Antwerp a la Mode

Antwerp's Mode Museum has a display of Soviet-era head scarves -- de rigueur for women during the Communist reign.
Antwerp's Mode Museum has a display of Soviet-era head scarves -- de rigueur for women during the Communist reign. (By Rory Satran)
Sunday, December 11, 2005

I realized that Antwerp's Mode Museum was not your average fashion museum when my soccer-fanatic boyfriend spent 15 minutes glued in front of a video montage of fashion shows. And not just to check out the models. The video in question was a collection of highlights from the innovative Belgian design house A.F. Vandevorst -- the mastermind behind MoMu's principal fall exhibition, "Katharina Prospekt: The Russians." It's a tour de force journey through Russian culture, as viewed through fashion.

This rich exhibition is one in a series of groundbreaking attempts by MoMu to showcase Antwerp's creativity since the museum's inception in September 2002. Long a capital of avant-garde fashion, Antwerp became known in the 1980s for the "Antwerp Six," a group of designers including Dries Van Noten that sprang from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In 2001, the designer Walter van Beirendonck organized a half-year fashion festival in Antwerp, "Mode2001 Landed-Geland." With diverse projects such as fashion-themed billboards, painted tramways and countless fashion exhibitions, the festival cemented Antwerp as the premiere stop on any fashion lover's European itinerary.

The year after "Landed-Geland," architect Marie-Jose Van Hee transformed a turn-of-the-19th-century gas company building into the ModeNatie, a multipurpose construction that now houses MoMu, the Flanders Fashion Institute, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts' fashion branch, the editorial offices of A Magazine, a trendy cafe, and an extensive library and bookstore. The exterior of the new complex is a gigantic, rather lackluster brick box. The building's facade belies the spectacular interior, with its spacious, smooth design. The main hall is a wonder of silky dark wood and capacious skylights, with a vast stairwell that dwarfs the tiny figures walking up and down. In the context of the current Vandevorst exhibition, a black Russian 1930s automobile is parked next to the stairway. To give you a notion of the size of the space, the car looks remarkably small parked in the middle of the hall.

On a Wednesday at noon, we were among the only visitors to the ModeNatie, which further enhanced the feeling of expansiveness. The exhibition spaces are similarly impressive, loftily constructed with interminable ceilings and glossy surfaces.

The $10 admission to the ModeNatie compound gives visitors access to the MoMu exhibitions (the main draw) as well as library privileges and admittance to the revolving ModeNatie exhibitions, which are usually less fashion-focused than the MoMu exhibits.

The current ModeNatie ground-floor showing is "Kontrast," a collection of contemporary street art from both Belgium and Russia, concentrating on the parallels between the two countries. The exhibition revolves mainly around video, graphic art and some site-specific graffiti. The work is colorful and fun but veers a bit too far into trendiness. One highlight is the pair of paintings by Russian artist Dopingpong, which depict eerie doll-like little girls against glossy black backgrounds.

MoMu's exhibitions have traditionally focused on broad-reaching themes, as opposed to concentrating on one designer or era. The museum does not work exclusively with fashion; part of its appeal is the integration of contemporary art and design into the fashion world. The piece de resistance of the moment is unquestionably the Vandevorst exhibition on Russia, "Katharina Prospekt" (Catherine Avenue, as in Catherine the Great). The show is a broad exploration of how Westerners perceive the Russian aesthetic.

A section on "propaganda" features a cluster of faceless mannequins with silk Soviet-era head scarves blown back by electric fans. These beauty-hiding head scarves were de rigueur for women during the Communist reign. Because traditional floral patterns were considered too provocative, scarves were printed with geometric shapes and often featured at least one hammer and sickle.

Vandevorst also recognizes the influence of Russian military design on current fashion trends. A display contrasts traditional Soviet military gear alongside creations by designers such as Martin Margiela. Towering shelves place actual army boots next to their nearly identical designer counterparts by the likes of Ann Demeulemeester.

Fur, that Russian mainstay, is dissected at length. A central installation displays stacks and stacks of Russian winter furs, as contrasted with modern interpretations -- like the full-length rabbit rendering of Vandevorst's. Contemporary photography by Olga Chernysheva of crea-turelike fur-clad Russians from the back complements this section.

And what about Russian matryoshka dolls, those painted wooden, endlessly opening treasure troves? A grouping of the classic dolls surrounds bright traditional peasant garb encased in large transparent domes. A modern black life-size grouping adds a creepy element.

The soccer fan's verdict? Interesting enough to stay for two hours, with nary a break for Belgian beer. Just don't tell the folks at home he was so keen on a fashion museum.

-- Rory Satran

Admission to ModeNatie/MoMu (Nationalestraat 28, Antwerp, 011-32-3- 470-2770,http://www.modenatie.comandhttp://www.momu.be) is about $8.25. The "Katharina Prospekt" exhibit runs until Feb. 5, "Kontrast" until Dec. 31.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company