An Interview with Elisa de Wyngaert, MoMu Fashion Curator
"People make chapters in their lives and then organize it as a narrative"
Elisa De Wyngaert is a fashion curator at MoMu, the fashion museum of Antwerp, and a graduate of the Courtauld MA Documenting Fashion. Before curating, she contributed exhibition reviews to the Belgian radio, wrote exhibition and runway reviews, and worked for independent fashion houses in Antwerp. I spoke to her about her path into the industry and the ways she approaches her subject.
Wiesi Will, 'Air Dancers, 2018, Part of Soft? Tactile Dialogues MoMu Exhibition from September 28, 2018 - February 24, 2019 (Image: MoMu)
THEA: How did you start getting interested in fashion history?
ELISA: During my bachelor's, I had a course in costume and fashion, looking at fashion as auxiliary science. It involved looking at fashion to study art history and to date paintings. I really loved it. I decided to do an internship at MoMu in Antwerp and another internship at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I wrote my dissertation in Belgium on Pierre Balmain. After that, I did my second MA at the Courtauld with Rebecca Arnold. It was so exciting because it merged all my interests: art, fashion, documentary film, photography, and cultural history. Fashion also has strong links to psychology and sociology. What Rebecca Arnold does is so remarkable. She’s an excellent academic and she’s also very knowledgeable about popular culture—it’s so necessary in the field to be aware of what’s happening in the world.
THEA: Your MA topic at the Courtauld was Helmut Lang. What drew you to his work?
ELISA: I thought it was very interesting how the media had created a narrative arc for his career. First, he was a designer and then, all of a sudden, he was an artist. That was the starting point of my research.
A lot of the designers I admire--like Helmut Lang, and Martin Margiela-- are artists who happen to express themselves in different media. Most of them started as creative directors in the fashion industry and today focus on fine art. Art was always their core. People go through different chapters in their lives and then it is organized into a narrative. In my dissertation, I looked at Lang’s work as a minimalist designer and his first installation ‘Make it Hard’...
THEA: Do you see that as part of the conversation about art history versus visual culture?
ELISA: Fashion and art are part of different industries: different seasons, different rhythms, and different ways of producing work. Sadly, fashion is much worse for the environment. But fashion is also more connected to everyone's daily lives. Every morning, everyone’s thinking about clothes. Fashion is also very commercial, but if you look at the art gallery world, you will notice the system is not completely different either.
THEA: Before you started curating, you worked in fashion and wrote reviews. How did those experiences help you?
ELISA: I am happy I got the experience because it gave me insight into how a business works. I had no idea when I graduated. My work in the media also came in handy. When you curate an exhibition, you have to do a lot of research and you need to be objective. You also need to be at an academic level for a museum audience. But at the same time, you really have to communicate. You have to speak and engage in a way that makes people also want to discover the story you're telling.
Museums should not be ivory towers. People have to want to go there to spend their free time. They should be inclusive.
THEA: I think we often don’t think about how much of museum work is about communicating. What’s the most important thing for you when you start curating?
ELISA: I'm lucky because the MoMu is a bit of an outsider in the sense that we are not located in Paris or New York, not in a fashion capital. We're an underdog, so we can be a bit more disruptive. Contemporary fashion is always linked to contemporary life and I think the most important skill is that you have a lot of conversations with people, including colleagues, friends, and strangers. Curiosity is key.
THEA: How do you choose the subjects for new exhibitions? Are you on the lookout for new designers?
ELISA: Not only designers, but also things that are changing in the psychology of a society. What is the mood, what is the anxiety, what is happening? And then, what is coming out of the creative fields in fashion, theatre, and art? I think thematic exhibitions allow you to bring these things together.
THEA: How was it different to curate Soft? Tactile Dialogues? What was it like to be looking at textile art instead of fashion?
ELISA: There used to be much prejudice against women working with textiles in the art world. The medium was seen as something women made at home; it was considered domestic. In the exhibition, I wanted to show how textile arts and textiles engage with politics and society. There are many contemporary artists working in textiles today. I think it's exploding in the art world. It's very interesting to see how in the sixties and seventies, people were writing about it as if it was something solely feminine and separate from the high arts. Today you see textile art at all the art fairs.
THEA: And finally, what’s your Unrequired Reading?
ELISA: I’ve really enjoyed reading books focussing on psychoanalysis and psychology during the past year. I also love podcasts while walking to work. I really like Rebecca Solnit’s work on feminism and climate activism.