ANTWERP, Belgium — Solidifying its status among the world’s style capitals, this small, Flemish-speaking port town inaugurated a 95,000-square-foot, eight-level fashion museum last week.
The dramatic Mode Museum, or MoMu for short, was designed by Belgian architect Marie-Jose Van Hee and is housed in a former 19th century hotel on the city’s central Nationalestraat main street.
Although collections stretch back to the 16th century, contemporary Belgian fashion — and homegrown talent in particular — will be its focus. That shouldn’t prove a difficult task. In the past two decades, this city of 500,000 on the Scheldt River has moved out of the backwater and into the fashion spotlight. Designers Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Van Saene, Véronique Branquinho, AF Vandevorst, Raf Simons and Jurgi Persoons, among others, call Antwerp home.
"Why concentrate on contemporary Belgian fashion?" asked Linda Loppa, MoMu director and the eminence grise behind the ascendancy of Antwerp fashion. "Certainly, we’ll include international designers in shows. But we want to be special and different from all the other fashion museums around the world. We need a point of view."
The building itself makes a statement. Van Hee reconfigured the stark structureto include a library, research center, conference rooms and a sweeping gallery. Her most eye-catching design flourish is the wood-paneled atrium entrance hall and zigzag stairway, which cuts through the heart of the museum like a neo-cubist sculpture.
"Marie-Jose has a very essential approach to architecture," Loppa explained. "There’s nothing superficial in her approach — no superfluous decoration, and she has an engaging approach to volume. Just how I like my fashion."
Loppa has been instrumental in building the career of just about every designer to come out of Antwerp in the last 20 years. She heads the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and, in 1997, she founded Flanders’ Fashion Institute to promote designers after graduation and forge their business strategies. Loppa suggested that she wants to challenge the notion of a fashion museum.
"Our collections aren’t so big that they can stand on their own," she said, noting that the lion’s share of historical archives comprises 19th century regional bourgeois fashion. MoMu inherited those collections from the city’s former Museum of Textiles, which closed in 1998."My intention is to create a forum to examine the behavior of fashion, to explore it in a broader social and political context. I think clothes and the act of wearing clothes is a very important part of identifying our cultural heritage."
For its inaugural exhibition, called Backstage, Loppa commissioned Bob Verhelst, a designer and fashion teacher, to draw from the permanent collection and juxtapose current and historical designs. Pieces from Van Noten and Martin Margiela, for example, are displayed in cardboard storage boxes with pieces from the 19th century in a way that makes it nearly impossible to know which are old and which are new.
Loppa said she would commission artists and designers to create "special projects" on a regular basis. In this vein, Hussein Chalayan was asked to do a film based on his ethic-inspired fall collection. It runs concurrent to Backstage.
"We want to turn things around every five months or so," Loppa said. "It’s a fashion museum. Why shouldn’t we work to a rhythm similar to designers, who need to reinvent themselves every season?"
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