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Fashioning a Style

Costume curator Katell le Bourhis is a connoisseur of chic, past and present.

Katell le Bourhis, associate curator for special projects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, lives in the world between. She brings cerebral focus to glamour, and she brings elegance to the most desiccated of intellectual arguments. She gives the foil of substance to what is light and amusing, and she finds the comedy in what is dreadful and incomprehensible. Katell lives at the elusive point where what is different about things is subsumed by what is the same about them, and it is this energetically universal vision that makes you feel, when you are with her, that anything is possible, that anything, indeed, is likely.

Her apartment in New York is also a matter of between: full of beautiful things but also a bit dilapidated, rather comfortable but also quite casual. I remember Katell saying, perhaps ten years ago, “There is no such thing as comfortable clothing. A woman should be comfortable knowing that her clothes make her look great.” So too her apartment: you are overwhelmed by a sense of the elegant appropriateness of everything in it. The view across Central Park and the reservoir is the focus. Katell, who grew up by the water in Brittany, says, “I couldn’t live in New York if I weren’t surrounded by water and light.” The pale pink walls in her living room have a tiny black motif of the Brittany emblem hand-painted by her friend Paulin Paris, and there are some bamboo trees and a leopard-print rug. The bedroom is carpeted in red – “terrible carpeting, synthetic, but in that perfect seventeenth-century red. If only they had a real Poussin blue as well!”

The sofas are covered with shawls, which change and move depending on Katell’s mood, the season of the year, what she chooses to wear. “This one is Chinese,” she says, “from the late eighteenthe century, and belonged to my grandmother. This one was a gift from Yves Saint Laurent. This one is Valentino, copied from a Savonnerie carpet.” The objects on end tables also changes: “Variety is luxury. I keep things out for a little while, and when I am tired of them, I put them away. Then when I find I miss them, I take them out again and put away some other things.” So the gold and pearl knife she uses to open letters may be cached in favor of a silver candlestick or a book. “They are my only important things, my books. We all learn to read at school, and then we never need to be alone again. Books are the great equalizer; they are for us all.”

Katell le Bourhis was educated in France and in the United States. In 1980, Diana Vreeland, whom she knew socially, asked her to help research her costume exhibition “The Eighteenth Century Woman” at the Metropolitan. “I never meant to stay,” Katell says. “But I was honored that Mrs. Vreeland, whom I esteemed so much, trusted me entirely, and I felt that her trust was an extraordinary event in my life, something on which I could not turn my back.” As time went on and Vreeland’s eyesight began to fail, Katell was like an undimmed set of eyes for her, describing the world in the terms in which she would have seen it had her vision remained perfect. Since Vreeland’s death, Katell has conceived “The Age of Napoleon” and “Théâtre de la Mode,” which runs through April 14 and which re-creates a 1946 traveling exhibition of Paris fashions on dolls with sets by painters and designers of the time.

I have seen Katell emerge from the Met at eleven at night flushed with excitement because she had won the battle for a pair of gloves or a fan or a petticoat which she knew would make her exhibition perfect. I have seen Katell with people who had refused loans to her exhibitions, talking about the importance of what she does, and I have seen those people capitulate, overwhelmed half by the lucidity of her arguments and half by the sheer delight of being with her. For Katell, costume is as rich in meaning as painting. “You must ask why,” she says. “Why did they wear it?” Katell’s exhibitions are not anecdotal; they are about people’s biases and values.

The world of between is the world of humanity. It is difficult to champion a high morality when you are staging exhibitions of old dresses, but Katell does so with equanimity. She is one of those rare people who not only charm you but also find your own hidden charms. That is the nature of her generosity. A car accident in 1985 almost killed her, and she has recovered slowly. In the face of such trauma, she has shown herself to be not only clever and stylish but also deeply courageous. “After much waiting, I think I have found some peace,” says Katell. She has also brought some peace to the people around her. In the exotically eclectic circles she inhabits, the grandest and the most modest alike find a repose from the pettiness of ordinary people, ordinary lives.