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

The Dream of Californian Design

From political posters to portable devices, discover how the egalitarian spirit of design in California has changed the way we live, learn, work and communicate 

An ongoing exhibition at London’s Design Museum explores how Californian design has given us the tools for unprecedented personal freedom by transforming the way we see, speak, make, travel and share. California: Designing Freedom traces the roots of modern technology and the legacy of Silicon Valley – including its cultish corporatism –  back to counterculture movements and the hippie modernisms of the 1960s.

In this sweeping celebration of California as a nucleus of pioneering design and technology, curators Justin McQuirk and Brendan McGetrick make connections between the free speech movement and social media, LSD and virtual reality, self-reliant communes and online communities, as well as many other equivalents, in order to argue that design drives the egalitarian spirit of California’s techno-utopia. 

The exhibition is ultimately about understanding the age of the individual. The freedom to say, to see, make, go where, and join what you want are its five organising themes. Taking the 1960s as its starting point, some 300 items, from political posters to portable devices, come together in the first show to position the Golden State as a self-made design capital of the 21st century, highlighting how Californian products now shape our daily lives.

It is an ambitious and at times overwhelming survey, with early Apple prototypes sharing the space with a replica of the Captain America chopper from the 1969 film Easy Rider. Highlights include artist and activist Gilbert Baker’s original 1978 design for the Rainbow Flag, Ridley Scott’s first commercial for Apple in 1984, and back issues of The Whole Earth Catalog (a pre-internet publication providing access to tools, information and ideas). There is even a vitrine of LSD blotting paper. “It’s the only drug where you’re consuming a piece of graphic design,” co-curator Justin McQuirk joked. 

A question left unanswered by California: Designing Freedom is whether the spirit within which something is made is more important than its application. When drawing parallels between California’s history of counterculture and the shared values of Silicon Valley, the downsides of technology, the internet and individualism at large are not addressed head-on. New phenomenons like self-surveillance are mentioned, but their potential for abuse is never fully implicated. In other words, the cost at which some of our newfound freedom comes is left unaccounted for. But perhaps that’s a story for another exhibition.

California: Designing Freedom is on show at the Design Museum in London until 17 October

The Phone Made for Minimalists

Joe Hollier, co-creator of the first phone designed to be used as little as possible, speaks about resisting digital distractions and the benefits of ‘going light’

As far as advertising slogans go, ‘designed to be used as little as possible’ is a far cry from ‘Just Do It’ or ‘I Want My MTV’, and is maybe one of the most unlikely examples in marketing history. Coined by Joe Hollier and Kaiwai Tang, co-creators of the Light Phone, its strength lies in the fact that the majority of us spend a worrying amount of time on our smartphones, and we’re all too aware of it. 

Some even call it an addiction. In fact, recent research claims that US consumers spend an average of five hours per day on their phones. The Light Phone’s USP then, is that it was made to be as simple and rudimentary as possible. Small, sleek and no bigger than a credit card, it is designed to be used as a second phone; a way to log off from the internet while still being contactable. 

Hollier and Tang came together on an app design programme run by Google. For Hollier, a graphic designer, artist and skateboarder, the programme ended up highlighting the greed and cynicism of the tech industry.  

“I realised quite quickly that, on one hand, apps all claim to make our lives better,” he explains. “But on the other hand, what all the founders and investors were talking about was retention: how many hours a day do your users actually use the app. Because the more addicted they become, the more ads you can sell them, the more data you can collect, and the more money you can make. So I saw this disconnect. How can you be claiming to make my life better when you’re really just taking up all of my time?” 

By the time the Light Phone was being tested, they found that first-time users often experience something that they now call ‘going light.’ “When someone ‘goes light’ there’s an initial anxiety, maybe tapping their pockets, maybe feeling like they’re missing something, maybe they’re at a café and can’t resort to looking down at their phones and they start making awkward eye contact with people,” Hollier continues. It sounds like satire, though it’s undoubtedly close to the truth. “But there’s always this moment when you stop caring, you forget about Instagram and you’re able to relax and experience the present.”

Given the Light Phone’s minimal design and limited features, the question remains: why buy a Light Phone when a simple Nokia could do the same job?  

“The design and the form are very important,” Hollier says. “The object of the Light Phone, image-wise, is designed to make the experience as special as possible. It’s hopefully something that you’ll be proud to pull out of your pocket. And then there’s the fact that you can keep the same number.”

Admittedly, there’s no getting away from the irony of using technology to combat technology addiction, but this isn’t the first time disruptors have subverted it in this way. With mindfulness apps and smart jewellery start-ups, the Light Phone seems to be part of a growing independent tech sector that promotes personal well-being. 

“One big thing about the Light Phone is the conversations it allows you to have about technology,” explains Hollier. “Even if someone doesn’t buy the phone, maybe it’s inspired them to question their personal phone use. Our goal was only ever to show how most technology is sponsored by big companies who don’t care about us, who just want our time and money. So the real question that the Light Phone poses is: why? And where do we go from here?”

Find out more about the Light Phone here