some of the part-time courses… but I never thought that I was going to have a career in it; I never thought that I would have a career as a researcher. I had interests, and I wanted to pursue them, and I suppose that that’s what has defined my career to-date, that I’ve been honourable to the things that motivate me, and I’m still fascinated by them. I’m not tired of them yet.
What is it that keeps you fascinated?
I find fashion very, very rich material in which to try and understand recent history… and I think that the Isabella Blow project is a good example of how you can use an exhibition to call to question recent history. With ‘Fashion Galore!’ it’s not just about one woman’s wardrobe. It’s about using the exhibition as an opportunity to actually examine and represent what that was about, and I find it fascinating that you can point to the contribution British fashion made to international fashion at that point through the effects of someone’s wardrobe. And it’s not just located in dress; a lot of my work has been about looking at representations of dress, particularly through photography, and seeing what that can tell us about sensibilities, and ideas of appearance and identity.
With there being such “rich material”, whether photography or dress, how do you begin filtering that information, and deciding what’s important to include?
First and foremost, it’s about the material available to you – or not. That can sometimes be a filter, but… it always returns me to that thing that I used to do when I composed lectures, which was going to the slide library and pulling out slides, and then asking, how can you make a lecture out of twenty images? I tend to think visually first, and then I use that to structure what I want to say.
With an exhibition, it’s not really that different, it’s just that instead of them being slides, they might be objects, or they could be images, or there might be sound clips, etc. In terms of how you approach filtering contemporary fashion, and making judgements with which you can say, “that was important”, it’s much trickier. I think that the recent sessions I’ve done with the 2nd years about 21st- century chronology, and how you define the last thirteen years is a case in point.
“Curation is about being able to articulate a point of difference from what’s been widely understood to-date about your subject matter.”
That was difficult without there being much distance between then and now. How do you overcome constraints like that when someone asks you to curate an exhibition?
I think constraints are always creative if approached the right way. I also think curation is about being able to articulate a point of difference from what’s been widely understood to-date about your subject matter. For instance, when it came to doing the Valentino exhibition, there had been a retrospective in Rome and in Paris, and essentially we were working with the same objects. We felt that if we were going to do that, we had to be able to articulate a point of difference. In that instance, it was about demonstrating how Italian couture differs from the French model, and the next part of that was actually trying to unpack what Italian couture techniques are. Some of the fundamental principles of why you are trying to do something from the outset are not necessarily that apparent in the final product, but I think what’s interesting about exhibitions is that you always want to structure them so that a number of different kinds of visitors can come and take something from it.
The number of visitors seems to be growing, with people saying that fashion exhibitions have become a huge “draw card” for museums in the past five years. Why do you think that is?
I think an exhibition visitor wanting to see a show like Fashion Galore! is motivated by the fact that they can get closer to an industry that they’re normally excluded from. They’re motivated by what they see in broader popular culture about fashion, and they want to learn more about it.
I think one of the reasons why Savage Beauty [an exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s work, held in 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York] was such a success in the States is that most American exhibition visitors had never seen anything like it before. It wasn’t just about the power the clothes had, and their authority, it was about their craftsmanship; it was the fact that you could get up close and you could see it. They might well have seen these things as images, but they’d never seen it in the flesh before.
Do you think the growing popularity of the fashion exhibition might also be because of that – the amount of static, 2D imagery available to us online? That maybe going out and engaging with an exhibition can be seen as a point-of- difference from our everyday experience of fashion on the internet?
Fashion exhibitions are tangible, physical environments with things in, and so it’s very different from reacting to something through a digital portal, and I think people really like that. It’s also something that you can do by yourself, or with other people, and in that sense, it’s a way of filling time, or spending your leisure time that’s not that different from going to the cinema… I think that’s what people are responding to.
There’s whole swathes of VHS-led fashion journalism that’s just not really around anymore, and I think that one of the problems with the net is that people think it’s all out there, and it’s all available, and it’s not.”
Has today’s digital culture affected how you approach your own work, and the things you take into consideration?
Well, I suppose what’s interesting about this exhibition, Fashion Galore! is the way in which a lot of the audio-visual material is analogue, so it’s pre-digital, and it’s amazing how little of it you can access through digital libraries and collections. It really surprised me that so much just wasn’t there any more… there’s whole swathes of VHS-led fashion journalism that’s just not really around anymore, and I think that one of the problems with the net is that people think it’s all out there, and it’s all available, and it’s not.
It’s quite hard to find images of whole collections from before 2000/2001 online. Do you engage much with fashion online in your own time?
RSS feed has been my saviour. It’s helped me de-clutter my inbox… So, I choose when I want to connect, rather than it reminding me of what I’m missing. I think the opportunities of what you can interact with out there are really wonderful, but the kind of sites that I really like are few and far between. For instance, there’s a blog called Little Augury, which I love; The Cutting Class, I really like… and Garmento. I subscribe to The New York Times, as well as The Guardian. I obviously read academic journals too, so I’ll look at those through our college e-library.
Do you think that there are other ways of engaging with digital that could change the way work is exhibited? The MA course for Creative Practice for Narrative Environments at the college has been looking at how 3D printing could shape the future of curation by enabling visitors to touch displayed objects, and also have them appear in different parts of the world at the same time. Do you think there is a future in that?
I think that the advent of 3D printing is going to have an unbelievable effect on the culture of exhibitions, and I think that we haven’t even started to predict what that’s going to be like. Fashion curation has been rather slow in responding to the possibilities of digital space. People could start to develop a critical space for fashion exhibitions online, because it does allow you to think through some of the challenges of curating a physical space; it allows you to rehearse it certainly. However, I think the price-point of 3D printing needs to come down a little bit more before it becomes really accessible.
“The advent of 3D printing is going to have an unbelievable effect on the culture of exhibitions.”
How do you see your role as a tutor fit into the context of your own curatorial work and research?
I’ve always felt that it is important to use your work to reflect back on what it is that you’re delivering to you students, and what I’ve been able to do more recently, and what I’m really pleased about, is to be able to involve my students to a certain extent in the projects I’m working on. I think that if you can offer those kinds of opportunities, it makes a big difference, and I think for students, it means that they see the subject as a live concern. It’s not something that’s purely studied and detached from its industrial sense.
Is there anything about being at Central Saint Martins in particular that affects how you approach your work?
Yes, absolutely. The reason why I enjoy being there is because it allows me to appreciate the relationship between theory and practice. So, for me, writing in an academic way about fashion has to be necessarily influenced by being in an environment where the practice of making it is all around you. You can’t help but pick up on that. What I think is unique about the course in terms of being in Central Saint Martins, and the reason why I want to be there, is the people who are there.
Having taught and studied at some of London’s best art and fashion colleges, and having written London: After a Fashion, you seem well placed to ask what makes this city unique in its contribution to the creative arts. It’d be reductive to ask someone to formally unpack what makes London exciting, but what makes London exciting for you?
Samuel Johnson said a very long time ago that “a man who is tired of London is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford”. I really passionately believe in that, because there is an embarrassment of riches in London. It’s amazing. I love the museums and galleries; the collections and the archives and libraries; its vibrant culture of exhibitions. I love its restaurant and food scene, and just walking in London, and the fact that it’s a truly global city.
In terms of how you can think about fashion’s contribution to the city, it’s not just about catwalk fashion. I think street fashion is still very important to a history of London fashion, and that London’s fashion education is really important from that art school tradition.
Also, I enjoy the kinds of sources that you’re able to draw upon, whether Kerry Taylor, as a good example of how to be a great auctioneer of surviving dress, or amazing collections like the Clothworkers’ Centre, or November Books, and Claire de Rouen Books. I find the richness of its offer really inspiring.
Interview by Sara McAlpine
Photography by Hanna Moon
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