“I hope I am not intruding but I just wanted to congratulate you on your creativity.”
A middle-aged French woman stops by the table where Anne-Valérie Hash, one of only a handful of designers who have earned the right to call themselves Grand Couturier, is about to tuck into a shared plate of homemade fries at the Musée de la Dentelle of Calais. Not exactly the kind of public fashion’s denizens immediately imagine falling under the spell of the androgynous thread running through Décrayonner, the designer’s exhibition upstairs.
The visit of the exhibition starts the moment we are seated on the train taking us to Calais, along with exhibition curator Sylvie Marot, when she pulls the book out of her bag with a Mary Poppins glint in her eye. A lone figure stands, her back to the reader, clad in a lace-backed jumpsuit. Putting the back of a jumpsuit, obscuring gender and identity, leaving nothing but allure? An elegant yet radical choice that sums up all the subconscious gestures that define the Anne-Valérie Hash ethos.
Why the choice of Calais, for a couturier, when Paris is the destination of all things couture? “From the first collection, where it was in the belt of the pant, to the last where it overlaid reflective fabric, lace is an integral part of my work. Lace is part of the DNA of the brand, as we say now. It means artisanal feelings, femininity and it was good to mix with all those pants. Lace means transparency, delicacy of fabric. I was always attracted by lace, it’s something I can’t explain.” So paying homage to one of her favorite materials in the only museum dedicated to its presentation and preservation made perfect sense. Much that is happening around Hash seems to be dictated by delicious, delightful kismet.
Sylvie Marot retraces the moment the title was found, a symbol of this deconstruction that leads to a new way. “We had a list of titles, some good, some not, but nothing excellent. And I said, “Il faudrait tout décrayonner” and Anne-Valérie said, OK we have the title! But it’s not a word. It comes from crayonner which means sketching, and I liked the idea of unsketching someone. It’s a way, a point of view. How can we unsketch Anne-Valérie?” From there, the rest of the exhibition came naturally. “After we had the title, everything became clear. In the book, everything starts with “dé”, which means un- and also means a dé de couture [a thimble].”
But ever since her first collection, which she still regards as her most impactful one, featuring pants turned into a dress, Anne-Valérie Hash has embedded herself in the hearts and eyes of a wide array of fans with a tightrope exercise that highlighted femininity by appropriating the trappings of the gentleman’s wardrobe. It was an androgenius moment that sparked conversations and ideas. It may not seem as radical as the agender movement that is permeating everywhere in 2016 but it was a statement, the first act of liberation. “I didn’t realize the act because I tend to stay in my own bubble but even 15 years on, it’s an act I’ll remember all my life.” But what hooked fans across generations, regions and social groups is the playfulness that permeates everything she does. “I’m one of the lucky ones in this world who can play and work at the same time. It’s a choice to play or not to play. We are lucky to have the possibility to express a vision through play.”
Hash is delighted to hear that the exhibition is proving popular with schools in the area. “Seeing deconstruction gives you freedom to act,” she says. That was, after all the start of the story in fact and in the legend of Anne-Valérie Hash. “Déconstruire (deconstruct) is not a good title for an exhibition. It’s too easy, you know? We created a word. The exhibition talks about Lou (the little girl she draped on). We talk about the beginning, the beautiful girls and the very strong images with Di Battista. And then we enter in the book with lace.” Conspicuously absent of the timeline that stands at the entrance and exit of her exhibition is her nomination as Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, another sign of Hash’s modesty. She’s entitled to wear a pin that indicates her status, but she doesn’t. The feeling is that her successes matter little to her, unless they are shared. “I feel good,” the couturier sang à la James Brown when asked how she felt about the exhibition. “I’m joking. Actually, I don’t realize really. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really realizes [something] while it’s happening. I realize later, which is actually better for my person. It protects me.” Likewise, the full pages in Le Monde and the Figaro, the features on television haven’t phased her. “I have to thank the people who have followed me since the beginning. It needs to be underlined. You don’t feel alone and you think ‘ok, I’m not doing all that work for myself, I can share with people who love it’.”
From her first to her last collection, via the Carré Hash – a play both on the item itself and perhaps also the trappings of sophistication offered by other silk squares – that same transparence appeals, wrapping the body in a playful yet immutable armor. The pull her clothes exert is magnetic, almost esoteric. And their price point matters little. The collections she designed for French high street retailer Comptoir des Cotonniers flew off the shelves, particularly the very smartly priced leather jacket the designer herself is wearing. Yoko Ono once bought a jacket at Dover Street Market, one that Hash had priced so high not to sell it because she loved the craftsmanship so much she wanted to keep it for her archives.
As the visitor winds around another bend to return towards the timeline that occupies one of the walls, it’s hard not to wander how such a discrete designer ended up having a retrospective in her lifetime. It was born two years ago, when Marot and Hash met and sparked a friendship over, among other things, the fact that they were both on a sabbatical. Interested in her archives, the former suggested the latter contact a museum to explore how retrospectives are done. At the time, Iris van Herpen was exhibiting in Calais, and the duo travelled to see the exhibition. “I had a secret desire that they would invite Anne-Valérie, and that perhaps, I could be curator,” Sylvie recalls humorously. “A while later, the museum asked her to make an exhibition. It took two years to prepare but they made their decision quickly. The timing was perfect. They had a spot open.”
Further on, the border between ready-to-wear and couture shimmers. A strange one, not so clear and yet you can see where the ready-to-wear could be in every exquisitely crafted silhouette. Much of the selection presented is dark. But the moment the eye adjusts to the lower light, details jump out. Varying textures, an interesting seam curving along the silhouette, the juncture between panels. The possibilities, in short. “For me, black is not a dark color. Black is a light color. I feel emotion through black. A lot of people think that when you lose someone you were black. But perhaps you’re wearing black to honor this person. If black is an honor, fine by me. We don’t have to be afraid of black. Black is beautiful. It’s in the customs and habits. I remember when I was young and wearing black, my mother was really afraid and saying ‘Why do you wear black? Who did you lose?’ But I was attracted by black because it was gothic, a powerful color for me. It’s linked to power. At my age, I don’t ask my mother if I can wear black anymore!”
In one niche there is a video of someone browsing through the first book. Songs by Lou, her young muse. Items that were donated by Hash’s friends and that were turned into pieces, including Diane’s veil now in the possession of Musée Galliera. In another, a play-by-play of Carré Hash, her magnetic square that could be turned into anything from a scarf to a dress. As such, the niches of video and lighter tones stand out, like fulgurated moments. “Sometimes I make an effort to buy color. But I mostly go back to my black wardrobe. Or white. Sometimes I have these illuminations. But they don’t stay long. Black and white is a way to be very graphic. I mean, black is not a problem. I remember once meeting a headhunter for a big house. She asked me why I did only black and white and asked me if I knew colors. I said, oh I know who I am in front of. I said black and white are really linked to cut. I cannot talk about cut, colors, print. For me, my first expression is cut, and I need black. From that moment, I realized that she wasn’t going to continue the interview.”
Whatever house that may be, they certainly lost out on a designer who is not afraid to do things her own way, to reject what is supposedly necessary for success in favor of something intensely personal. Point in case, the “print that is a non-print”, featuring jersey prints on silk, from 2010 (later, a similar design later made headlines at Celine) which features early in the exhibition. After a first show on the off-schedule circuit, Didier Grumbach, then president of the French Federation of couture, designer ready-to-wear and fashion designers, pushed her to apply for the haute appellation, which she was soon awarded. But that increase in workload and investment on her part ultimately led her to question the system, and her implication in it. Early success was there, but at what cost?
“All these dresses with all the keys. Haute Couture was a good laboratory, it was an experimentation. I couldn’t do it for a long time because it was a question of money and time, and I didn’t have enough to continue” she analyses. “But the experience was very interesting. I was always on this edge between couture, prêt-a-porter and haute couture. It’s hard to define. I know people like to define designers, writers, artists but I think it’s nice to be around most possibilities.”
Hash wound up pausing everything, to find her center. “This pause is very good because I can step back and look back at everything that happened during all those years. I have an idea but it’s too early.” What will come next? Lingerie, more clothes, couture? Hash has many ideas but she demurs for now. One thing that she does admit to is working on an animated movie which will feature industry fixtures and other characters, which she has doodled in her notebook. “One where you really recognize the characters. It’s a satire of fashion, but I’m staying nice, you know me.”