Belgian fashion has helped to define the industry we see before us today. Alumni of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp frequently take the reins at the big brands in Paris, whether that be Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga or Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski at Hermès. Photographer Willy Vanderperre, stylist Olivier Rizzo and make-up matriarch Inge Grognard are just a handful of the Belgians who have transformed fashion imagery. Then there's MoMu, Antwerp’s fashion museum, which has played a central role in shaping the city’s status as a world renowned fashion hub. Housing the fashion department of the academy as well as the Flanders Fashion Institute, the museum has staged seminal solo exhibitions for iconic avant-garde designers including Walter Van Beirendonck and Martin Margiela, together with new wave names such as Bernard Wilhelm. Reflecting on an industry in transition, after being closed for three years the museum's reopening programme Fashion 2.021 plans to showcase the fundamental importance of fashion.
Assembling the biggest collection of contemporary Belgian fashion in the world since opening their doors in 2002, MoMu is part of the fabric of Antwerp. The museum's first director Linda Loppa set about collecting the vanguard of Belgian fashion designers who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s and put Antwerp on the fashion map. Nestled in the city's fashion district, the 19th century building seen from the street today was first modernised by the Ghent architect Marie-José Van Hee. Nearly 20 years later, in the spring of 2018, the museum called upon B-Architects to give the space a face lift. Adding a new exhibition space for the collection to live within, highlights from the museum's iconic archive are now on permanent show for the first time - fashion aficionados should head over to Antwerp pronto.
MoMu also stages two annual temporary exhibitions, which typically place an unconventional focus on ephemera, from show invitations to mood board references, creating a 360 degree scenography for the designers featured. These are fashion exhibitions which set about revealing the world from which clothes came. Fashion can be fickle, but it's also a constant in our lives, telling us what's going on in the world; socially, politically, culturally and economically. Glance upon fashion collections past, and you'll find something fundamental about that moment in time reflected back to you. The museum, whose primary role it is to archive past and present, has a crucial part to play in unpacking the shifts in a world irrevocably shaped by the events of the past 15 months. Taking on the challenge of assessing cultural changes which are still evolving, MoMu's new exhibition E/MOTION: Fashion in Transition addresses how designers and fashion minds have responded and in turn reinvented themselves - from addressing the Black Lives Matter protests, to finding ways to convey emotion through digital fashion shows. P.LACE.S looks back in time on the history of lace, created and traded in Antwerp from the mid-16th century. Upon entry to the museum, interactive digital walls invite visitors to explore over 500,000 digital objects, and from September 4, MoMu will be taking the streets of Antwerp for projects such as the Fashion Balls installations which, once sat inside, create the illusion of giant skirts.
Kaat Debo has been the director of MoMu since 2009. The ex-editor of A Magazine sees Belgian's fashion identity in 2021 as something more esoteric, and ultimately global, than her predecessor. SHOWstudio's features editor Hetty Mahlich spoke to Debo on the phone to find out more about where MoMu stands today, the challenges of archiving digital fashion, defining Belgian fashion identity, and inviting more diverse voices into the archaic museum space.
Hetty Mahlich: How has the role of the museum changed over the past year?
Kaat Debo: I think certainly things have changed. We closed the museum for renovation, and then of course, the world was hit by this pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. That had an effect on museums and how museums think about their role. MoMu realises that the perspective you offer as a museum is one of many. It's not the only truth, there are many different perspectives possible. The big challenge is how to find the balance between the point of view of the museum and the perspectives of those around you.
For too long it has been a one way conversation, museums have always been used to being the authoritative voice and had great academics, curators and researchers, but it was this one way conversation of us offering our research to the public. This notion of participation and attracting or inviting different voices to the museum is a big challenge, but I think museums will have to do that in order to stay relevant. The biggest threat for museums is to end up in an ivory tower, not feeling what's going on in the undercurrents of society. What MoMu wants to be is a hub, a place to start a conversation, to have a dialogue about the state of fashion, fashion culture, and the challenges in fashion, without always having to be the authoritative voice.
HM: Do you feel that there is a paradox being a fashion curator today, in terms of balancing the digital revolution with the intrinsically material nature of fashion, within a museum context?
KD: I think it's a very interesting question, both for work in the museum and in fashion as well. Designers have been forced to work digitally because of the pandemic. I really think you saw some designers struggling. For the E/MOTION: Fashion in Transition exhibition we've been interviewing designers and students from eight different fashion schools around the world. One of the questions was what their relationship with the digital was and whether you could have genuine emotion with a digital presentation - do you need a fashion show a live performance to have that genuine emotion? I saw some examples of designers doing things online that really moved me, but designers and museums have to think of ways to do it in a relevant and inspiring way. It's not just digitising your collection or having an online walk-through exhibition. Why copy a physical exhibition to the online world? You have to make something new. Nobody has the answer. I think it's really exciting, there's so many ways to experiment with it, but it's a different mind set.
HM: I came across a great quote where you said 'It’s more difficult to store a CD-ROM of the 90s than a 18th century costume.' Ephemera is important to the museum, at MoMu especially, in both physical and digital forms - how do you make all these objects relevant for a contemporary audience?
KD: Our digital heritage from 20 or 30 years ago is often more threatened than the physical heritage. The same goes for how to open up your digital collections. We have a fashion and textile collection of about 35,000 objects but we also have a digital collection of more than, between 400-500,000 objects. These are videos, photos, pdfs, digital born and digitised material. But how to open that up to an audience in a way that's relevant? Many years ago we decided to put our database online but then we realised it had few visitors [other than] academics and professionals. So we also felt the need to curate our digital collection, and so the past three years we've also worked on that. We will start to gradually launch it at the end of September with a series of stories. It's not just putting some images and videos online, it's curating it all in a way that's relevant and interesting.
There are so many ways to curate fashion, and I think fashion museums that organise fashion exhibitions can be a bit lazy. We should not forget that fashion in the first place is not meant to be in a museum. It's meant to be worn on a body, and that's the first thing that we exclude [as curators]. At MoMu, we have been experimenting with bringing dynamics into the museum. Working on the E/MOTION: Fashion in Transition exhibition, we really felt the need to introduce a body to have that sense of tactility, the dynamics that a body has and that a static mannequin in a display doesn't have. We approached the Opera Ballet in Antwerp to develop a performance to be integrated into the exhibition. We will perform it 20-25 times in the next five months. Part of the performance will be recorded and will take place every day. I hope you can interpret it in two ways: the exhibition provides the context to understand the performance, [or vice versa]. The experiment with how to curate fashion will be ongoing. The nature of experiment also means you have to allow yourself to make mistakes.
HM: What are some of the common threads in the selection process for the permanent collection?
KD: When you collect as a director you don't start from scratch, you always build on what directors or collection curators have collected before you. It's important to know what context these people have been curating in and how our context has changed. There can be many different reasons why you select an item. It can be the signature style of a designer, it can be technique, fabric, craft, it can be a very interesting cut. It can be a look that you think is really telling the story of that collection. You try to be objective, and we have a collection team who discuss what to collect and how to collect. But there's always a certain degree of subjectivity. Someone else in my chair would collect a different collection.
There's also some very practical issues, the past number of years one of our restorers has been specialising in man-made materials and plastics, because they're often very problematic to store. We, as well as many other museums, have encountered problems with plastics including neoprene and latex such as in Walter Van Beirendonck's collections from the 1990s.
HM: How do you view Belgian fashion identity today?
KD: If I look back at the recent history of MoMu, my predecessor Linda Loppa actively started collecting avant-garde Belgian fashion. But what I question today, is what is Belgian fashion? Fashion has globalised in the past three decades. When the Antwerp 6 graduated from the Antwerp Fashion Department at the beginning of the 1980s, all the students were Belgian. Since the new millenium, we've seen an incredible globalisation of the school, there are 140 fashion students from 40 nationalities. It's the world in one school. I think that's super interesting, what is that identity? It's layered, constantly changing.
I often give the example of Demna Gvsalia who graduated in 2006. He's Georgian, he studied in Antwerp, he started his brand Vetements in Paris, he's now working for one of the biggest fashion houses Balenciaga which is based in France but is Spanish Basque in its origins, and he's working from Switzerland. It's a very layered identity which is constantly shifting and changing. How relevant is it to say he's Georgian? We also want to question that notion of identity within fashion, because today we have to realise that it's complex and constantly changing and shifting.
The pedigree of an object has changed. Fashion is global and we have to deal with that. My predecessors saw an object as Belgian when it was produced, or worn, or made in Belgium, and I think that notion is no longer relevant. So we are also collecting work from alumni of the fashion department who are no longer working in Belgium, we're opening up to non-Belgian designers, non-European and non-Western designers, and that's very different from 30 years ago. And how to do that? You can't change that over night. We tried to start from our exhibitions, instead of loaning the looks we decided to start purchasing them, and in that way we can extend the collection.
HM: What about younger designers and brands, when do you start collecting them?
KD: There are museums who draw a line and say they don't collect work from designers whose brand is not over 5 or 10 years old. I think that's a very problematic criteria. You can have really young designers with great creative visions, so why exclude them from the museum? I also realise as a museum that you always have to take distance, to get the historical context or perspective. The problem with contemporary fashion is that if you don't acquire it during the season it's presented, it's often not possible afterwards to purchase the entire look. If you really want a complete look, how it's presented by a designer in the catwalk show, you have to move fast. We do have looks which aren't complete in the museum but in the past 10 years we saw a boom in online resale platforms for vintage fashion, so we are also acquiring pieces through them, although they are often overpriced because there's so much attention on vintage avant-garde fashion at the moment. So, you're forced to purchase in the moment which is complex, but I feel it's important to also acquire objects from young designers. You don't have to be dead to have a solo exhibition at a museum. For me it's important to see if the creative world of the designer is interesting and layered enough to do an exhibition.