Exploring Fashion’s Openness: An Interview with Kaat Debo

by Alex Esculapio

“Patterns,” 2003, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Koen de Waal

“Patterns,” 2003, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Koen de Waal

Kaat Debo is the director of the ModeMuseum (MoMu) in Antwerp, Belgium. She has worked at MoMu since the museum’s establishment in the early ’00s, curating Patterns (2003), Beyond Desire (2005), Unravel: Knitwear In Fashion (2011), and Madame Grès: Sculptural Fashion (2012), among other exhibitions. Through the years, MoMu has developed deep connections with the local fashion scene, playing a key role in establishing and shaping a local fashion identity. Debo has collaborated with several contemporary Belgian and Antwerp–educated designers on critically acclaimed solo exhibitions, including Bernard Wilhelm: Het Totaalt Rappel (2007), Maison Martin Margiela: ‘20’ The Exhibition (2008), and Walter van Beirendonck: Dream The World Awake (2011).

I interviewed Debo at MoMu’s offices in Antwerp’s Mode Natie complex, which, alongside the museum, houses archives, a library, and the offices of the Flanders Fashion Institute.

Fashion Projects: You did not study fashion. How did you get into fashion curation?

Kaat Debo: By accident. I studied literature and philosophy. One of the reasons why I didn’t study fashion theory or fashion studies is that it just doesn’t exist in Belgium. And 20 years ago, fashion curation wasn’t taught in London or the United States, either. My first love was actually theater. I worked for two years on a Ph.D. at University of Antwerp in the Theater Studies department, then I realized that pure research wasn’t my cup of tea.

After that, the story is quite simple: I saw an ad in the newspaper that said they were looking for a curator for the newly opened fashion museum. I applied and somehow I clicked with Linda Loppa, who was then the director. She decided to hire me despite the fact that I didn’t have any experience in the museum field or in fashion curation. So I learned by doing it. At the time, Linda didn’t have experience in the museum world, either. She had been the director of the fashion department at the Royal Academy in Antwerp and director of the Flanders Fashion Institute.

Maybe we were a little bit naïve, but we took the liberty to experiment. We also made a lot of mistakes, but you learn a lot from mistakes. For me personally, the connection was that I specialized in contemporary dance and the body is central in dance just like it is in fashion. Also, the feeling of immediacy exists in both fields. So I felt that my background in theater studies really helped me with fashion curation.

FP: You’ve been at MoMu since 2001. How has the field of fashion curation evolved since then?

KD: It has evolved a lot. When I started, fashion was not very popular in museums. It wasn’t a priority for large institutions. If you look at the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] now, fashion exhibitions bring in a lot of money. Back then, fashion exhibitions there were mounted in small galleries and put together with small budgets. There was research, but little attention was given to the way the clothing was presented, exhibited, mounted on mannequins. I think what was missing was the idea that it is very complex to display fashion in a museum. Fashion is not designed for a museum, nor for static display.

In the past 15 to 20 years, a lot of attention has been paid to exactly that issue: how to maintain the dynamics of fashion within the museum context. There’s also a lot of theoretical reflection on fashion curation now, which didn’t exist 20 years ago. That’s very important for the sérieux in the field and also very exciting, because there is no right or wrong way to display fashion. It’s exciting to see how different curators approach their practice.

“Maison Martin Margiela: '20' The Exhibition,” 2008, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

“Maison Martin Margiela: '20' The Exhibition,” 2008, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

FP: Here at MoMu, you have a very collaborative approach. You’ve also done quite a few exhibitions with living designers, which of course facilitates this kind of approach. Can you tell me a bit about your experience with collaborations?

KD: It was a very natural thing for Linda and I to do because fashion is a collaborative field. Fashion is teamwork, it relies heavily on networks. Fashion designers work with stylists, photographers, graphic designers, art directors, musicians…. Fashion is very open to other creative fields. That’s what I love about fashion: the openness.

We saw the possibility of collaborating with living designers as a privilege. You can’t necessarily do it when you work with historical work—you can’t ask Rubens what he thinks of an exhibition! It’s also to make sure that the story the exhibition tells is visually as strong as the original story. When we did the exhibition on Dries van Noten, for instance, he designed the different rooms and created the show’s Baroque atmosphere.

It works best when the designer is willing to begin from your research in order to create something three-dimensional and visually appealing. I think some curators are afraid of collaborating with designers because it’s not always easy. It’s about finding a balance and gaining their trust. Of course, they have to be open to your research, which often contextualizes and analyzes their work. Sometimes I feel a little bit like a psychologist! Another aspect is that designers often work with the same team of people for years, people they trust and who understand their vision. So it’s key to involve the designers’ own networks, as well.

FP: It seems like you’re integrating the openness you see in fashion in your approach to curation. I’m thinking, for example, of the Margiela retrospective, where you translated the trompe-l'œil technique he’s known for into the set design and the structure of the museum itself.

KD: Fashion for me is not only about collections, with the garment as the end result. Certain curators or museums have this approach to fashion, which I think is perfectly valid. But I see fashion as much more than garments or collections. It’s also about how they are communicated and presented. There’s a whole world around the collections. In the past years we have also witnessed a shift away from garments and towards accessories and perfumes, so the clothing is no longer necessarily at the center of the creative process for many fashion houses. That’s something that I don’t want to ignore. If you want to present a designer’s vision you need to include all these aspects.

We have worked with Margiela again for Spring 2017 exhibition dedicated to his work for Hermès. And again, it’s about so much more than the garments. It’s about his vision of luxury. It’s about tactility, the body, and comfort. Of course, we show that through the garments, as well. So I think my approach is holistic.

FP: You’ve mentioned the idea of tactility in Margiela’s work. I know that you have a collection of ephemera and a “study collection” that is accessible through the museum’s library. It seems like you’re paying a lot of attention to fashion’s materiality, which is even more interesting given how important the digital has become.

KD: Absolutely. The study collection is something new. We launched it a couple of months ago. We think it’s important for designers, students, curators, and anyone interested in fashion to interact physically with the garments. Often it’s only through touch, smell or by looking at the inside structure of a garment that you really come to understand certain things. You can’t study fashion history only through books. A lot of big museums are not opening their collections to young researchers—I understand why, it’s very time-consuming and you need people to be there. That’s why we started the study collection. You have to make an appointment, but it’s easily accessible through our library. We have 1,000 objects, both historical and contemporary, and we’re still building it up.

Tabi Boots, “Maison Martin Margiela: 20 years,” 2008 MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

Tabi Boots, “Maison Martin Margiela: 20 years,” 2008 MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

Within an exhibition it is much more complex to deal with tactility. It’s something that often frustrates me, because people can’t really touch the objects. We once did an exhibition on Yohji Yamamoto and the concept behind the exhibition was “the shop.” In the middle of the exhibition, we had actual fitting rooms and there were people who helped you try on garments. Visitors could then really understand the Japanese concept of ma, the space between the body and the garment, and see how you could wear the garments in different ways.

For the exhibition on Hermès, tactility is also central. Comfort lies in the materials: in the high-quality cashmere, wool, silk, leather. You can see how exquisite the materials are when you look at the garments on mannequins. You can tell they are beautifully made garments, but they also look very simple because it’s all about essential cuts in great materials. That’s very hard to communicate. You can do it in writing, but I think the writing in an exhibition should support the visual display. The visual display alone should already tell you a lot. You can have fabric samples, but again, it’s not the same.

I think in this sense fashion curation is also about solving a lot of practical issues. For examples when it comes to mannequins, we wanted to show the Hermès clothes in a dynamic way. Martin [Margiela] wanted mannequins that could put their hands in their pockets, so we had to develop and order arms with flexible wrists. We work a lot on decisions like these. We are very experienced in the mannequinage, which is the mounting of mannequins. I think that if that’s not done right, the final result might end up looking laughable.

FP: Going back to the idea of tactility in relation to the digital turn, I saw the interactive wall downstairs. It’s a huge touch-screen wall that allows you to browse the museum’s archives by keyword, designer and year. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Could you tell me more about your thoughts on the role of digital technologies in fashion curation?

KD: For me, the digital is one of the key issues in the future of curation. We’ve been working on digital strategies for two years. The digital realm offers a whole new way of thinking about the museum. But I think the digital world is not going to replace the physical museum exhibition. It’s about finding a balance. The development of digital technologies moves so fast, and constantly. On the other hand, museums move at a much slower rhythm. So I want to find a way to combine those two rhythms: that of the museum, so that people have the opportunity to look at an object for ten minutes or two hours, to learn how to look at something in depth; and that of the digital, which offers new ways of curating our objects. There are endless possibilities. For me, the issue is to make choices that are relevant.

Other kinds of museums use digital technologies in a very interesting way, but I haven’t seen it used in fashion museums in very inspiring, enriching ways. We also have to engage with digital technologies in order to appeal to younger audiences. Which shouldn’t mean that we offer digital content like you do on Instagram, but that you try to bring them into the museum and its rhythm. This is challenging for younger audiences, because they’re exposed to this constant superficial feed of images. We want to teach them how to look at a single object, to go deeper in that object or in the work of a single designer, and to make connections between that designer’s work and previous eras in fashion history or between fashion and other disciplines.

FP: I had a conversation with [Met conservator] Sarah Scaturro a couple of years ago, and she mentioned the possibility of acquiring the code of an Iris van Herpen’s 3-D printed dress. What are your thoughts on collecting and curating digital artifacts?

KD: Yes, I know that the Metropolitan was considering acquiring the algorithm of one of her dresses. But it’s like asking a designer to give you a pattern.

FP: Which reminds me, you’re the only museum to have done an exhibition on patterns.

KD: Yes, in 2003 and that’s also the one exhibition I wish I could do again. I love patterns, I think they’re beautiful artifacts. They tell a lot about a designer’s philosophy and the garment itself. But at the time, our network wasn’t big enough and we didn’t get a lot of designers we wanted. So we should maybe give it a second try. But it’s quite tricky. For example, Veronique Branquinho recently donated her entire archive and patterns to us, but we had to negotiate an agreement that states that we are not allowed to show patterns to a third party without her written consent until after her death. Patterns are like a recipe—like asking a chef to reveal their secret ingredient. These days it’s not an unusual request considering how much is shared, or that we have open source softwares and so on.

We have also been collecting videos of fashion shows and fashion films for a long time, but it has become difficult for a fashion museum to collect all these digital artifacts because the pace of production has accelerated so much. Designers create extra digital content almost every week, be it behind-the-scenes, fashion shows or interviews, and post it on social media. Fifteen to 20 years ago we collected press clippings and we had a degree of control in that sense, but now it’s impossible to collect all these digital artifacts. You’d need a team of people who only do that.

“Dries van Noten. Inspirations,” 2015, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Koen de Waal

“Dries van Noten. Inspirations,” 2015, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Koen de Waal

FP: From your collaborative approach and collection policies it is clear that MoMu has a strong connection with the city of Antwerp and the Belgian fashion scene. How do you see the relationship between fashion museums and the industry? How has it evolved?

KD: When it comes to collaboration and sponsorship, it’s something that we negotiate differently for every exhibition. The first thing we always do is discuss our curatorial approach with the designer, the management team, or the fashion house. We try to have an open conversation about how we can collaborate together. We are very clear that, at the end of the day, it is MoMu that has the last say. So we curate the show, but often involve designers as co-curators. What we don’t do is include objects for commercial purposes. In our case it’s easier than for larger institutions in London or New York, because Belgian brands are too small to sponsor a show, so it’s never happened that a designer could afford to pay for his or her exhibition. If a fashion house is paying for an exhibition, there’s a different power relationship. Then again, just because designers don’t pay for it, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have these kinds of conversations anyway. It is still about achieving a balance between what you want and what they want.

I personally don’t mind if a designer translates our research into a three-dimensional display, as long as the core of your research isn’t touched. If you want to know if it’s okay for me that fashion houses pay for their exhibitions, the answer is that I don’t mind as long as you have that kind of conversation and a contract that states these conditions very clearly. Just to give you an example, we did an exhibition with the Belgian leather goods company Delvaux to celebrate their 180th anniversary. I didn’t mind doing an exhibition to celebrate their anniversary. Of course, I knew they would use the exhibition for their own marketing strategy, but it doesn’t mean that we have to adapt what’s on display for that reason.

FP: As the curator and director of a fashion museum, what do you think of the proliferation of fashion exhibitions across non-fashion museums and spaces?

KD: A lot of non-fashion institutions underestimate the work that goes into fashion curation. Fashion curation entails interpreting the body into a three-dimensional, static display. I’ve seen a lot of museums and galleries that have done fashion exhibitions because it’s quite cheap. You don’t pay the same insurance you pay for art pieces. They also attract lots of visitors, so it’s quite good for marketing purposes. However, often they settle for the cheap mannequins and end up with mannequins that have completely wrong body shapes, with big breasts or short trunks. A good mannequin, which unfortunately is quite expensive, has correct measurements and proportions.

Last year, the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels did its first fashion exhibition, which I consulted for. The first thing I told them was that they needed to make sure they had good mannequins. We loaned them some of ours, but they had many looks so they ended up buying 40 or 50 new mannequins. They went for the cheap ones. Imagine a look by Ann Demeulemeester, which is designed for an androgynous figure, on a mannequin with big breasts. The clothes didn’t fit and those mannequins were too short, so the clothing looked horrible. The designers were furious.

The cheap mannequins also had faces that weren’t particularly nice, but they only discovered that after unpacking them, which they did only two weeks before the show. You need more time. It’s not like hanging a painting on the wall. Sometimes we work on fitting a single dress on a mannequin for days. Anyway, they ended up covering the mannequins’ faces with plastic bags. It looked quite strange.

Many designers have a body type and for Belgians it is usually an androgynous body for both menswear and womenswear. You have to think about that. You can put a garment on a body in 1,000 different ways and all these different modes of display communicate different things to an audience. That requires experience, which a lot of these institutions just don’t have.

I think it’s disrespectful to designers to show their garments in ways that do not communicate their vision correctly. That doesn’t mean that I’m not open to different ways of curating. I’m aware that we curate in a different way than the Metropolitan, the Galliera, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, or the V&A. I think it’s enriching to see how different institutions curate in different ways.

FP: I generally find the proliferation of curation, or perhaps of “the curatorial,” quite interesting, especially when it happens outside of museums. For example, with a platform like Pinterest it seems like everyone can become a curator, in a way.

KD: The whole concept of co-curating with the audience is a very fashionable one. It’s something that we are thinking about: are we going to embrace it and how far are we going to go with this? I can imagine asking visitors to share images of a piece on display that they happen to own, to understand how they wear it and combine it with other garments. But again, the challenge is to understand if it’s relevant or if it’s just going to be another stream of images that doesn’t add anything to the conversation.

“Maison Martin Margiela: '20' The Exhibition,” 2008, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

“Maison Martin Margiela: '20' The Exhibition,” 2008, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

FP: You’ve already taken a step in that direction with the Margiela exhibition, where you asked a long-time collector to show how she wore the pieces. That’s a relevant way of communicating designer fashion to an audience that isn’t necessarily familiar with it.

KD: I really like the idea of wardrobes and people’s personal stories, how people combine clothes and how they live with them on a daily basis. We did that for the Margiela exhibition because for me it was important to show that his work is not just designed for the catwalk, but it is ready-to-wear produced and sold in shops. With other designers you have showpieces that are never going to be produced and sold. Perhaps 80 percent of the collection is just for the runway and what you see in stores is completely different. That’s why I insisted that we show this is not the case for Margiela. That’s why I wanted to include people’s wardrobes in the exhibition. People need to understand that this kind of clothing is actually worn.

Alex Esculapio is a fashion writer and PhD candidate and lecturer at University of Brighton, UK. Alex’s doctoral thesis assesses the implications of the concept of emotional durability, a term that describes approaches to product design that aim to encourage, nurture and sustain long-term relationships between users and objects, for contemporary fashion practice and discourse.