Introduction

by Francesca Granata

The literature on fashion curation has greatly expanded in recent years, as the field has witnessed a meteoric rise propelled by the incredible draw of fashion exhibitions—most famously the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 blockbuster “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” Recent assessments of the field include Judith Clark and Amy de la Haye’s Exhibiting Fashion (Yale UP, 2014) , which traces the history of fashion exhibitions, and Fashion Curating (Bloomsbury, 2017), co-edited by Hazel Clark and Annamari Vänskä, who are interviewed in this issue. These works build on earlier writings on the topic in two special issues of the journal Fashion Theory edited by Valerie Steele and Alistair O’Neill, both of whom are interviewed in this issue, as well as important work on dress museology by Lou Taylor.

Fashion Projects #5 explores fashion curation through dialogical exchanges with working curators from a range of institutions, both head curators at major museum collections and independent curators working in kunsthalle-like spaces. Harold Koda, who discusses his long-term engagement with the Met’s Costume Institute, most closely embodies a more traditional meaning of the word “curator” as a caretaker of a collection. Koda also had a unique vantage point, having entered the profession under Diana Vreeland at the Met in the 1970s, a pivotal moment for the increased dynamism of the field. Similarly, Kaat Debo is closely identified with the ModeMuseum in Antwerp, where she worked first as a curator and now as its director. Debo discusses the collaborative nature of her work, specifically when it comes to exhibiting living designers and the costly nature of exhibiting dress—something that is often underestimated by non-fashion specialists.

She also addresses the difficulty in striking the right balance between the materiality of the object and the digital engagement needed to relate to younger audiences. The centrality of material knowledge is also discussed by Sarah Scaturro, head conservator at the Costume Institute, who addresses the tightknit relation between conservation and curation in the realm of fashion. Alexandra Palmer, senior curator of textiles and costume at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, discusses her own curatorial work for a large public museum, alongside her role as exhibition reviews editor of Fashion Theory, a position that has allowed her a preferential viewpoint. Valerie Steele, editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory as well as director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who came into the field already established as a writer and academic, discusses the points of connection and divergence between museums and academia. Much like Debo, she welcomes the proliferation of fashion exhibitions while warning about the importance of upholding academic rigor and the needed technical expertise in the curation of dress.

Alistair O’Neill and Maria Luisa Frisa, alongside Hazel Clark and Annamari Vänskä, address the emerging figure of the independent fashion curator, a role also pioneered by Judith Clark (interviewed in a previous Fashion Projects issue). The figure of the independent curator is a much more recent development in fashion than in contemporary art, and is certain to shape the field in innovative ways. O’Neill, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, has explored “alternative modes of exhibition” and curation “not bound by the museum” in the issue of Fashion Theory he edited, as well as in his own curatorial practice. In his Fashion Projects interview, he discusses exhibitions he curated for the Somerset House Trust including “Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!” (2013), which exhibited much of the wardrobe of the late fashion icon, plus shows that eschewed actual dress altogether, such as “Guy Bourdin: Image Maker” (2014). O’Neill also has a word of caution regarding museums’ thirst for blockbuster fashion exhibitions, a practice that might take needed resources away from collection care, particularly at smaller museums. Clark (professor of fashion and design studies at Parsons) and Vänskä (a Finnish professor of art and fashion) discuss their curatorial practice alongside their recent research on the topic, which was jumpstarted by a symposium they organized at Parsons in 2013 and culminated in Fashion Curating: Critical Practice in the Museum and Beyond (Bloomsbury, 2017). Frisa, a pioneer in independent fashion curation, came from a background in art criticism to work on influential exhibitions starting with “Uniforms: Order and Disorder,” which she curated in Florence with Francesco Bonami and Stefano Tonchi in 2001.

In this issue, wanting to turn the tables and upend old hierarchies, Frisa discusses what contemporary art can learn from fashion. Noting how exhibiting fashion “provokes both a visual and bodily experience,” the Italian curator points toward the affective power of fashion in its intrinsic relation to the body. In fact, if fashion exhibitions, with their predominance of lifeless mannequins, have been often equated to a morgue, they can also be understood as a prime site for “interobjectivity,” theorized by film theorist Vivian Sobchack as our ability to engage with the materiality of objects as related to our own (University of California Press, 2004).  

Interestingly, many of the subjects interviewed make reference to one another, thus underscoring the relatively small network of fashion curation. Yet the network is fast expanding—and pushing the geography of fashion curation beyond its traditional Western capitals.

Naturally, one figure whose name is invoked again and again is Diana Vreeland (1903-1989), the legendary Vogue editor and doyenne of the Metropolitan Museum if Art’s Costume Institute. Our cover stars Vreeland—or rather, the sculptural representation of Vreeland as rendered by the late artist Greer Lankton. Fittingly, Lankton’s Vreeland doll now rests in the library of the Costume Institute itself.

On the Beauty of the Already Known: A Review of the 'Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia' Exhibition at MoMu Antwerp Fashion Museum

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     Installation by 'Honest by' Bruno Pieters in collaboration with Marie Sophie Beinke. Photo: Stany Dederen

Installation by 'Honest by' Bruno Pieters in collaboration with Marie Sophie Beinke. Photo: Stany Dederen

by Roberto Filippello

In the face of current accelerationist tendencies in political and social theory pointing toward an intensification and repurposing of capitalism, the exhibition "Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia," on view at MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp until February 26th, auspicates the return to a slow temporality that allows for the exploration of intimate connections with oneself and with others, suspending the pervasive mediation of the virtual into our everyday lives.

Ensembles by Christian Wijnants. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Ensembles by Christian Wijnants. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 

The exhibition commemorates the 100th anniversary of Rik Wouters's death. This Belgian fauvist painter (1882-1916) devoted a large part of his oeuvre to the exploration of serene and intimate domesticity through portraits of his wife Nel. His longing for a bucolic way of life, detached from urban frenzy, was informed by David Thoreau's transcendentalist inquiry into simple living as a conduit for personal introspection, and took artistic form in a series of unfinished canvases depicting scenes of harmonious homeliness.

 The exhibition, thanks to a multi-disciplinary curatorial philosophy, combines different media to dissect ideas, phenomena and aesthetics. Paintings and sculptures by Rik Wouters are displayed alongside ceramics, interiors and clothing by a number of Antwerp contemporary artists (BLESS, Atelier E.B., Berlinde de Bruyckere, Ben Sledsens) and fashion designers (A.F. Vandevorst, Ann Demeulemeester, Veronique Branquinho, Haider Ackermann, Bernhard Willhelm, Walter Van Beirendonck, Christian Wijnants, Dries Van Noten, Jan-Jan Van Essche, Martin Margiela, Marina Yee, Bruno Pieters, Anne Kurris) who have each in their own way addressed the desire to regain the secure intimacy of domestic life. Unfolding through seventeen thematic sections, such as 'Indoors,' 'Looking Outside,' 'Sculptures and Ceramics,' and 'Handicrafts,' the exhibition traces a visual narrative of how simple living has been translated into figurative and applied arts by artists and designers seeking shelter in an intimate creative environment, away from the turmoil of contemporary urban societies.

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   Dirk Van Saene's ceramic from Essaouira   (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Dirk Van Saene's ceramic from Essaouira (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 A renewed interest in artisanal techniques such as weaving, ceramics, and dyeing, as well as the usage of materials found in nature, are the key principles of the so-called "slow movement" to which this exhibit gives voice. As a reaction to the industrialization of fashion and its often unbearable hectic pace, the designers featured hereby make objects that are imbued with affective potential insofar as they result from a pondered and lived-through handcrafting practice. Their personal corporeal interaction with the matter reflects a utopian longing for an authentic way of being, living, and doing in the world. Antwerp-based fashion designer Christian Wijnants, for instance, dyes wool by hand and assembles collages of fabric using various application techniques such as knitting, embroidery and crochet. This hints at a bodily doing that disentangles fashion-making from the maze of corporate regulation and outsourced production to focus on the intimacy of affective engagement with fabrics and textures.

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   Ensembles by Walter Van Beirendonck   (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Ensembles by Walter Van Beirendonck (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 

Reframing one's life in Thoreau's woods or in Thomas More's fictional island society, however, is not the only way to materialize utopic living. Throughout the exhibition, utopia comes to coincide with the beauty of the already known, figured through the making of Dirk Van Saene's home crafts, Bernhard Willhelm's crocheted accessories, or through the night silk gowns of A.F. Vandevorst, Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackerman. In a sensationalist era where technologies set out to design posthuman bodies, the familiarity with domestic attire conjures a sense of safety and tranquillity freed from the obsession with aesthetic futurism. According to Roland Barthes, the mark of the utopian is the quotidian (Sade, Fourier, Loyola).

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   Installation by Marina Yee. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Installation by Marina Yee. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

It is this kind of utopia that the exhibition ends up exploring: rather than advocating the 19th century idealist project of going back to nature, which was indeed dear to Rik Wouters, who moved to the edge of the Sonian Forest to live together with like-minded utopian artists. The exhibit seems to embody the concrete possibility of finding beauty and joy in the domestic setting. Utopia, as an affective structure, can be materialized through the regaining of what we already know in order to propel its yet undisclosed potentiality into the future. It consists of living with pragmatic and optimistic imagination: using the past, or the pre-existent, to act presently at the service of a better future.

Marina Yee, a member of the historically renowned fashion collective 'Antwerp Six,' which laid the foundation for current Belgian fashion culture, began to turn away from fashion's cyclical consumption in the 1980s and since then has worked at her own pace, focusing on sustainability and artistic development. In the exhibit, an oil painted replica of a 19th century camisole and a sculpture made of glass, silver, copper, wire and leather by Yee are on display. Bruno Pieters, with his collective ethical label 'Honest by Bruno Pieters' questions the norms and regulations enacted by mainstream fashion by sharing with the customer how the garments are manufactured, the hours required for their completion and the pay received by the seamstresses. These details constitute the core of his utopia for a sustainable future.

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     Maison Martin Margiela's blanket becoming one with the interior. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Maison Martin Margiela's blanket becoming one with the interior. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 

These designers share a creative practice grounded in the ambition to redesign clothes, interiors and all the objects of the everyday life beyond the unethical limitations posed by industrialization, imagining a future in which applied arts contribute to human and environmental well-being. Such a perspective is invested with the optimism of finding beauty in the creative process and of letting the consumer participate in it: while acceleration has failed to produce a collective sense of accomplishment, slow movement and sustainability foster a sense of belonging in which harmony may be intimately felt and shared.  

Roberto Filippello is a fashion editor and writer whose academic expertise lies at the intersection of fashion studies and queer theory. He is an alumnus of the Master of Arts in Fashion Studies at Parsons The New School, where he has taught courses on the history of fashion and critical analysis of fashion photography. His current research focuses on the articulation of queer affectivity in fashion and pornography.