Passionate and instinctive, Kaat Debo is the polar opposite of the stuffy and highbrow museum director. Within a decade, she has turned MoMu into an international reference for fashion lovers, pushing innovative ideas while motivating her team. Sitting in her tidy office on a grey Antwerp afternoon, Debo talked to us about her favorite exhibitions, shopping as a curator and why looking after certain garments can be a total headache.
Donít you get tired of looking at old clothes?
Itís an interesting question, because the way we deal with time here is different from people in the industry. For designers, whatís new today will be old tomorrow. The only separation we make in our archive is between historical pieces and designer clothing. However, we increasingly feel that this separation can no longer be maintained. What is contemporary now? What about a Chanel outfit from the 1940s? Is that historical or contemporary? If you look at some designer pieces, that are 20 to 30 years old, theyíre probably more relevant than clothes you see today.
How far back does the designer collection go?
I would say it starts in 1910, 1920. It has to have a label in order to distinguish itself from period pieces. Still, an outfit from a Belgian designer made in the 1980s is also history, to me.
Clothing is an incredible way to document peopleís lives, donít you think?
Yes, I do. If you look at our 19th century collection, for instance, youíll be able to reconstruct the way people dressed, and also get an idea of their everyday life at the time. You recreate what was worn on the street and thatís an amazing aspect. Because we decided to focus on designer clothing for the 20th century Ė as opposed to dealing with the growing diversity of street style Ė I sometimes worry that future generations wonít be able to see what we actually wore.
Fashion is experiencing an ongoing process of democratisation, and you no longer have a few designers dictating what people should wear. Itís much more complex than that.
Why did you make that choice?
Itís problematic for me that, in 100 years time, people wonít be able to see what was worn on the street, but the clothing industry has changed drastically over the past 30 years and fashion keeps going faster. There are so many trends and segments now. Ready-to-wear only started in the 1960s, which is fairly recent. Fashion is experiencing an ongoing process of democratisation and you no longer have a few designers dictating what people should wear. Itís much more complex than that. As a museum, we have to make choices with the way we collect. Our resources and staff are limited, too. Although I find street style fascinating, we donít have enough historical distance to engage with it.
How do you shop as a curator?
Every year I have a budget to spend on clothes, which I find important. I have to select key pieces and order them in showrooms during Fashion Week. I must make up my mind quickly and I donít have that much time to analyse things. I cannot wait for 5 years to understand whether or not someoneís collection was iconic. I have to buy it as soon as itís been on the catwalk.
Doesnít sound like fun retail therapy to meÖ
Itís difficult, because each curator tries to build up a story with his or her collection. You have to understand whatís missing, what you need to get and which moments are important in fashion. For instance, I ordered pieces from Raf Simonsí first collection at Dior, because itís significant for me. When you look at what other curators collected before, you can assess their perspective and understand what they were trying to do. There are criteria you use when you buy. If I look at Dries Van Noten, Iíll pay attention to his printed pieces and embroidered looks. You have to select what can be understood as the designerís signature.
How much do you get to spend?
I get Ä30,000 a year. The first half goes towards the acquisition of period pieces, while the other is devoted to contemporary designers. Still, there are things that are harder to justify, like Rafís pieces for his first Haute Couture collection at Dior. You canít buy everything. You can always borrow, of course; such houses have incredible archives.
Do many designers donate clothes to the museum?
Not many do it. Some can be very generous, like Dries who gives us pieces each season. Heís one of the few who does that every year. For some fashion designers, being in a museum feels rather odd, while others are flattered and happy to be included.
Which exhibitions are you happiest about?
I was happy with the Margiela retrospective, which was special to me. We did it together with Martin before he left the house. He was very open to our ideas and worked with us like an editor does. It was great team work. The most fun was milliner Stephen Jones, as heís incredible to work with and has an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion. I like real collaborations between designers, their teams and our team. Iím proud of what we have achieved in 10 years.
Do you have any challenges conserving the pieces?
Itís often more difficult looking after contemporary pieces from designers than historical garments from the 19th century. Take plastics, for example. Many designers have experimented with them, like Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang or Walter Van Beirendonck. Theyíre a nightmare to look after and we have to keep on finding new ways to conserve them in top shape. Sometimes, they even fall apart after a few years and we really try to avoid that, with the appropriate research.
It sounds like an endless fight against time and decay.
It is. If clothes end up disappearing, do we really need to collect them? Thatís the main question we keep asking ourselves.
they did. it was held 21 of september. it was a typical flemish idea of a party....low-key but exciting.
yeah i love the idea of that myself,dries donating pieces to the museum. to me that really exemplifies how deeply connected these designers remain to antwerp and how much they want to continue building an extensive history and reputation for the city and the country's fashion industry. but kaat's comment about how certain designers feeling uncomfortable being included in a museum strikes me as a rather odd itself. one would think the idea of one wanting a designer included would not be such an issue,considering how influential that could be for the next generation of talent that goes through the academy.
it never occurred to me that a museum would buy current pieces, even special ordering things...
that seems a bit odd, to be honest...
*lots of designers talk about how uncomfortable they are with their pieces being in a museum...
i've heard it said that no one really wants to have their clothes in a museum, they want them to be worn...on the street...
Yohji was very much like that for a long time...
i think there has been a sort of shift in recent years...with more and more fashion exhibits being taken seriously by serious art institutions...
but it really doesn't surprise me...
"It is not money that makes you well dressed: it is understanding."
interestingly,i believe valerie steele also purchases current pieces for the FIT museum. it probably goes back to that point that not many designers feel compelled to donate to museums so certain museums have to establish a way of acquiring current fashion to compliment the historical stuff,which of course they often pay out of their noses to acquire as well.
and i understand from a designer's perspective that being worn is certainly more important than merely being looked at but there are those rare pieces that are so poignant of a designer and period,they eventually become iconic. it's also important to show the evolution of fashion and to tell a story.