I was nominated in 1998 as the director of the newly born Antwerp MoMU Fashion Museum. The museum was the continuation of the existing Textile and Costume Museum Vrieselhof. I imagine I must have impressed the deputy of Culture of the Antwerp Region with my innovative ideas of management and exhibition policy. The idea of adding contemporary designers to the existing costume and lace collection was a great innovation for the quite traditional costume museums worldwide. My priority in that first year as a museum director went to the archives, photographing every object, re-organising them and preparing the digitalisation for the move to the new ModeNatie building; the newly bought compact storage systems would soon become their new home. But in the meantime, awaiting the opening of MoMU, I was slowly attracted by the idea of curating my first exhibition in the city of Antwerp itself; as the museum was still under scaffolding I went on a quest around the local museums of the Sint Andries district looking for exhibition spaces there. I started drawing the geometrical shapes on a sheet of paper but could not imagine how to present the garments in the historical or contemporary spaces that were available; and then I met Bob Verhelst. He worked in Rome for theatre and museums and immediately we started to collaborate on the scenography. Bob also worked for Maison Martin Margiela in Paris and we had known each other since the Academy years. Bob added more locations and finally we ended up with 7: Vleeshuis Museum, Museum of Ethnography, Museum Plantin Moretus, Pieter Paul Rubens house and museum, the Muhka − Museum for Contemporary Arts, the Sint-Andries church and finally the Royal Museum for Fine Arts. An amazing range of different locations selected for their different historical and cultural sensibilities and matching the concept of the geometrical shapes I designed on my piece of paper. The match was perfect.
Bob and I decided to start working defining the themes by locations. The theme of “wrapping” found its destination in the Vleeshuis building. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Duke gave permission to build a new meat market. It was fully paid for by the butcher’s guild and was twice the size of the previous building. The basement of the building had a very simple shape – just a largerectangular floor. We also found the concept of wrapping was present in the spiral staircase of the building. Bob started to select the garments, and here we ended up with several pieces by Belgian designers such as Maison Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Walter van Beirendonck and A.F. Vandevorst. We added a wrap felt coat of Angelo Figus, a graduate of the Antwerp Academy, and a pattern of Madeleine Vionnet based on wrapping. The curating had started well.
In the Ethnography Museum, we were inspired by the collection of the non-western cult objects from Africa, Asia, America and Oceania. Here we mostly studied the volumes of two-dimensional garments related to the fabric and the body. We investigated the relationship between the body and the amount of material used, the fitting and the measuring. We documented the geometric measurements to show the volume of caftans for men, like the ‘Tibbi’ which we exhibited together with a two-dimensional shirt of Walter Van Beirendonck; a child’s shirt from Gayo in Indonesia was exhibited with its measurements next to the two-dimensional half pattern of Carolien Lerch, who had just graduated from the Academy. A light grey transparent caftan from Veronique Branquinho’s 1999 collection and a cape of Raf Simons from our archive at MoMU were some highlights in the Ethnography museum.
The first printing and publishing house of the Plantin and Moretus family became our next location. Christophe Plantin spent his life among books. Together with his wife and five daughters, he lived in an imposing property on Vrijdagmarkt. The printing company was founded in the 16th century by Christoph Plantin, a major figure in contemporary printing with an interest in humanism; after Plantin’s death it was owned by his son-in-law Jan Moretus. As a child, I visited the Museum many times and had always great respect for what the Plantin family had created 450 years ago. It was obvious to Bob and me that folded and pleated garments were at home in this great location with the garden and the tranquillity of so long ago,inspired by the folding of the quires of the printing studio. Our most prestigious piece was a pleated garment of Rei Kawakubo in the archive of Comme des Garçons from the collection ‘Clustering Beauty’, summer 1998; it arrived by Art Transport from Japan to be exhibited in this magic location! How did Bob organise this? One day, I need to ask him for all the details. A pleated and folded dress of Junya Watanabe from the collection ‘Object’ came to Antwerp from the same archive. Loan agreements, transport costs, designers’ confidence − it all worked perfectly like planned.
We continued to fill in all the spaces we had chosen. The Sint Andries church was the most enigmatic for me, but Bob designed a stage where we exhibited the garments on special supports he created; we selected patterns and garments inspired by circles, as the concept of geometry was approached from a symbolic angle that underlined the round spiritual, metaphorical and allegorical significance of the circle. A shoe design of Bruno Pieters was based on the circular pattern, a Chinese skirt from the Miao people in the Guizhou region, and a skirt from a Zulu married woman in South Africa − all private loans − were amazing objects, fragile garments that Bob found the perfect way and support to exhibit. We juxtaposed a green circle skirt by Bernhard Willhelm, who was of course the right contemporary designer to select for this thematic exhibition, and a crinoline from our own MoMU archive couldn’t be absent.A red 1863 velvet cloak from the Sint Andries church archives was exhibited on the floor before the altar. Slowly the exhibition came to life; magical moments of joy and satisfaction were almost minimised by the tensions provoked by this new experience. It seemed as we were about to achieve our goal.
Being given a room for our exhibition in the Rubenshuis, the house of the magnificent painter from Antwerp, was a great satisfaction. We divided the room into two parts with a diagonal wall as we wanted to create a dialogue between the one hundred pieces of the puzzle of Angelo Figus’ garment ‘Arlecchino’ from his 1999 ‘Cuore di Cane’ collection and the ‘4 mouchoirs’ of Madeleine Vionnet. Complexity versus simplicity. The dress designed by Madame Vionnet in 1918 arrived in Antwerp from the Patrizia Canino archive in Paris by International Art transport, accompanied by Lydia Kamitsis curator of the Parisian Musée des Arts Décoratifs! I had tears in my eyes when the box was opened and we saw the dress lying there ready to be carefully lifted out with white gloves and placed on the mannequin.
For every new location, we had to invent a new scenography. That’s what makes curating “in situ” so exciting! Especially in the Museum of Contemporary Art – the MuHKA − we planned a drapery workshop in which the audience, visiting the museum, could follow the birth of a garment starting from a piece of cloth with a geometrical form thanks to drapery techniques. The late Hieron Pessers guided in silence this workshop in the MuHKA with the students of the Royal Academy of Fashion Design.
Finally, we were privileged to be given a space at the entrance hall of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, KMSKA. This prestigious museum hosting Antwerp-born painters like Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dijck, was closing the circle, it was the culmination of the exhibition. Our search for geometrical shapes and patterns concluded in a broader idea of creativity. How could we not be inspired by the grandeur and impact of the museum and by two of the most magnificent painters known internationally for their paintings hanging in the world’s most famous palaces and museums. A wooden top and skirt by the designer Yohji Yamamoto, a loan of Harry Houben and Silvie, represented the infinite striving of designers to innovate. The wooden eggheads of the British designer Hussein Chalayan would have been nice juxtaposed with a portrait of Van Dijck, but this might be an idea for another exhibition that one day we will be able to design.
Bob made a catalogue of this very brief, one-month exhibition and so saved it from being forgotten for ever. Suddenly to our delight from Paris, a bus with curators, museum directors and journalists arrived in Antwerp to visit our exhibition. What an impact this exhibition would have made if we had had Instagram, social media, a team of digital communication specialists and iPhones to photograph all the installations to promote our curatorial moments…
Florence, October 28, 2018