The Back Room
Antwerp’s Mode Museum

If Antwerp’s Mode Museum (MoMu) is desperately seeking a second storage space for its growing permanent collection, at least part of the blame falls on Bernard Willhelm. He may donate his designs each season alongside the likes of Dries van Noten, Martin Margiela, and his onetime mentor Walter van Beirendonck, but inside the museum’s existing archive rooms — which Sight Unseen had the exclusive privilege of touring earlier this year — it’s Willhelm who clearly holds the record for overflowing racks. In fact, MoMu’s curation team rarely turns down a donation from a legitimate source, whether for the historical collection it originally inherited from an old provincial textile museum or for its cache of contemporary fashions by talents born or educated in Antwerp, but Willhelm’s contributions are so generous that the day we visited, there were clothes waiting to be graciously returned to his showroom. It’s not difficult to understand the designer’s enthusiasm, though, or that of his peers: The MoMu’s prestige in Europe far exceeds its diminutive size, and since it opened a decade ago, it’s become the largest repository in the world for contemporary Belgian fashion.

Of course, of the 25,000 items in its possession — which multiply at a rate of about 500 new acquisitions per season, hence the need for additional storage—only a tiny fraction are on view at any given time. That’s the case for most museums, but MoMu only puts on two temporary exhibitions per year in its corner of Antwerp’s ModeNatie building, in addition to the few hundred items it keeps on permanent display. That’s why it was so appealing to us to approach the museum for a peek into the archives; museum curator and art historian Wim Mertens spent several hours leading us through the stacks and dragging out boxes full of Margiela accessories and antique lace samples, and yet we walked away feeling like we’d left behind a box of buried treasure. Luckily the museum has managed to document just over half of its collection in an online lookbook — check out the slideshow documenting our visit at right, then click here to dig into MoMu’s rich digital repository.



A rack full of Dries van Noten clothing waiting to be registered into MoMu’s digital cataloging system, which keeps track of the nearly 5,000 contemporary and 20,000 historical pieces in the museum’s collection. MoMu was originally based on the contents of a former textile museum in Vrieselhof, Belgium; when Antwerp inherited those items, it decided to parlay them into a fashion museum in 2001. “We retained everything from the old textile museum,” says Wim Mertens, a curator at the museum who specializes in historical dress. “We have floral tapestries which have nothing to do with a fashion museum, but it's an inheritance, and also napkins, tablecloths, bedspreads — you name it in textiles, and we have it.”


Most of the musem’s archive rooms look like this: Items of clothing in Tyvek bags, with periods, styles, or designers labeled at the front of each rolling shelf like in a library. “The more precious pieces are the dresses with trains, which are too long to keep on a hanger, and have to be stored in boxes,” says Mertens. “Pieces that are in especially bad condition have to be kept in acid-free paper boxes.”


Pieces from the contemporary collection — of which 90% are by designers who are either Antwerpians themselves or graduated from Antwerp’s legendary Royal Academy fashion school — aren’t stored in bags, at least not at the moment. But “once the piece comes into the museum, it’s a museum object,” says Mertens. “So for me there is no difference between a blouse by Dries and a 19th century blouse. Sometimes a designer asks to do a photo shoot with a piece they’ve donated and we say, ‘Sorry, it’s no longer possible.’ Because here for instance, you see there’s a stain probably due to makeup — that’s the problem with photo shoots. For us it’s a museum object, which means that we stick to certain conditions.”


MoMu does lend pieces out to other museums for exhibitions, though. Above, a skirt by Belgian-born Veronique Branquinho, who closed her 11-year-old label in 2009.


Baby-hand necklaces by Martin Margiela. In addition to the clothing in the museum’s archive, there are also boxes upon boxes full of such accessories. Though when it comes to contemporary jewelry, Mertens cautions, “it needs to be part of a silhouette.”


Margiela shoes lined up in an archive box.


MoMu puts together two large temporary exhibitions each year, many of them focused on single designers like Stephen Jones or — currently on view — Walter van Beirendonck. The day we visited last February, the curators were preparing for the museum’s summer show on knitwear, which has since closed; pictured is a stack of research materials for that show.


Among the pieces the curators had pulled from the collection for possible inclusion was this embroidered dress by the Italian designer Angelo Figus, who graduated from the Royal Academy in 1999. The museum rarely pursues student work, both because they prefer to wait until designers have proven themselves and because of favoritism issues, but it does own Figus’s graduation collection, which was acquired by a former director.


The dress in the previous slide was part of a show Figus put on during the Pitti Fillati trade show in Italy a few years back that imagined a world made entirely by knitting — clothing, shoes, fruit, flowers, and even chairs, like this knitted Reitveld interpretation. MoMu’s knitwear exhibition featured a small recreation of that show.


On the right, a knitted mannequin wearing a knitted outfit, also by Figus. On the left, a small slice of the sprawling Bernhard Willhelm archive in the museum’s possession, which formed the basis of its 2007 retrospective on the designer. “Willhelm donates every season,” says Mertens. “In the beginning he gave his complete collection of both men’s and women’s — like 40 silhouettes — but now Kaat [Debo, the museum’s director] makes the selections. I think we have the biggest Willhelm collection in the world. It’s immense.”


More Willhelm. One of the reasons the museum has gotten pickier over the years is that it’s pretty much run out of storage space, and it’s virtually impossible for its curators to retroactively eliminate pieces from the collection. “It’s a very difficult procedure because we’re a museum of the Province of Antwerp, which means if we want to get rid of something, it’s a real cascade of people that we need to consult,” explains Mertens. “We have a council of the Province, and the politicians, the Council of Deputies, has to decide if we can get rid of any given piece. So we keep everything — once it gets a registration number, it’s in the collection forever. That’s why we’re so severe in choosing.”


On the other hand, sometimes the museum accepts donations from international designers that have no connection to Antwerp, if it feels those pieces would make a good addition to its archive. “Last year we got a rather large donation by Calvin Klein, but we were very happy with his offer, so we made an exception,” says Mertens. “We also have some interesting pieces by Yamamoto donated by him two years ago.” Yamamoto once had a worldwide flagship in Antwerp which shared the same building as MoMu, but it has since closed. Pictured above: Tiny hats by Bernhard Willhelm.


And again: A pair of bird underwear by Willhelm.


Mertens also took us deep into the historical archive, of which 60% is 19th century and 30% is 20th century. “We have only eight 18th-century dresses, which is a very small collection,” says Mertens. Unfortunately we don’t recall which era this gown belongs to.


A photograph of what the dress looks like in its proper state is pasted to the outside of its archive box. Storage at the museum is key, in terms of its conservation efforts; the museum employs three specialists for those tasks. “One is responsible for exhibitions, and another for the storage rooms — she prepares the pieces for registration and then puts them in the boxes or hangs them on hangers. And then the third is responsible for actual conservation. Either she does small fixes herself, or she makes sure the pieces go to an external specialist. She also checks every piece before it goes to an exhibition here in the museum or at another institution. Sometimes a piece is too far gone to be put on a mannequin, and then we decide whether to leave it in the storage room or do a bigger restoration.”


The most fragile items, Mertens explains, and the hardest ones to conserve, are made of silk. “Linen for instance, is very strong,” he notes. “It keeps in shape forever. The mummies in ancient Egypt were wrapped in linen. We actually have some fabrics from ancient Egypt, and the ones in linen you can’t tell the difference if they’re 5,000 years old or 200 years.” Above: A box full of cotton children’s bonnets dating back to the late 1800s.


“Wool is very strong, too, but — bugs. We have to be careful,” he says. “The moth problem is getting worse every year here in Belgium. I think it’s due to the climate change, I don’t know. We had some very warm summers.” Above, one of several bug traps posted around the sensitive historical racks; luckily, Mertens reports, it hadn't caught anything. WIth fur, the curators don't take any chances — it's stored in its own special room.


Though many of MoMu’s pieces are donated — especially when it comes to contemporary fashion — it also has a modest acquisition budget. “For the historical pieces, we do buy sometimes, but it’s very difficult for us to go on the art markets because we get the catalogs only one or two weeks before the sale,” Mertens explains. “And then you always need to check the condition of the pieces because you can’t make a decision based on pictures, sometimes you’ll be surprised by the actual piece. More often people come into the museum telling us they have this or that piece and we go have a look at it. Sometimes they gift it to us. The rest depends on the price, and whether we have similar pieces already.”


The other most-fascinating encounter of the day: A late 19th-century silk-taffeta jacket, meant to be worn with a bustle, with underarm discolorations that suddenly made it feel jarringly real and hauntingly old. “You can’t wash it — it’s there forever,” Mertens mused. He pulled out another dress marred with a dark-colored blotch. “Is that beef stew from 1880?” we wondered aloud. “I think that’s tomato soup, really,” he said. “It’s very sour. And it’s on the lap so I think it must be food.”


An anachronistic bit of technology posted in one of the historical archive rooms.


MoMu has a hugely important collection of lace, partially due to the fact that one of the curators on staff is an international expert in the stuff. “When we get the chance to purchase an important piece of lace then we will try to get it,” Mertens says, pulling out the box pictured above. “This is one is something people don’t recognize: It’s lace which was put in silk stockings so that just on top of your foot there was this decoration in lace, and then you could see the skin through so it was rather playful. It’s very expensive. This is 19th century, this lace. But we also have 17th century lace because of my colleague, who has been collecting for the last 30 years.”


A close-up of a late-19th-century painted-silk fan.


A fan dated 1900-1920 and made from ostrich feathers, most likely carried by rich women to the opera.


Downstairs, a room the staff refers to as the “White Box” serves as a staging area for upcoming exhibitions. Here, a series of racks carry pieces bound for the now-defunct knitwear show Unravel, including this sweater by Royal Academy fashion department chair and former Antwerp Six designer Walter van Beirendonck.


Also on the boards was a piece by Sight Unseen favorite Sandra Backlund, one of several of the designer's creations Tilda Swinton wore in the promotional images for the exhibition.


Mannequins in the White Box awaiting instruction, plus a few more Backlund creations at left.


Another dummy packed away in storage, awaiting the chance to be dressed in finer garments than most of us will ever have the chance to experience.


Should you be visiting Antwerp between now and next February, don't miss the chance to immerse yourself in the weird and wonderful world of Walter van Beirendonck, whose technicolor retrospective — "Dream the World Awake" — is currently occupying the MoMu's temporary galleries.