Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Walter Van Beirendonck

Walter_Van_Beirredonck_exhibitionBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Walter Van Beirendonck: Dream the World Awake
September 14, 2011 – February 19, 2012
MoMu Fashion Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Belgian fashion designer Walter Van Beirendonck’s first comprehensive retrospective of his thirty-year career rotates inside MoMu’s triangular gallery at a disconcerting pace. The result gives you the distinct impression that keeping up is going to be tricky. The one hundred bodies that swivel on individual stands are loosely organised around six themes – Fairy Tales, Alien Spirits, Techno Crafts, Alterations, Rituals and Actions/Reactions. Like their creator, each often looms large: precarious heights are reached on platform-clad boots; torsos bulge under bulky knitting; and just when you think you understand matters androgyny and the feminine make a fleeting appearance.

Walter Van Beirendonck is the Artistic Director of the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, where he graduated in 1980. The fashion press dubbed him one of ‘The Antwerp Six’, along with the likes of Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, when they took London by storm in the mid-1980s. Since 1983 his namesake label has produced men’s collections with a distinct trademark aesthetic of bold graphics, extreme contrasts of materials and shape and prolific use of techno textiles. An unflinching eye for references the range from the seedy to exotic is often, ironically, combined with commentary about social issues such as safe sex. Carnival and costume feel close at hand, alongside an unremitting capacity for subversion and visual excess.

When viewed as a spinning whole, the mix is overwhelming. Focusing on details makes the material innovation easier to appreciate. To help explain matters, the sixty-meter long central wedge wall of the gallery is covered with photography, objects and video. Coined Walter’s Wonder Wall this contextualisation exercise reveals the designer’s magpie process where ethnographic photography, science fiction and an extensive toy collection co-exist. While this can at times smack of the superficial, we are told, “Van Beirendonck is equally unprejudiced and knowingly ‘unaware’ as he looks at objects and rituals from ethnography. Just like the alien who is amazed by things that are mundane and perfectly normal to us, [he] isolates certain motifs and symbols and introduces them into a radically different context: contemporary fashion.” A didactic thread is also present in collections such as spring/summer 1996 titled Killer/Astral Travel/4D-Hi-D. Here he co-opts the saccharine tale of Heidi but re-spins it at the height of the HIV-epidemic of the mid-1990s.

Alongside the collections on display, the exhibition also includes a recreation of the designer’s studio, as well as video and clothing from U2’s PopMart tour where Action Man characters inspired the dress for each band member. While MoMu’s display of artefacts continues to uphold its high standards, I found some of the most compelling viewing in this exhibition in the new video work by Nick Knight/SHOWStudio and stylist Simon Foxton. Here male models projected in the gallery’s rotunda walk straight towards the camera frame. Much like the thirty years of design on display, the morphing male body types shift gate to expose extremes of confidence, reticence, energy and exhaustion in an endless loop of reinvention.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 44, Jan./Feb. 2012: 90)