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.
If you travel all the way from New York to Arnhem just to attend the fashion biennial in this relatively obscure Dutch city, half the size of Pittsburgh, you can expect people to notice. Your waiter will witness your accent — and the fact that you’re not drinking a huge glass of milk with lunch like everyone else — and ask if you came just for the show, and well, did you like it? Your jolly white-haired cab driver will crack a few embarrassing jokes about the Big Apple before waxing poetic about how lovely it is when the festival’s on. And despite Vogue calling the $2.5-million production the “Greatest Fashion Event You’ve Never Heard Of,” it will seem, when you’re there, like Arnhem's gravitational pull has shifted in some small but significant way.
For centuries, Swiss design was synonymous with watches, army knives, sewing machines, and other precision utilitarian objects. Then came the rise of Swiss graphics and typography in the 20th century, when the grids and sans serifs of talents like Josef Müller-Brockmann and Jan Tschichold created a legacy that dominates the tiny country's design reputation even today. But inside the 10,000-square-foot universe of the Museum Für Gestaltung Zurich’s collection archives — behind whose doors normally only curators and students are allowed — every chair, teapot, and cigarette lighter is either a product of or an influence on Switzerland’s industrial design history, which the museum strives to promote through the five to seven temporary exhibitions it produces each year.
Antwerp’s Irene Alvarez was a sculptor and recent Royal Academy art grad when she got the call from the cult concept shop Ra — the city’s version of Opening Ceremony — asking her to design a custom installation. But it was the far less glamorous moment that came next that has since marked a pivotal moment in her nascent career: She discovered the Netherlands' Textile Museum Tilburg, which is not only a museum but also an experimental production lab where creatives can apply for technical assistance on machines capable of knitting, embroidering, lasering, printing, tufting, dyeing, and weaving almost anything the mind can conceive. Despite having no previous experience with textiles, she collaborated with the museum on the half-woven Inti Altar sculpture that’s held court on Ra’s second floor for the last two years, and she’s been addicted to the furry medium ever since. Today marks the opening of her first solo show, at Belgium’s other hallowed retail emporium, Hunting and Collecting, and it demonstrates just how far Alvarez has come in her obsession with knits — it contains no traditional sculpture at all, only a textile teepee (above), a line of t-shirts, and a series of three tapestries woven with a psychedelic clash of pop-culture icons and op-art patterning. Sight Unseen recently spoke with the artist about her work with the museum and the ethnic influences behind her imagery.