The Angewandte Kunst Museum has been showing exhibitions on fashion phenomena for years. In an invited contribution, museum director Matthias Wagner K talks about melancholy, Ann Demeulemeester and fashion as a mirror of society.
Out of the dark, because in the second decade of the 21st century there is only a flicker of the light of belief in progress, and the shadow of dashed hopes seems to be slowly spreading, if you follow the philosopher Ludger Heidbrink and connect with Wolf Lepenies: But where utopian thinking dies out, melancholy makes room.
In fact, the creators of a still young 21st century fashion seemed to have turned towards darkness, and therefore towards melancholy. Once again, melancholy seemed to be seen as a point of contact with the world, and the fashion of Leandro Cano, Garland Coo, Ann Demeulemeester in films by Erik Madigan Heck, Barbara í Gongini, Julia Heuse, Maison Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen, Boris Bidjan Saberi, Augustin Teboul and Yohji Yamamoto each like a thin membrane, like a permeable layer between our everyday world and that other side where fashion designers explore the limits of human existence, feelings and desire, in a continuation after fashion.
The museum space was constituted in the game of people, things, perception and movement as a sensual space for thought and experience. The actions and attitudes of the designers can be experienced through things, multimedia installations or bodies in space and their arrangement, through the designed atmospheres. You can experience that fashion is much more than a certain cut, a piece of fabric more or less dyed or a certain skirt length, which fashion magazines present as essential for the next season.
The relationship between people, clothes and space is therefore essential to talk about space and spatiality on the one hand and fashion on the other, because obviously all the factors are mutually dependent. Fashion becomes art applied to the body and in particular in the museum space. Clothes need the space of staging in order to become fashion in the first place. To the same extent, space needs people to be experienced and constituted. Fashion and space interact with their viewers in a mutual condition and trigger reactions in both cases without being mere scenarios.
That this is also the case outside the museum space becomes clear when he travels to Antwerp and walks into the flagship store of the brand Ann Demeulemeester there. Located in a historicist building from the 1880s on Leopold de Waelplaats in the Zuid district of Antwerp, directly opposite the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), the store immediately immerses you in an atmosphere of calm, relaxation and serenity. Like the spring/summer 2022 fashion collection, the interior of the old school for sailors is kept in black and white. In 520 square meters, you can walk on black-stained wooden floors, pass eleven-meter-long coat racks, on which coats, dresses, pants or blouses hang at long intervals, and, in the spirit of Demeulemeester, wait to tell your stories. . over the bodies of her clients they unfold. Opposite is a six-meter-long glass display case displaying, among other things, accessories and the Demeulemeester ceramic and glass collection for Serax. Consequently, the large mirrors determine the space; An open white staircase leads to the first floor. Here you will find, among other things, large displays of circular shoes.
Ann Demeulemeester, born in Belgium in 1959, is one of the most important and innovative international fashion designers. Like the Antwerp Six+1, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Marina Yee, Dirk Bikkembergs and, a little later, Martin Margiela have been writing fashion history since 1986. Leopold de Waelplaats has been in existence for more than 20 years. It was opened in 1999 by Demeulemeester and her husband and business partner Patrick Robyn. In 2013 he retired from his namesake company, which was continued by Anne Chapelle, before Claudio Antonioli, described by Demeulemeester as one of his colleagues, took over the archive, headquarters and flagship store in Antwerp and the showroom in Paris. in September 2020. Today she works as a consultant for the company and her husband was instrumental in redesigning the Antwerp store.
What makes Demeulemeester fashion so special and how is it reflected in the space? Certain ruffles and asymmetries, certain ways in which a dress flows around the body or pants seem to fall from the hips make her fashion unmistakable. She tried on all of her models herself and only included them in the collections if they were really comfortable to wear and felt good. With her fashion, she not only wanted to allow and express feelings and well-being, but above all to evoke them. Ann Demeulemeester herself says of her designs that they must be built architecturally and that form is a central concept. Color is almost always at the service of form and consequently her choice of colors is purist. For her, black and white, the colors of her Antwerp store, are the most poetic colors that clearly reveal the construction of the garment. The intention of her brand is to make clothes part of the lives of her clients. This is the point for Demeulemeester where clothing differs from art. The image in a museum, for example, remains on the wall, while the dress or jacket changes specifically for each user.
Isn’t it much more appropriate to talk about fashion than about applied art? Each of her garments triggers something instead of being something and moves with its wearer: inside, like the premises of Ann Demeulemeester’s flagship store, they are subject to constant change.
It is precisely this space designed in this way that could be transferred 1:1 to a museum. The possibility to buy would be replaced by a different reading, in order to attract a different attention and, therefore, visibility of what designers do. Collaborations with film directors, sound engineers, graphic designers and artists would be more important. It would become even clearer that boundaries and norms were broken and that it was about more than clothing: namely, instead, about mental images, about feelings that shape society, such as fear or longing, of fantasies, of melancholy and poetry, of resistance. against role clichés and non-perception, of course also about desire, attention and consumption, and consequently also about the handicaps of vanity, wealth and success.
Fashion is always a mirror of society and therefore also of the current processes of political and social transformation. Fashion is never a dictate, because the fleeting figures inherent in it, the constant change, are indirectly critical of any dogmatism. And last but not least, fashion not only embodies hopeful change, it can also reveal uncomfortable truths.
Presenting fashion in a museum like the Museum Angewandte Kunst means inscribing something new, with more meaning, in the canonized narratives of fashion history. It is a place where fashion and the actions of designers can be reflected and where we can know what fashion is and what it does to us. And then, at the latest, one can speak of fashion as an artistic medium that differs from other arts only formally, and therefore for a practical purpose, as a special form of the applied arts.
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Matthew Wagner K. (*1961 in Jena) is an exhibition organizer, curator, author and, since 2012, director of the Angewandte Kunst Museum in Frankfurt am Main. In 2018 he was appointed honorary professor in the design department of HfG Offenbach, is responsible for the Festival Theater der Welt 2023 in Offenbach/Frankfurt together with Anselm Weber and Matthias Pees as artistic director and is director/CEO of the Frankfurt RheinMain app for the title World Design Capital 2026 with the motto Design for Democracy, Atmospheres for a better life.
This text first appeared in the cover story of the January (1/22) edition of JOURNAL FRANKFURT.