Claire Wilcox is Senior Curator of Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum and was responsible for staging the current highly successful Alexander McQueen : Savage Beauty exhibition portraying the work of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen. She is married to the potter and writer Julian Stair, lives in Court Lane and is a member of The Dulwich Society
I should have remembered from my own undergraduate days, never to ask an academic a direct question because the answer will always be to have a look at such and such a book and make up my own opinion. So it was as we sat in Professor Wilcox’s sunny kitchen recently. However, she said it with a smile my further probing into her main work as senior curator of fashion at the V & A was willingly answered.
Claire Wilcox was born in 1954 and grew up in Fulham, then an area less affluent than today, where her father owned a shop selling wools and haberdashery. He was a man of wide interests, amongst which was music, and he played professionally in the age of the big bands. Her mother, a teacher had a particular interest in fashion. They lived above the shop which still remains in the family. A move was made to a house in Chiswick and she attended Godolphin & Latymer School. As a child she had a great love of books, totally immersing herself in them. Her family tells the story of the occasion when once she was sitting reading in an armchair when visitors came and went without her realising they were ever there.
When preparing for an A level in Art History, one of her teachers, Miss Goodwin, gave her a valuable piece of advice. It was to visit the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was through this suggestion that she discovered the institution with which she would have a lifelong connection. A gap year before university followed, when, accompanied by the essentials of a friend, a guitar and a copy of War and Peace, Claire headed for the unlikely destination of Afghanistan. Although probably not the choice of her laid-back parents the experience was interesting and no doubt to their relief, she returned safely to go up to Exeter University to read English. It was there, as an impecunious student, that she was able to indulge in her love of textiles and vintage clothing by patronizing second hand clothes stalls with her friends, and where she was in her element wearing 1930’s printed crepe dresses.
Her association with the V&A was renewed when, after graduation she returned to London and to the flat above her father’s shop which she shared with a couple of friends, and did voluntary work in the Textiles and Fashion department the V&A. Eventually she secured a 3 year contract at the museum as an assistant curator under the wing of Valerie Mendes who would be her mentor and for whom she retains great affection. Among other things, it was Mendes who taught Claire the art of display.
In all she spent four years working with Valerie Mendes, the culmination of which was the opening of the redisplay of the museum’s fashion gallery in 1983. It was greeted with wide acclaim. Suddenly, however, after all the excitement of the work leading up to the opening, there were less challenging things to do and so at the age of 29 she made the decision to do a second degree in, in Art, at Camberwell Art College....... if they would have her.
The staff at the V & A, Valerie Mendes, and Julian Stair, who was then studying at Camberwell, were all bemused. Julian Stair, soon to be her husband, felt particularly responsible as he thought he might have 'talked Camberwell up'. However, her parents, free spirits that they were, supported her decision. “It was the best thing I ever did”, she states firmly. The Foundation Course had already started when she applied, and the textile module, and her natural choice, was already full. She had however been a keen sculptor and had a portfolio which was impressive enough for her to be accepted. The foundation course was a valuable experience which she thoroughly enjoyed and she went on to complete her second degree specializing in ceramics and painting. During this time she had maintained contact with the V & A, and Valerie Mendes, “doing a bit of writing and cataloguing”
After completing her degree at Camberwell, she and Julian started a family and have two daughters. Their early health problems demanded much of her attention but she continued to enjoy pottery, working with Julian and other ceramicists at a studio in Brixton but says she did not have their driving passion. Her mind was elsewhere. She had lots of ideas racing through her brain. Several years of freelance writing followed, including her first book for the V&A, Modern Fashion in Detail, culminating in a commission from the Crafts Council to curate an exhibition called Satellites of Fashion, a Crafts Council show which featured accessories. This exhibition was so well received that it was picked up by the British Council and toured the world. That same year, with her daughters Hattie aged 6 and Rose aged 8, then settled into the Village infants’ and Dulwich Hamlet schools, Claire was offered a permanent post as fashion curator at the V & A. “I will have to think about it” was her response. Even now she cannot believe she said that. But she did not hesitate for long. Valerie Mendes had moved up to become Keeper at the museum and Claire was given a free hand. She was clearly a breath of fresh air in the gallery and she was encouraged try out the ideas with which her brain was fully buzzing. The museum was in something of a rut and probably took her on because it knew she was a risk taker but could deliver. Relieved of most administrative duties in her new role, she was free to develop these ideas.
She says that she was aged 45, when she re-entered the workplace and remarks, “Perhaps I am a ray of hope to late developers - I had tried many things, I was happily married and had moved to Dulwich. I was brimming over with ideas. Everything I had done (in my life) was coming to the point; I had waited so long to find myself. Curating brought together two things I was good at, writing, either a book or an exhibition text, and the visual.”
She began with a ground breaking experiment which was to put live models into an exhibition in the somewhat sterile space of a museum. It was entitled Fashion in Motion and was first staged in 1999, the same year as Satellites of Fashion.
That was sixteen years ago, when a limited budget precluded international designers’ work from being shown. It had the effect of promoting virtually only British fashion. An early collaborator was Alexander McQueen. He was only the second designer to agree to participate in what was a revolutionary concept and the idea resonated with his rebellious nature. “Fashion in Motion”, Claire says, “Still happens every year at the V & A. It is now so successful that it has its own curator - and it is still free!” She has a refreshing attitude to her work - “Let’s get the stuff out ! Let’s see how we can show fashion in a creative way”.
With her reputation now established, Radical Fashion, an exhibition featuring the artistic side of fashion and showcasing the work of eleven international designers followed at the V & A in 2001. “ I invited those that I thought were free radicals who pushed the boundaries, each extreme in their own way”. A year later, in 2002, her next exhibition was Versace at the V&A.
Asked to explain the requirements of curating an exhibition and what sets the ball rolling she cites: “objectivity, passion, knowledge, expertise, sensitivity to objects, being aware you are a custodian of items owned by the general public. In presenting an exhibition, the book of the subject comes first. This focus on research makes you become a temporary or permanent expert on the subject. When the book reaches the proofing stage you start transfer your attention to the exhibition, to the exhibition team, holding meetings, discussing object lists. You also have a ’wish list’ but soon come to your senses and realize that you can’t have everything! You consider themes, write to museums that hold the material. Then the organization or display of the objects needs to be considered; will it be chronological or thematic?”
In 2004 Claire curated the Vivienne Westwood exhibition, a retrospective of the designer’s career from punk to the present. It was the first exhibition in the major exhibition galleries to be devoted to the work of a single fashion designer. She thinks that her 2007 exhibition Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957 was the most beautiful. “It was a change from a living designer and I am proud of the Couture book. It was also nice for me as I got to go to Paris for research and learn to understand the Paris system which is different from ours. The exhibition toured and often those museums who took it were those who ‘did not do fashion’.
Claire then decided to have a break from fashion and branch out into management. She was appointed acting head of the Contemporary Department which included modern design, architecture and graphics. “ It was a good break from fashion and I oversaw the museum’s ‘Friday Late’ programme which brought more people into the museum”.
Ever a person to try different things (she paints in water colour and attends courses at Dulwich Picture Gallery), she became involved with the London College of Fashion. She is a firm believer that the present success of British fashion comes from the inspiration and outstanding quality of its art colleges. In 2007 she was appointed professor of fashion curation at the London College of Fashion where she teaches MA students.
Her current exhibition at the V& A is the acclaimed Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty show which opened in March and runs until 2nd August.* It has had the highest number of prebooked tickets the museum has ever known and the book which accompanies it went into reprint a month after the exhibition opened. “ While McQueen was alive I talked to him about a show at the V & A but he made excuses - I’m too young, I’m too busy! In the event it was the Metropolitan Museum of Art In New York, supported by Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue magazine that put on a very successful exhibition of his work. However, it was soon after his death and I felt there needed to be a calming down period. What has been wonderful has been working with the same lighting and music people who designed the original show. It is remarkable for a show to get a second go, to revisit it. We have added 25% more objects and the present show at the V & A is a third bigger than New York’s. We have also been able to add a new gallery called ‘London’ which focuses on McQueen’s early collections.
“I had eleven months to produce both the book and the show. My father died at the beginning of 2014 and it was a tough year. However, I realized early on in my career in exhibition work that you cannot do it all on your own and you have to be a team player. And I had a good team.”
Claire talks animatedly about Alexander McQueen, his wildly theatrical fashion shows, so triumphant but which ultimately became a burden because of the crippling search to find new themes and rise to the expected new heights. She says, “ It was from the narrative qualities of these theatrical shows that ideas came that pushed his clothing.”
When asked if she agreed with McQueen’s statement that 'the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen' she says,” Its a typical bravado statement, it makes me laugh! Its pure swagger. If we are looking at his contribution to late 20th century fashion, yes, it’s true, in a particular British kind of way.” She believes that all designers should follow McQueen’s example of being an apprentice by starting their studies at the practical end of the industry, in his case by learning tailoring for four years on Savile Row. ”…It's what made him a great designer. What’s the use of having good ideas if you haven’t got the skill to express them?”
Claire Wilcox’s final thoughts at the interview were uncompromising - “For women, it is possible to have a family and a career. It's never too late to make a start and best not to narrow one’s options too early in life.”
*Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty - runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 2nd August 31st. 200 additional tickets are released daily and bookings may still be made online