E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition

What role does fashion play in society? A new exhibition at Antwerp’s ModeMuseum explores

Cover image by David Sims, The Face, January 1998, © David Sims / Art Partner, model: Bridget Hall, makeup: Linda Cantello

Fashion is a mirror of society, often reflecting the shifts in attitudes, ideas, tastes and preferences that evolve throughout the years; it’s a Zeitgeist. An early example harks back to the hemline, with skirt lengths shortening along with the fight for women’s rights and equality. While in more recent times, the influx of globalisation and the internet – and thus the immediacy of information and access to goods – has also altered our perceptions and ideals of identity, meaning that, on the one hand, fashion choices have become more liberal, conscious and sustainable, while the other is quite the opposite (taking fast fashion into account). Then there’s health crises, a pandemic, economic inequality and social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo signalling to a change in a global society. But what is fashion’s role amongst it all, and where does it sit in the recent world?

Posing this very question is a new exhibition titled E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition. Presented as part of the reopening of ModeMuseum (MoMu) in Antwerp – which opened its doors on 4 September – the exhibition is curated by Elisa De Wyngaert and features works from Helmut Lang, Walter Van Bierendonck, Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan, John Galliano, Raf Simons, Versace and more. A time capsule of sorts, E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition, looks at how fashion has “served as a visual signifier of contemporary instabilities, concerns and emotions since the 1990s,” explains Kaat Debo, MoMu’s director and chief curator. Below, I chat to Kaat about the role of fashion and how it can evoke real change.

‘Boxing Gisele’ editorial, Big Magazine, 1999, © Photo: Vincent Peters

What does emotion mean in the context of this exhibition and in the wider sense of fashion?

The choice for the title E/MOTION was motivated by a need for genuine emotion. Over the past 18 months, we’ve all had to work, live and create from home and a large part of our lives took place online. Also, designers have been forced to work digitally because of the pandemic. We wanted to research whether there’s place for genuine emotion in a digital world. We felt the need for real human interaction and the wish to integrate a live aspect in the exhibition, which is difficult within the static context of a (fashion) exhibition. We invited director, performer and countertenor Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe, in collaboration with the opera house in Antwerp (Opera/Ballet Vlaanderen) and the exhibition designers (Jan Versweyveld & HuismanVanmerode) to create a live performance for the exhibition. A challenging but also very exciting experiment. 

In order to reflect on the future of fashion, as well as on the recent past, we conducted numerous interviews with fashion students and established designers during the pandemic. The designers gave their personal views on a wide range of subjects: what impact does the digital (r)evolution have on their creativity? Are fashion shows important? Can fashion evoke genuine emotions? What is the importance of craftsmanship, local production and sustainability? And what do you hope for the future? Fragments of these interviews formed the basis for this performance, that will be the closing installation in the exhibition. The performance will be brought 20 times during the entire exhibition period (September – January).

Untitled # 359, 2000. © Photo: Cindy Sherman Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Fashion has long mirrored certain shifts in society. Can you tell me a bit more about this, and how fashion responds to particular events?

Over the last three decades, we have borne witness to unprecedented globalisation, which has had its impact on the creation, production, dissemination, communication and consumption of fashion. More than ever before, it has pushed fashion into the barriers of its own complex system and made it a stage for international political crises, from the Gulf War in the 1990s to terrorist attacks at the start of the new millennium, as well as for financial crises and recessions, the ecological crisis, and such health crises as the AIDS or the current Covid-19 pandemic. Fashion always reflects the prevailing zeitgeist, from social and economic inequality to global social movements, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. How have these evolutions impacted the way we see and perceive emotion, success, beauty, creativity, authorship and collaboration? And how has the role of the fashion designer changed in all this upheaval? Some examples…

Kristen Owen, Helmut Lang backstage series, Spring Summer 1994, Paris, 1993, © Photo: Juergen Teller, All rights reserved

90s recession: Against a backdrop of recession, a deflated job market and pessimism about the future among the younger generation in the 1990s, the Heroin Chic look became popular in fashion imagery. Fragile-looking models with messy make-up and drugged expressions appeared not only in photography, but also in fashion shows. The emergence of the look was linked to the Junk Culture of contemporary movies about addiction, such as Trainspotting (1996). The embrace of heroin and unhealthy body images in fashion drew vitriol. After the turn of the millennium, the Heroin Chic look was replaced by a tanned, toned and – in contrast to its predecessor – ‘healthy’ looking body.

Health crises: Our fear of death and disease during the past three decades has been further fuelled by various epidemics and pandemics, including HIV, swine flu and Covid-19. These health crises also affected the fashion industry. In the early 1990s, Benetton, the Italian fashion brand, ran controversial advertising campaigns referring to the AIDS crisis; while Martin Margiela created t-shirts for charity to encourage open conversations about AIDS; and Walter Van Beirendonck included rubber pieces as protective shields and printed messages about safe sex in his activist collections. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the face mask has emerged as a symbol of the crisis.

Joan Didion, Celine Campaign, Spring-Summer 2015, New York 2014, © Photo: Juergen Teller, All rights reserved

Terrorist attacks: The euphoria of entering the new millennium ended abruptly in September 2001. The repercussions of the terrorist attacks in the USA were complex, violent and disruptive, changing the course of world politics. The attacks occurred on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week, making fashion journalists the first to report them. Though incomparable to the tragic loss of life, the financial impact of 9/11 forced many independent designers to file for bankruptcy or to look for outside investment. Another challenge occurred when, against the sudden trauma of 9/11, some of the Spring-Summer 2002 collections were reinterpreted by the press and buyers as inappropriate and insensitive. Some fashion photographers faced the same issues when a few editorials had to be cut at the last minute. In these, models were depicted falling from buildings or looked like survivors covered in dirt; they suddenly seemed too close to reality.

Military references in fashion were often in direct response to pervasive images in the news about war and terror. In the last two decades, a series of terrorist attacks in European cities led to increased military presence. The surreal experience of encountering soldiers in camouflage uniforms – previously out of context in cities – heightened a sense of unease and fear. Directly or indirectly, these ongoing emotions of anxiety and terror prompted fashion designers to investigate the dichotomies between feeling protected and feeling threatened, between soldiers and female warriors.

Vivienne Westwood campaign image, Spring-Summer 1999, © Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri

Can you give an example of what’s involved in the exhibition and how this relates to the theme?

One of the exhibition themes is dedicated to the digital evolution and the internet. In this theme, we present a chiffon Versace dress, that was worn by Jennifer Lopez in 2000 during the Grammy Awards. People all around the world Googled her photo. This sudden peak in the search for a specific image was the reason Google Images was invented. The look became a metaphor of the ever more powerful symbiosis between fashion and celebrity culture. Twenty years later, Jennifer Lopez appeared on the Versace runway in this very dress.

What can the audience learn from this exhibition? 

I hope the exhibition will inspire and move our visitors, as well as provoke conversation about fashion culture and its impact on society.

E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition is on show at MoMu from 4 September 2021 – 23 January 2022

Delphine Desane, cover image for Vogue Italia, January 2020, Model: Assa Baradji, © Photo: Laurence Prat. Condé Nast Italia
Exactitudes, 104 Commandos, Rotterdam/Paris, 2008, © Photo: Ellie Uyttenbroek
Y/Project by Glenn Martens, Autumn-Winter 2019-20, Model: Leopold van der Noot d’Aasche, (c) Photo: Noel Quintela
Walter Van Beirendonck, æstheticterrorists® collection, Spring-Summer 2002, © Photo: Ronald Stoops
Untitled # 588, 2016/2018. © Photo: Cindy Sherman Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Copyright: MoMu Antwerp, Photo by Stany Dederen
Copyright: MoMu Antwerp, Photo by Stany Dederen
Copyright: MoMu Antwerp, Photo by Matthias De Boeck

Kanaal: Living in Art

Kanaal, the brainchild of Belgian art and interiors behemoth Axel Vervoordt, provides cutting-edge new exhibition and residential spaces at the forefront of design 

Kanaal. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Kanaal complex, originally an old malting distillery and grain storehouse, lies just on the outskirts of Antwerp. It’s here, over the last two decades, that Axel Vervoordt – the interior designer and art collector who designed the Manhattan penthouses of Robert de Niro and Kanye West – has been gradually acquiring land and derelict agricultural buildings. Today, the recently opened, 55,000sq m site offers custom designed and sympathetically restored exhibition space, featuring permanent installations from luminaries including Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramović, as well as rotating showcase exhibitions for emerging artists. 

The complex also includes luxury apartments available for commercial sale, conceived by long-term Vervoordt collaborator, the architect Tatsuro Miki, and with interiors designed by Vervoordt himself. He envisages a close community here, brought together by a love of art and design – the site already hosts award-winning French bakery Poilâne and a restaurant, with daycare facilities in the pipeline. It’s a project that is truly a family affair, with Axel’s two sons, Boris and Dick, taking responsibility for new art acquisitions and real estate, respectively.  

Anish Kapoor’s At the Edge of the World, installed at Kanaal in 2000 and created before the artist achieved global fame, represents the “red beating heart” of the project, as Vervoordt explains to me at the event’s opening. “I wanted the space, which used to be a building where grains were sorted, to be like a Rothko chapel, a room for universal peace and harmony.” Recently, an opera was performed in the space.  

Axel Vervoordt standing underneath Anish Kapoor’s ‘At the Edge of the World’. Photo © Zoemin

Nearby, the Henro gallery houses Axel Vervoordt’s permanent collection, moved from its previous exhibition space in the heart of Antwerp. In Karnak, an ascetic space with the original solid concrete columns intact, works by Gutai artists are installed alongside Japanese sculptures dating from the Endo period. Literally meaning ‘concrete’, Gutai was a radical artistic movement that emerged in postwar Japan, its proponents aspiring to transcend the abstract painting of the time in favour of pure materiality.

The strength and legacy in the room is palpable: the columns once supported 60 litre silos. “When I first saw it, the columns reminded me of an Egyptian temple,” says Vervoordt. “The power is still amazing – almost religious. Industrial architecture is not made to be beautiful, it is made to serve.”

Karnak © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

The room next door is dedicated to three paintings by Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga, who descended from a prominent samurai family. The three ‘warrior’ paintings convey a primal violence reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedy, the scarlet spattered canvases hovering, eerily suspended in the slate-grey gloom. When Vervoordt visited the artist at his home in Kobe in 2003, he witnessed an equally elemental mode of preparation.

“He would contemplate the empty canvas, until he became one with the emptiness. His wife would then pour the paint, and he would create the painting in a few gestures, without hesitation. This for me is the origin of life, that which comes out of emptiness. This is the big bang.”

Suiju, Kazuo Shiraga. Photo © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

“Now we go into the light”, Vervoordt jokes, as we exchange the shadowy gallery for comparatively blinding Flemish daylight. Though lighthearted, this is an apposite remark: at Kanaal, the levels of luminescence in each gallery are carefully weighted for optimum atmosphere.

Installation El Anatsui, ‘Proximately’. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Patio Gallery, a space for temporary exhibitions, is currently showing Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s ‘Proximately’, and is drenched in natural light. Anatsui’s tactile sculptures, vast quilts of scrap metal that have been washed, hammered flat and sewn together using copper thread, hang on the walls like glittering patchwork quilts. Vervoordt first discovered Anatsui’s work in Toyko, and presented the artist at the Venice Biennale in 2007, draping one of his sculptures over the facade of Palazzo Fortuny like a chainmail tapestry designed with the palette of Gustav Klimt.

Lucia Bru exhibition, Escher Gallery. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The industrial legacy of the Escher Gallery, a former brick warehouse and now another temporary exhibition space, remains clear. Though the machinery and grain silos have been removed, vast cylindrical concavities remain carved in the space. The sculptures of Belgian artist Lucia Bru that inhabit the gallery were not made in accordance with the space, but feel like a part of its industrial heritage. Fragments of crystal and milky porcelain with rounded edges, as though smoothed by waves, lie in glimmering piles. When I note the sculpture’s resemblance to sea glass, Bru emphasises the integrality of water to her work. “The elements of water and earth are part of the same family, they have a relationship, they fight, they reconcile,” she explains. Bru’s larger sculptures, which resemble pale rocky islands, are ceramic, a famously un-pliable, difficult material with which to work. “It has a mind of its own”, she notes. “I don’t like it when I control the material too much. I like it to surprise me.”

Detail of movidas, Lucia Bru. Photo © Jan Liégeois

Not all the structures at Kanaal are original, though it is often difficult to tell what has been newly built. Tatsuro Miki’s design celebrates this assimilation. “It’s important to preserve the existing quality of a place,” Miki says. “The first concept for the additional buildings at Kanaal was to create something as if it was already there. Once things have aged, we want them to be part of the same landscape. We prefer harmony to noise.”

Kanaal represents a continuation of Vervoordt’s design vision that has endured since his earliest restoration projects in the 1960s, to create an environment in which everyday life and art coexist harmoniously: a philosophy of living in art.

 

The Vision of Dries Van Noten

An intimate documentary directed by Reiner Holzemer follows a year in the life of the Belgian designer as he reveals the creative process behind four collections

Dries Van Noten selecting fabrics in his studio in Antwerp

Dries Van Noten is one of the most unassuming figures in fashion. In an industry which otherwise moves at an impossible pace, he is a thinking, feeling designer, and for more than 25 years, he has remained independent in the face of fashion’s runaway globalisation. 

Despite his relatively low profile, Van Noten is a veteran designer and celebrated his 100th show in March this year. A master of print, pattern and texture, he emerged from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the early ‘80s as part of a group of designers including Walter van Beirendonck and Ann Demeulemeester, often referred to collectively as the Antwerp Six. Since launching his namesake label in 1986, he has become widely respected as a designer who has forged his own path.

In a new documentary directed by Reiner Holzemer – whose past films include portraits of artists and photographers such as David Lynch and Juergen Teller – the Belgian designer gives rare access to his home and work life. Over the course of a year, Dries documents the makings of four collections, from his studio in Antwerp to backstage at his fashion shows in Paris. In doing so, it offers a glimpse into the world of “one of fashion’s most cerebral designers”, as The New York Times has described him.

Dries Van Noten with Jürgen Sailer, head of men’s design in his studio in Antwerp

Holzemer, himself a relative newcomer to the inner workings of the fashion industry, met Van Noten while filming his 2011 documentary on Juergen Teller. Immediately taken with the designer’s intuitive approach, it took the German filmmaker three years to convince a camera-shy Van Noten to be the subject of his next film. While the designer had outright turned down the proposals of other directors, Holzemer was spurred on by the fact that he never said no. Twice a year, they would meet at Van Noten’s shows and each time, Holzemer would ask again.

“I think what encouraged him, or interested him in my work, was that I was not coming from the fashion world,” Holzemer explains. “I wasn’t a fashion filmmaker and he saw some of my films as portraits of artists, and I think he liked that approach.” After this prolonged game of cat and mouse, Van Noten agreed to open up his work and home to Holzemer and a small crew.

Dries Van Noten with Jürgen Sailer, head of men’s design in his studio in Antwerp

Holzemer’s genuine affection for Van Noten comes across in conversation and his respect for designer is more than apparent in his portrayal. Fashion documentaries often capitalise on moments of drama and the frenzy of the eleventh hour, but Holzemer cites examples such as The September Issue and Dior and I as precisely the type of fashion film he wasn’t looking to make. With Dries, he insists he wasn’t interested in playing up to the same stereotypes; the appeal was the person, not the industry. 

An important aspect of the film is its depiction of Van Noten’s life in Antwerp, where he continues to live with his long-term partner, Patrick Vangeluwe, and his dog, Harry. The choice not to live in Paris, where his collections are shown, is a considered one. “There’s less distraction and he can really concentrate on his work,” says Holzemer. “It’s important for him to live his own rhythm, to live in his own world. And that’s why he’s always creating something new and unexpected.”

Dries Van Noten in his garden in Lier, picking flowers for the house

In Dries, Van Noten touches on what he calls the “rat race” of fashion. Speaking of the immense pressure placed on designers today, many of whom are tasked with producing a growing number of mid-season collections, Holzemer says, “In a way he’s an exception and in the same way he’s typical, I think.” Yet, while contemporaries might produce in excess of eight collections a year, Van Noten has refused to compromise the quality of his ideas.

“When he designs something, when it’s too beautiful, he adds something distracting or something ugly to make it more interesting, and that’s an ongoing process all the time,” Holzemer explains of his process. “I found that Dries doesn’t draw. He works like a sculptor, working with the fabrics on a live model, more a less. That was very hard for him to show – how he works – because he was always a little bit afraid of showing something that was not perfect, and might even look a little banal in the eye of the audience.”

As seen through the eyes of Holzemer, the designer’s high-profile admirers, and Van Noten himself, what comes together is a portrait of a man who strives to bring the same artfulness to all areas of his life. “Do you think people like Dries are disappearing in the world today?” Holzemer asks Iris Apfel as the documentary draws to a close. “Not disappearing, darling – they’ve disappeared,” she says. “He’s a treasure and has to be treated as such.”

Dries Van Noten working on a collar for the Men’s Winter 2016 collection

Dries, directed by Reiner Holzemer, is out now on DVD