Didier Vervaeren on The Belgians at BOZAR

Didier Vervaeren, professor of La Cambre and artistic director at MAD Brussels, talks on curating the recently opened exhibit, The Belgians. Tracing the unexpected story of the Belgian underdogs turned figure-heads of the fashion world, Vervaeren discusses the exhibit’s motif, a sort of ‘exhibitionism’ of what Belgian fashion, with oft elusive designers, is about. He tells of the technicalities of getting a hold of each piece and on team building behind an endeavor taking years to materialize. The exhibition renders real life visuals, through impacting and exquisite silhouettes, opposing the flat and insipid fashion experience found in magazines and screens. Lastly, The Belgians honors the legacy threaded by The Antwerp Six, to be carried forth by a budding Nouvelle Vague talent at the forefront of Belgian fashion, without forgetting the academies paving their formation.


This exhibition is really my baby, I started to think about it in 2006, at the time when it was L’année de la mode et du design. After all the work that year, I realized we needed to organize a fashion exhibition in Brussels. During 2008 and 2009 I was searching for partners, but no one was interested. I also really wanted to have it at BOZAR because for me it’s a really symbolic space for Belgians and for culture. Then in 2013 after a discussion with Paul Dujardin from BOZAR, he finally said we could start thinking about having an exhibit on fashion.

So after 2013, can you describe how the project evolved?

We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. The decision was made for us to do it, after it was finding money and dealing with a lot of practical things, without which we could not start. First, I created a team and I found an assistant curator, Nele Bernheim, she is from Antwerp, studies fashion history, and has a good background. Then I found some people in MAD Brussels and in BOZAR to join the team. Then I started writing the text for the themes: Heritage, New Styles, Vocabulary, Portraits, Laboratories, Limitless, Worthwhile, Nouvelle Vague, etc….


Are themes in the show the same as you had in mind back then?

Yes, at the beginning I was completely sure I didn’t want to do an exhibition on the history of Belgian fashion and didn’t want to have the same approach as a fashion museum. Back in 2006 I wanted to do a show in Cinquantainaire and I wanted to mix the work of new designers with older pieces from the museum. It was forbidden, so I did something in between. In the end this experience made me want to do an exhibition, and not in a fashion museum.

Then I wrote the scenario, because I wanted to make sure everybody at BOZAR and MAD Brussels understood the same thing, since we coproduced the exhibition. Secondly was adding images to the text. I found a lot of images in books, from the collections, and from pieces of art.


Generally speaking, how do you approach a new project? Do you have a method you rely on?

I am really spontaneous, and I think that for curating you need to have been there, you cannot curate something just with books and references. Fashion is really about emotion and visuals, about being there, and seeing shows. So I started looking in books and on the Internet, you can find so many things online. During January, I contacted the three big fashion museums in Belgium: MOMU, Cinquantenaire, the Museum of Costume and Lace. I wanted to have them informed that I was going to have an exhibition and ask if they had precisely what I wanted to have. We had a really good relationship. We worked really close with MOMU, they are like co-partners of the exhibition. They have good experience with fashion exhibitions, and have good materials, so for the technical aspects they were good partners.

Also in November I contacted Paul Boudens, who is a graphic designer based in Antwerp. He worked with a lot of designers in Antwerp, so he knows fashion. It’s important to have a team that is really connected to fashion because fashion looks easy, but it is not. You also have to understand and know if there are conflicts between people in the field.

Then we needed a title. For BOZAR usually the title comes really late, and I didn’t know that. But for me, if I don’t have a title, I can’t start. In the end I arrived with two or three titles.


What were they?

One was ‘Exhibitionism,’ and really it was one of my favorites because Belgian fashion is also about mystery and discreteness. A lot of our designers are really discrete and not the type you see on the red carpet all the time. I really liked how ‘Exhibitionism’ connects to the idea of revealing everything about those designers. But nobody liked it. Anyhow, after a long time of meetings I found the solution: I was thinking of how in Paris or in other countries people say ‘The Belgians,’ Les Belges in French, because when The Antwerp Six arrived in the middle of the 80’s they had really strange names, impossible for French people to pronounce. The subtitle “An Unexpected Fashion Story,” was because Les Belges alone can mean the country, the people, and when talking about cinema or other fields things they also say Les Belges. Also, in the mid-80’s and 90’s, the rest of the fashion world considered all of those designers as outsiders. Nobody could imagine that Raf Simons would be the new head of Christian Dior, or that Dries Van Notten would be known as one of the most important people in the fashion world. It was all unexpected. Nobody was waiting for a success like that. So, then everybody was happy with that title and I could start to work.

Next was contacting the designers and deciding who would be in the exhibition. For some [designers] not all, it took a lot of discussing because they did not want to show things from the past. This was not easy, I needed to have a lot of meetings with people to explain and reassure them I would do something nice. But it was great, I saw a lot of people and have a lot of anecdotes.

It was also important to have not just fashion from the past but also to show how the designers were strong since beginning and how they arrived with new propositions, with new proportions and visions of femininity. Then Richard Venlet came and we started to work together on the scenography. He had the idea of having a big black floor going through the middle of the room, which gave it a feeing of having a podium. Then we started to work on the rooms together and understand how we would show the clothes; this is difficult in a fashion exhibit. I also tried to find the right type of mannequin to give each room the right feeling.


Going back to the question of working with designers, how did this interaction influence the choice of what to exhibit, and did you manage to get everything you wanted for each theme?

Sometimes it was really easy, and other times it took more discussing. But designers have good taste and they know a lot about their work. If they proposed something different it was better. Walter van Beirendonck and Ann Demeulemeester were good advisors. They are strong designers, and this makes them good advisors.

What do you hope the visitors, both Belgians and internationals, will get out of the show?

I hope they enjoy it and that they will be able to appreciate Belgian fashion, and fashion in general, in a different way than they are used to. I also wanted to dedicate it to a large audience because today the main mediums for communication, for fashion, are the magazines, the Internet and Instagram; everything is flat and you only see pictures. I also hope the visitor can see how different each designer’s propositions are, and that they can connect the names with the work. Also, for Laboratories, that they see how amazing and creative the schools are, and understand that the schools gave them [designers] a really good formation.


At a certain point during the opening night, the statement “fashion is obsolete” was made. How do you think the exhibit responds to this, if it does?

I think in a way there are small answers in all rooms. First, I think the visitor will see to what extent there exist fashion creators in Belgium, because if you ask people in the street what Belgian fashion is, they will respond “Essentiel.”  That is not fashion. First one has to realize how many designers there are. Then, for example, if you see the first silhouette of Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela, then you see at end of the exhibition that they are working for big companies, and then the Nouvalle Vague, there’s a an evolution which in some way says: ‘now, we are not outsiders, we are leading figures.’

The Belgians: An Unexpected Fashion Story
Until the 13th of September.

Feature image: Portrait Didier Vervaeren for Libertine Supersport, ©MM.
Photo credits. Yu, Lance. Les Belges, BOZAR. 2015.