MoMu director Kaat Debo on its first decade

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.

Don’t you get tired of looking at old clothes?

It’s an interesting question, because the way we deal with time here is different from people in the industry. For designers, what’s 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, they’re 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 people’s lives, don’t you think?

Yes, I do. If you look at our 19th century collection, for instance, you’ll 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 that’s an amazing aspect. Because we decided to focus on designer clothing for the 20th century – as opposed to dealing with the growing diversity of street style – I sometimes worry that future generations won’t 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. It’s much more complex than that.

Why did you make that choice?

It’s problematic for me that, in 100 years time, people won’t 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. It’s 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 don’t 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 don’t have that much time to analyse things. I cannot wait for 5 years to understand whether or not someone’s collection was iconic. I have to buy it as soon as it’s been on the catwalk.

Doesn’t sound like fun retail therapy to me…

It’s difficult, because each curator tries to build up a story with his or her collection. You have to understand what’s missing, what you need to get and which moments are important in fashion. For instance, I ordered pieces from Raf Simons’ first collection at Dior, because it’s 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, I’ll pay attention to his printed pieces and embroidered looks. You have to select what can be understood as the designer’s signature.

How much do you get to spend?

I get €30,000 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 Raf’s pieces for his first Haute Couture collection at Dior. You can’t 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. He’s 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 he’s incredible to work with and has an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion. I like real collaborations between designers, their teams and our team. I’m proud of what we have achieved in 10 years.

Do you have any challenges conserving the pieces? 

It’s 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. They’re 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? That’s the main question we keep asking ourselves.