Craning my neck over my colleague’s computer screen to catch a glimpse of a stunning cut-away Yves Saint Laurent dress, we took in a collective gasp at its elegance.
Then we did a bit of an ‘ahhhh’ at a 1965 Mondrian-inspired cocktail dress, and a good old fashioned wow at a cool 1978 striped pantsuit.
Shuffling to adjust my Marks and Spencer’s cardigan to a more jaunty angle, it set in motion a journalistic quest to find out exactly how a badly sign-posted museum just off the A66, will display 50 high-end fashion pieces by a couture great this July. Many of the pieces have never been taken out of Paris before.
“I was shaking coming out of some of those meetings,” laughs the museum’s keeper of fashion, Joanna Hashagen as she describes her two trips to Paris where she had to convince the chaps at the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation to hand over their prized pieces to Bowes Museum.
This included Pierre Bergé, now 84, who is the co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent couture house and was the long-time business partner of the late designer.
I imagine this tiny woman, just an inch or two over 5ft, who lives in a converted barn near Egglestone Abbey, stomping down the Avenue Marceau, as someone who does not take ‘non!’ for an answer.
She said she’s been described by a previous boss as a terrier snapping at heels, but this is fashion ‘dahling’, so let’s imagine her as the more well-groomed kind.
“I had to go to the Avenue Marceau which is where Yves Saint Laurant had his studio and there’s this famous Andy Warhol picture there in this wonderful room.
“The foundation has kept 5,000 dresses and when I had to visit it was just amazing.
“To show in Britain in 2015 is very significant for Yves Saint Laurent, as it’s 10 years since the foundation began. It fitted in with my French direction and it fitted with them to have somewhere appropriate for the first show in the UK.
“I didn’t waste any time and I went over to Paris. Looking back I didn’t prepare any fancy presentation, I just pitched the museum and our Second French Empire collection.”
The fact Bowes Museum is one of the grandest buildings in Britain - essentially a French chateau in appearance nestled in the rugged Northern English countryside - will have helped too.
On a frosty, snowy morning it looks quite exquisite, this enourmous and ornate pile, built by John Bowes and his wife former actress Joséphine, nee Chevalier, the daughter of a clock-maker and who was later styled the Countess of Montalbo.
It opened in 1892 as a public art gallery and museum stuffed with paintings by El Greco, Francisco Goya and Canaletto in a benevolent and typically Victorian gesture to bring high-culture to the people of Teesdale.
It continues to look entirely out of place on the edge of this market town, but that’s part of its eccentric charm.
The couple both died before it was completed, but Josephine would no doubt have approved of its noughties renaissance as a centre for fashion heritage.
She is still something of a mysterious figure but what is known, is that she was one of the best dressed women in Britain during her lifetime. Her spending on clothes was immense, evidenced in the mounds of paper bills kept by her fastidious husband.
She was one of the first and most important customers of the haute couture designer Charles Worth, and was a contemporary of the wife of Napoleon III, Eugenie, as the pair were exactly the same age.
“Josephine spent more on her clothes than was spent on the El Greco painting,” said the mother-of-two.
“She was going to all the best designers, she went to Worth, and on what’s known as fête day, all the bills would come in and John kept the records.
“Even though I’ve been here all of these years I’m still not convinced I understand Josephine. We’ve still got to look at our founder, afterall when the museum first opened it was known as Madame Bowes’ museum.
“She was a patron of the arts,” said Joanna, who shows us a painting of the woman herself, high up in an exibition room wearing a pink silk dress by Worth.
“I think Josephine would have been amazed to think that her collection would compliment the clothes of Yves Saint Laurent.”
Sadly Josephine’s own clothes were left to a maid after her death and disappeared without a trace, although her furniture and ceramic collections are all still on show.
However it’s the museum’s French link, from Josephine’s heritage to her and John’s homes in the country and love of the Second Empire lifestyle and their collection of 17th and 18th century textiles, that makes Bowes the perfect setting to showcase the designs of a 20th century designer.
In July Joanna will be preparing to open the exhibition Style is Eternal and next week she meets with a woman from the YSL foundation who is coming up with an innovative design for how the first floor of Bowes Museum will house the show.
It’s going to be a grand affair across three rooms with video projections, a sound-track (music is very important to Joanna) and the glass cube inside the textile gallery will be transformed into Yves Saint Laurent’s studio.
The fashion press are already ready in the wings to cover this momentous occasion, and it’s seen Joanna’s profile soar.
She admits she’s ‘just about/almost/nearly’ getting to the point where she’s getting invited to the major fashion weeks.
Yet it’s actually the museum’s current exhibition Birds of Paradise - Plumes and Feathers in Fashion that she thinks really kick-started Bowes’ spot in the fashion limelight.
That was her real ‘moment’, after thirty years working for the museum as its Keeper of Fashion & Textiles.
It wasn’t too long ago that its collection was being wound up as something to display, and its textiles were removed from show.
But fashion pays, and she made the convincing argument that it’s those exhibitions that bring in the visitors in their thousands, as proven by the Victoria & Albert Museum’s success in London.
She brought a temporary exhibition of Vivienne Westwood’s shoes in 2011 to the museum’s newly designed costume gallery, and a year later, the leading British milliner Stephen Jones’ hats.
“I saw him last week in London,” said Joanna.
“He’s such a great ambassador for the museum.”
The stunning Birds of Paradise exhibition which is on until April 19, and includes designs by Alexander McQueen, Dior and Nina Ricci and its showpiece a winged Thierry Mugler dress.
The exhibition was shown in Antwerp first, and it was Joanna’s link with curator Wim Mertens, who arrived Bowes himself 15 years ago while studying for his Phd in tapestry.
“I kept in touch with him and when he came over to the have a look at our new gallery after it opened, he said ‘let’s do something with feathers in fashion’, and so Birds of Paradise has been shown in Antwerp and here.”
The exhibition is displayed alongside the museum’s own impressive costume collection, on plastic headless ‘mannequins’ that Joanna commissioned several years ago.
PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake album sounds overhead, to coincide with the display of her feathered headdress worn during performances.
It makes for a very cool, quite unexpected atmosphere, and a far cry from what Joanna inherited when she arrived at the museum in the 1980s.
She’s from York originally, and studied the history of art at university in Manchester, then took a post-graduate diploma in museum studies. Her final year at university was spent focusing on the textile creations of French artist Sonia Delaunay. Again...all roads lead back to France.
Not too disimilar to today, rounds of work experience were mandatory to get a job in museums, and she did a spell at the Kelvin Grove in Glasgow and the Castle Museum in York, where her boss Pat Clegg was a major inspiration.
Her first ‘paid’ job was assistant keeper at The Gallery of Costume in Manchester, where presenting clothes beyond a static mannequin was her biggest challenge. Four years later she took the job at Bowes, her husband came too, and there boxes and boxes of textiles, bought by John and Josephine Bowes cheaply en masse lay in wait.
Always the innovator, a few years later she rang Clarence House personally to ask if they could exhibit the Queen Mother’s clothes, the link being she was born Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and a relative of John Bowes. They agreed, and Joanna got to take the Royal visitor around the exhibition herself.
“It was lovely, us both being the same height and I was showing her all her own outfits,” she laughs.
“She was quite wonderful. She told me Claude Saint-Cyr (French milliner) was always trying to put her in navy and she was never sure the colour was right for her.”
With the museum’s undulating focus on fashion at an all time high, Joanna’s next task is to create a book to go alongside the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition, and an exhibition focusing on a female designer to coincide with a celebration of female artists in 2017,
“And there’s always the textile collection, remember!” she said referencing her first love and the museum’s major asset.
However, right now though she’s enjoying her Yves Saint Laurent moment.
Excitedly, she said: “I always hoped to being able to do something like this, I’ve always been an optimist.”