MOMU, an empathic museum that presents fashion in transition

Lieven Taillie

Brussels (Brussels Morning) MOMU, the fashion museum in the heart of the city of Antwerp re-opened its doors to the public last month after being close for more than three years as it underwent a thorough renovation. Newly up-scaled and handsomely restored, it has attained the contemporary standards appropriate for a museum dedicated to the best in fashion. And so, to mark the re-opening, the city is promoting its position as Belgium’s fashion capital with an ambitious programme. “Antwerp Fashion 2021, Conscious fashion” consists of .a series of city-wide events designed to run until January 2022 in conjunction with two exhibitions that are being mounted in the museum. Brussels Morning talked with Kaat Debo, the museum’s director and curator in chief.

Lieven Taillie : Museums stow time, our past and present. How is this made visible in your museum?

Kaat Debo : You always bring a selection, Our collection counts over 500 000 objects. We decided not to make a chronological presentation. Linearity is not what drives designers. They continuously go back and forth in time. Therefore, we opted for a thematic approach whereby we question the notion of ‘Belgian’ fashion. What does it mean today in a globalised world? Designers that studied in Antwerp at the Academy and start their own brand afterwards may be labelled as ‘Belgian’ in the sense that during their time in Antwerp they acquired a certain artistic feeling that is specific to Belgian designers – themes linked to surrealism, deconstructivism and a very conceptual approach towards fashion,

Lieven Taillie : Can you give us some examples of designers whose work displays this ‘Belgitude’ – apart, that is,  from the famous 6 of Antwerp?

Kaat Debo : Demna Gvasalia, the top designer for the French luxury brand Balenciaga. Georgian from birth, studied at the Antwerp Fashion Academy, worked with several Belgian designers, before moving to Paris where he launched his own brand and before going on to work for Balenciaga, that world-renowned brand with its long history and its Spanish roots that today is part of the major luxury group, Kering. Today, he lives in Switzerland. How do we qualify him? Identities today in our globalised world are multi-layered and in continuous movement. This is especially true of the world of fashion where globalisation has been the norm since the late-90s of the last century. At the Academy we have some 140 students in total, bringing together some 38 nationalities in the one school. When they leave after a four-year course of study and go on to start up their own brands we consider them to be ‘Belgian’ designers but this in no way represents an exclusive identity.

Lieven Taillie : What are you especially happy with now that you have a completely renewed and extended museum?  

Kaat Debo : An entrance more visible from the street, a new extra exhibition space, a new cafĂ© and shop, an auditorium with an extendable stand for 45 people and all the facilities necessary for video conferences and streaming. But the new infrastructure includes storage facilities, new floors, better isolation facilities, proper climate control systems, an updated ectricity system, new workplaces, and our very own fotostudio. While the museum was closed, we worked with an exterior fotostudio to take photos of some 1,500 silhouettes but now we are able to do that ourselves and to further digitalise our collections. Added to that, we also have new offices and meeting rooms plus a study-library where visitors, professional and enthusiasts alike, can have ready access to items from among the 2,000 pieces we have selected for display there. In these times of budgetary restrictions, where museums increasingly are forced to restrict access to their collections, we consider this to be an especially important feature . 

Lieven Taillie : Does your museum participate in European programmes? 

Kaat Debo : We are responding to a number of requests from European institutions and other partners. We were very active in the launch of the Europeana Fashion (https://pro.europeana.eu/project/europeana-fashion ) as part of the programme that promotes the digitalisation of the cultural heritage of Europe. Currently, we are taking part in the ‘Crafted’ programme that brings various European partners together.

We also have a series of projects that are not under a European umbrella. For example, Flanders helps subsidise ‘Glossy Surfaces’, a research programme on coatings that in addition to us involves New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Portuguese Fashion and Design Museum MUDE. Plastics, it should be noted, are one of the most difficult materials when it comes to conservation. For this particular project, we are also collaborating with the textile industry, in particular with Centexbel lab.

Lieven Taillie : Innovation and sustainability are part of the same story. Where does your museum stand in this regard?

Kaat Debo : Without innovation no progress. Innovation is also important in curating exhibitions. In our exhibition E/MOTION we innovated by using several audio-visual techniques and by adding some 20 live performances that were linked to two art installations in the course of the exhibition’s run. These were collaborations with the Ballet of the Opera of Flanders and featured the work of a scenographer plus performances by a counter-tenor and two dancers in the exhibition’s only white space. At the same time quotes from interviews with students and young designers in eight fashion schools from different parts of the world were being projected on the wall. Those interviews about their expectations, fears, challenges and ambitions helped in determining the storyline for the exhibition proper and the installations it featured.

Lieven Taillie : What did you learn from these interviews? Was there coherence in what they brought forward?

Kaat Debo : Not really. It differs between designers that are starting up and those who have been working for some time. The main challenge for those who have been working for some time is to come up with new business models. Most of the business models are those that originated in the 1990s when the big luxury groups gained impetus and they continue to shape today’s retail model and the way it is contested. This is not easy as we can see today from how these big groups continued to do business as usual during the pandemic, while there appears to be no real change on the horizon.

Lieven Taillie : So, is the fashion pact that the Keering group is proposing together with a long list of other fashion companies superficial at best?

Kaat Debo : Yes, Of course, they need to think about sustainability as indeed we all do, but the real question is one of growth. Fashion and its industry lives by the mantra of eternal growth. But fashion today is encountering the limits of a capitalistic system that demands never-ending growth. For many fashion houses, there is no longer the natural rhythm of a winter and summer collection. You have fashion houses that bring out 12 to 13 collections a year now! There are too many products. We all know it. Moreover, for a lot of these houses, the core business is no longer fashion. It has become merely a part of marketing, whereby most of their income comes from merchandising, selling handbags, perfumes, accessories, shoes, etc.

As a designer you need to ask yourself what counts as success? Whether your success is defined as being present in, say, 300 selling points worldwide? Or is it when you sell solely in Europe and then only in some 50 outlets or at very local levels? Today you have several designers whose goal is to be sustainable and so, for that reason, they choose perhaps not to sell in Asia. Production output is too high to be sustainable. Consider, for example, that worldwide, a piece of clothing on average is worn only six times — in Asia it can be only three times! Clearly this indicates that we consider clothes as disposable products and that for a whole bunch of people shopping has become a pathology.

Lieven Taillie : This also means a big challenge for a fashion museum in terms of what it should collect and what it should ignore?

Kaat Debo : Production has expanded phenomenally in the last 50 years. To give you an historical perspective, consider that PrĂȘte Ă  porter dates only from the 1970s. As a fashion museum, today we focus on the avant garde yet we are aware that we do not offer a contemporary streetview of our city such as is arguably the case with our historical collections even though, because of conditions of conservation, most of the pieces on display are emblematic of the upper middle class. Collecting fashion today is also difficult because you have to make decisions without having time to distance yourself from the moment of the collection presentations. The risk is that you no longer can acquire a piece once its historical relevance becomes clear because by then it is out of stock.

Lieven Taillie : A problem with time management that is emblematic of today’s society?

Kaat Debo : It is also about how museums want to be present in the societal debates.They are more than ever conscious that this is part of their mission and that they can no longer hide themselves behind arguments of neutrality and objectivity. We want to enhance the dialogue, to be places where the public can enter into discussion with the exponents of the fashion industry. Designers are not in the position to do this. They too are caught up in the rat race. Fashion museums like ours, subsidised by public funds with an independant curatorship, are in position to play such a role. This is not quite the case when it comes to, say, the French museums that are co-funded by the industry or those in Anglo-Saxon countries where often you have to follow the wishes of your sponsors.

Lieven Taillie : Expectations on this from the side of Europe? 

Kaat Debo : We appreciate Europe opting to push for innovation and creativity. Creativity is key and that applies not only to the arts sector but also to the economy, the sciences etc. Experimenting, innovating and empathy are vital. A museum must be open to the needs and wishes of society and should take part in the discussions that are going on in the communities around it. Also, it would greatly help if tenders involved less red tape, less administration, given that the financial obligations and criteria that middle class museums such as ours have to observe are already too burdensome . 

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Brussels Morning is a daily online newspaper based in Belgium. BM publishes unique and independent coverage on international and European affairs. With a Europe-wide perspective, BM covers policies and politics of the EU, significant Member State developments, and looks at the international agenda with a European perspective.
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Lieven Taillie is Brussels Morning editor-in-chief, specialized in European Affairs, with more than 25 years of experience. He is the President of the Belgian sector of the Association of European Journalists.