In conversation with Paula Alaszkiewicz, a historical and curatorial consultant specialising in fashion based in Paris. She talks to WLP about her latest projects as well as her insights on her experience as an emerging curator.
Born in Canada, she studied art history at McGill University before completing a Master of Arts in History and Culture of Fashion at London College of Fashion. Paula's research focuses on theories of fashion museology and nineteenth-century sites of commodity display. Her writing has appeared in academic and popular press, including Fashion, Style & Popular Culture, Bias: Journal of Dress Practice, and Numero Russia.
Paula is currently working as a curatorial assistant to exhibition-maker Judith Clark. Alongside Clark, she was the assistant curator of the inaugural exhibition at the Galerie Louis Vuitton in Asnières-sur-Seine.
How was your experience working on the Louis Vuitton exhibition?
It was amazing. I only graduated from my Master’s one year ago. I submitted my dissertation on a Friday and the following Monday I started working full time on the project with Judith.
In terms of a first big project, it was fantastic. Louis Vuitton has an incredible history that is so well documented and well preserved. I think for any cultural historian or fashion historian, to be able to see the type of material that they’ve kept is quite the opportunity, both for the material itself and how it relates to such an exciting moment. Louis Vuitton was founded in Paris in the 1850s. It’s the moment of modernity and throughout their existence, the company has remained very modern. I did not anticipate that their history would grab me in the way that it did.
It’s a privilege to access the heart of a successful brand like Louis Vuitton. To be able to read handwritten notes and cards, to flip through sketchbooks -it humanises the company. We are reminded that they were founded and run by a family (the Vuitton’s).
You did work mainly as a researcher. Were you also involved in other aspects of the exhibition?
I was the assistant curator and so I was involved in many areas.
It is great to see the whole process when doing an exhibition and not focusing in only one aspect.
It is and it is such a collaborative effort. Between Louis Vuitton’s archive department and events team, and the Centre for Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion, it was very collaborative. Simply from being bilingual I did a lot of back and forth between teams!
Did you have any input with the design of the exhibition?
No, that is really Judith’s role. The whole exhibition design was inspired by an object that we found in the archive, which had corresponding sketches and lovely advertisements.
Louis Vuitton is your first big project that you’ve been involved in. Any previous projects that you have worked in?
Less directly on the curatorial side but I had worked with the Fashion Space Gallery and with the Barbican Art Gallery in London.
What did you do at the Barbican?
I developed private educational tours for the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition.
How was the experience?
Great! That exhibition launched in Montreal while I was living there. It was in the Fine Art Museum in Montreal, which is a neoclassical building, and seeing it in the Barbican totally changed the experience.
In which way?
It highlighted how important a venue is and how a venue can completely change your perception of the content of the exhibition. The Barbican fits so well with Gaultier! There is something to be said for the contrast between Gaultier -the "enfant terrible" of fashion- and a neoclassical setting. The Barbican is such a fantastic but such an ugly building! I love the Barbican, it’s my favourite building in London. I love Brutalism. But that is the beauty of it.
Are you working on a new project that you can tell us about?
Judith has a new project coming up at the Barbican next year, it's an exhibition called The Vulgar. It’s a collaboration with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and is simultaneously new research that he is preparing and Judith’s curatorial work. It will run from October 2016 until February 2017.
Judith also has an exhibition series called Fashion Project in Miami at Bal Harbour Shops. That’s what we have been working on as of late.
So you have also been involved in the Miami Project? Also doing the research?
Yes, exactly. Academic and archival research, visual research – which I specifically adore. Writing, and more research.
I am also contributing research to a forthcoming exhibition on Expo ’67 and Fashion in Montreal in the 1960s, which will show at the McCord Museum in 2017. It’s an exciting project and it dovetails very nicely with my own academic work on fashion and the international exhibition. My first museum internship was with the McCord’s Costume and Textiles Department so it is a pleasure to be collaborating with them again.
During your Masters at London College of Fashion, did you have the chance to do internships?
Yes. I did a short internship with the V&A for Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. I also worked with Bloomsbury on the fashion photography archive. I authored some of the designer biographies that will be launching with the incredible database that they are creating.
Your role within the Savage Beauty exhibition, was it also research based?
It was in their research department. A lot of the research had already been completed. I was organising, categorising, and so on. It was fascinating to see all the work that goes on behind the scenes for a major exhibition.
And then your work with Acne…
Acne launched an office in Paris for their creative side in April of 2015. To celebrate this, I consulted with Acne and their event planner on an installation of stills and photographs from advertisements that they’ve produced. It involved going through various campaigns and choosing imagery and coming up with a layout to suit the venue, which was the Swedish Institute in Paris.
So you have been very busy, from one project to the other!
Yes, very! And that's along with writing, applying to conferences and developing my own work!
So how did you come across the MA at LCF?
My undergraduate is in art history and European history. Within a year or two years of studies (in Canada an undergraduate takes four years) I began using art history as a way to talk about fashion and its visual culture. I started investigating how dress is used to convey identity in portraiture and looking at collaborations between artists and designers. It all came very organically and I realised that it was my fascination.
During that time I also noticed how neglected fashion can be by the academy. My professors and classmates were supportive, but in the context of a traditional art history department there were certain restrictions. I started researching specific fashion history programs offered at the graduate level. Instead of using art history and history as an entry point, I wanted to be fully immersed in fashion studies.
Fashion is often seen as frivolous, rather than the very complex cultural system that it is. I actually find this to be exciting rather than limiting. I am dedicated to fashion studies and am optimistic about its future - there is room for many conversations and voices on the subject.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
I am going to answer with a general reflection. My highlight is feeling like I am doing something what is the natural progression of everything I have previously done and studied, despite not necessarily knowing then that this path existed, let alone was the one I would take. It goes back to childhood. For example, watching Fashion Television and looking through my mother’s magazines, I didn’t know then that I was building a vocabulary of references and images that have stayed with me and proven to be very valuable. Or going to French school when I was young, I had no idea how important being bilingual would be to my work. At the time you don’t know how well that will serve you, because it’s natural.
Fashion has always been my visual inspiration and has held a fascination over me, but I did not want to work in the fashion industry. I wanted to work with and alongside fashion without being directly inside of it. To be able to look back at a childhood love of museums and fashion imagery, followed by studies in art history and history, where I am now seems like a very logical place and one that is tailored to myself.
Do you have any thoughts on how you would like to continue your career?
Yes. I’m in the process of submitting my proposal for a PhD.
I would also like to do my own exhibitions. I have some project ideas that I’m very enthusiastic about it and am exploring opportunities to realise them. I’d like it to be a natural progression of my experience and ability. I believe very strongly in learning through experience and that experience is invaluable. I feel confident having done the Vuitton project, in my ability and in my point of view as a ‘curator’. It is a very nice feeling; it fuels my ambition.
I don’t know if you had any thoughts on... if you prefer to be an independent curator or if you prefer to work within an institution.
If I had to choose I would say independent, largely because of my interest in sites of fashion display. In any future projects I do, I would be very interested in moving outside of the museum but referencing the museum language and playing with its systems and visual codes. It would be a cross-pollination between various sites of fashion display; a museum institution quoting department story style display or a department store having a museum style.
Are there any aspects as a curator that you would like to develop further? We find interesting the differences of terminology between a fashion curator or exhibition maker, for instance I’m thinking about Judith Clark who calls herself an exhibition maker. It feels that exhibition maker encompasses more roles.
Yes, I agree. Esentially, I believe very strongly in a holistic approach. I don’tthink I would feel comfortable hiring a set designer or a builder and not having any input. That’s also my endless curiosity speaking!
As for developing a role or an area… everything! I am very curious by nature. Everything leads to something else, which is lovely because it means that no experience or skill is wasted.
What aspects do you think are more challenging during the process of putting together an exhibition?
Working alongside Judith has highlighted for me how important collaboration and trusting your collaborators is. Graphic designers, set builders, and prop makers are integral to the show. Having a trusted team of collaborators is crucial! This isn’t a challenge in itself but it requires time, trust, and following your intuition.
Books, journals, magazines that you are reading or inspired.
Fashion at the Edge by Caroline Evans; and Techniques of the Observer and Suspensions of Perception, both by Jonathan Crary. I get chills every time I open the first page and read it again.
The magazine Flaneur. They pick one street in a city per issue and the whole issue is about that street. I know about them because they did one on a street from my neighbourhood in Montreal, it was the perfect nostalgia.