- ModeMuseum, Antwerp
- 18 March to 3 August 2016
Game Changers, currently showing at the Mode Museum in Antwerp examines the changing shape of the twentieth century silhouette and explores the work of the designers who created a new and modern shape in fashion.
Mode Museum is situated in the fashion district of Antwerp. Designed by Belgian architect, Marie-José Van Hee, the concrete facade and wooden flooring of MoMu is a fitting space for an exhibition that celebrates a very modern style of fashion which emerged in the 1920’s and 30’s.
At the centre is the work of the man who was one of the early pioneers; Spanish fashion designer, Cristobel Balenciaga. His approach was to create a more relaxed silhouette which acknowledged the importance of structure but eschewed the more traditional corsets.
He was not the first to do this; French designers Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet were instrumental in implementing a revolution in women’s fashion in the early 1920’s. This exhibition places Balenciaga’s work at the centre of such transformations alongside a number of equally ground-breaking designers who have been influenced by his work. Viewed through the lens of his modern interpretation of the female silhouette the narrative thread is evident.
On entry the viewer is greeted by two radically different garments, a pale-blue silk Balenciaga ball dress designed around 1953. Alongside this is a Rei Kawakubo dress is from her 1997 ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ collection for Commes des Garcon where sheath dresses, made of gingham cotton had lumps inserted within the structure of the dress beneath the cloth to mimic the imperfect human form.
An example of how these clothes worked on a moving body is shown in a filmed extract taken from a piece of dance-work entitled Scenario which was created by the American choreographer Merce Cunningham in the same year, showing these garments at their most sensuous and fluid beauty.
In 2015, a retrospective of the work of the fashion Belgian designer, Dries van Noten, was held at MoMu. He is known for his use of bright colours, detailed print and intricate embroidery. In contrast, Fashion Game Changers is striking for it’s the lack of colour and pattern or print. The garments are so sculptural in their rendering, that print or embroidery would seem superfluous. It is the technique within the garments that matters.
Apart from one Balenciaga piece displayed alongside the paper pattern, all of the clothes were displayed as the finished product. It would have been intriguing to see a garment turned inside out to examine the technique in more detail. The mechanical structure of a dress is arguably as interesting as that of a building because the internal workings are what makes the object work. It may look like smoke and mirrors but it is sartorial engineering at its best.
Balenciaga’s influence on contemporary Japanese designers is key in this exhibition. The work of Rei Kawakobu of Commes des Garcon and Yohji Yamamoto demonstrates the beauty of garments that drape and bag around the body and celebrates the movement of material which completely hides the female form. To quote designer Yohji Yamamoto “I want to see the scars, failures, disorder. [..] I think perfection is ugly”.
Text panels were brief and to the point. Like the garments in each case which celebrate a lack of frills and fripperies, the information supplied was equally succinct. A brief biography of each designer was given, peppered with some pertinent quotes. By placing the panels to the side of each case; the viewer could enjoy reading the garment rather than the text.
Some cases were themed using parts of the body, such as shoulders or neck, using examples of designers who focused on those areas. The case examining the neck displayed a number of garments by Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto because he has often acknowledged his pre-occupied with women’s necks which is considered highly erotic in Japanese culture.
It is clear that the European designers in the exhibition, such as Balenciaga, Madeleine Vionnet and Andre Courreges appear to follow the fashion rules more closely and while they all liberated women in some way, their modern approach also had a whiff of convention about them, paying close attention to buttons and zips. Dresses fall on the knee or to the ankle and there is a definite structure within such fluid designs.
It is left to the Japanese designers such as Yamamoto and Kawakobu who work outside the fashion system to break and bend the rules. There is almost a refusal to acknowledge the female form by creating designs of sack-like simplicity that can appear infantile in their shape yet look as modern and crisp as the building in which they are displayed.
The peaceful atmosphere of the gallery was disrupted only by a short film playing at the end of the main gallery and although the modern soundtrack was slightly jarring, it was refreshing to walk through an exhibition where there was no other extraneous noise. Visitors at fashion exhibitions have become familiar with voice-overs and pulsating music and this lack of sound felt in keeping with the quiet design of the garments.
Mannequins were a mixture of those with heads and those without and worked aesthetically with the garments upon which they were displayed. A small selection of black and white photographs including some of Madonna modelling Yohji Yamamoto in 1994 was a welcome reminder that these clothes need to shown on a moving body rather than a stationary mannequin.
Mobility is the liberating force and acknowledges garments which skim are just as sensuous as those that cling. It is important to acknowledge how emancipating these designs were and although there were a number of archive films referencing some of the designers’ work, the static displays did not perhaps show such garments to their best advantage.
This minimalist approach could be mistaken for an exhibition that lacks humour and it is true that these odes to the blue, black and grey contribute to the church-like atmosphere. But there is fun to be found, in particular the designs of the Belgian designer Martin Margiela whose work can appear baffling in their unreconstructed appearance and a sense of bewilderment as to which opening one puts one’s head through.
Yet such garments also raise a smile and remind one that while fashion is a serious business it should not be taken too seriously. Game Changers celebrates why breaking the rules can be beautiful.