Jessica in conversation with The V&A’s Acting Senior Curator of Fashion, Sonnet Stanfill

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JMU:  Sonnet, we had the pleasure of meeting last month as a part of the ever-evolving association of the V&A with contemporary working artists. As curator of both the 20th Century and contemporary fashion collections at the museum how important is it for you to employ the work of artists working today?

SS:  The V&A’s founding mission was to serve as a resource for designers, makers and manufacturers. We continue to serve this purpose, for example in the Textiles and Fashion section, by opening up our permanent collection for appointments, to mount exhibitions that focus on varied aspects of fashion history and to display and showcase the work of contemporary designers in exhibitions, displays and events such as Fashion in Motion.

JMU:  As an illustrator it is imperative that my knowledge of historical fashion and culture remain as acute as possible – something the V&A permanent collection provides in volume for an artist such as myself. References to dates, artistic movements and designers are part of every commission in its early stages. Is there an era that you particularly enjoy researching yourself, and have your tastes altered since being exposed to such a volume of work at the museum?

SS:  It is always difficult to pinpoint one era, and it is usually the period that I am researching at any given moment that interests me the most! However, I do find the post-war era particularly compelling. The hunger for beautiful design and little luxuries after a period of terrible destruction and deprivation gave rise to so many bold and innovative fashion-related businesses, and it was also a period when female entrepreneurs really came to the fore.

JMU:  Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty recently closed after the most successful run in the museum’s history. Having worked in the McQueen studio for the 2007 collections I learned how directly line drawing was utilised across embellishment to design and decoration. The synergy of painting, historical research and great, great design is something so well portrayed throughout the exhibit. What, for you, was the most interesting part of the process of bringing this event to life?

SS:  The exhibition’s curator, Claire Wilcox, worked tirelessly to ensure that this project both paid homage to McQueen’s talent, and also included examples of work from those with whom he collaborated. For me, the exhibition’s highlight and heart was the Cabinet of Curiosities section, which was both a tour de force of curatorial excellence, as well as a breathtaking illustration of the talent of those milliners, shoemakers, jewellers and other craftspeople who helped McQueen’s catwalk shows come to life.

JMU:  As an illustrator I have huge responsibility to communicate from proposal to realisation with acute accuracy. As curator your role is in portraying a mood and an aesthetic from extremely diverse mergings of information. How do you begin to approach telling a subject’s narrative exhibition form? Have there been any exhibitions that have altered from their expected direction as research and information progresses?

SS:  It may seem obvious to say that it’s important to start with the objects, but really that is the first step. If it is an exhibition that will draw heavily from the V&A’s own collection, that means assessing the Museum’s own collection first, to determine what we have that will tell the story in a visually compelling way. Sometimes, if objects don’t survive, or are not possible to include, one might then shift direction or emphasise other things.

JMU:  I worked in the US in a vintage print archive with access to swatches and drawings from the turn of the century. I believe fashion illustration to be one of the most successful forms of aesthetic communication throughout history. How strong do you believe that relationship is today in such a progressive and technological driven culture, and what is it that you personally appreciate about the relationship between art and fashion design?

SS:  Today, fashion illustration is a thriving medium. I value its combination of factual information with interpretative feeling conveyed by the hand of the illustrator. This makes it also a medium that’s incredibly useful for a curator seeking contextual material to enhance our understanding of a garment or a particular period.

JMU:  Finally, which exhibition subjects are being worked towards for future presentation?

The V&A’s upcoming exhibition programme is brimming with wonderful projects. I am looking forward to ‘The Fabric of India’ which opens 3 October, 2015. It will be a visually stunning, beautifully researched celebration of extraordinary craftsmanship.