A show of dauntingly fashionable knitted clothing at MoMu in Antwerp ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
The fashion department of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Art has attracted imaginative, ambitious students from around the world since the 1980s. Many hope to follow in the footsteps of the Antwerp Six, a successful group of graduates that includes Ann Demeulenmeester and Dries van Noton. Leaving aside the climate, it is a lively, agreeable city with much great architecture and art. Its small shops often reflect flair, originality and wit. Many graduates choose to stay on. Not surprisingly, exhibitions at MoMu (or Mode Museum) the city’s fashion museum, are usually very good. The current one, UNRAVEL, is a delight.
Admittedly, the title seems a curious choice for a show of knitted fashions. In this case “unravel” refers to the way these pieces are meant to challenge our preconceptions of knitwear as “old fashioned and dowdy”. Rather, "knitting is highly versatile, luxurious and a continuing source of inspiration for high end fashion.” (For all their quirkiness, Antwerp’s curators share their breed’s affection for expressing ideas in lots of words.) What’s on view makes the point powerfully and enjoyably.
UNRAVEL opens with a bit of history. It seems that in Europe knitted stockings and socks replaced woven ones by the 16th century. A hand-operated knitting machine was invented by an Englishman, William Lee, and in use by 1598. More complex machines were invented in time, and examples of a knitted Empire dress from 1800 and a day dress from 1900 are on display. But it is the stockings that are covetable. Pale colour combinations, fancy stitches; silks, cottons, then finally synthetics. This naturally leads to lingerie. Towards the end of the 19th century Gustave Jaeger, a German doctor, got busy telling women that besides wearing knitted woollen slips and petticoats they would benefit greatly from wearing knitted nightclothes and something called the “combination” (an all-in-one underwear ensemble). In fact, among the items of lingerie displayed, the standout was a toast-coloured combination—with its long sleeves and buttons down the front and back. What streak of perversity makes it seem the sexiest?
Politics plays a small part. When women gave up corsets and bobbed their hair they also took up sports. There are knitted golf clothes, ski clothes and even swim-suits. (A couple of middle-aged Dutch women at the show recalled wearing similar suits when diving into the North Sea.) The 1920s were a creative period for knits. Several small knitted pieces made for Elsa Schiaparelli are on view. Each one displays the Surrealist fascination with trompe l’oeil. Here are Peter Pan collars knitted into the front of a sweater, and a knotted necktie. This segment includes two black-and-white trompe l’oeil knitted pullovers from the 2008 winter collection of Dirk Van Saene (another member of the Antwerp Six). One is a variation on the illusion in which one sees either two profiles or a vase.
Sculpture in wool was a particular stand out. A big black knitted coat by Romeo Gigli was a honey. So too was a columnar black knit with an enormous
fluffy border by Alexander McQueen. Then there was a thick and floor-sweeping beige-and-white twisted knit coat, decorated all over with bobbles and designed by Romain Brau. (The fact that it would weigh a ton in no way detracted from the desire to own it.)
This show is so beguiling that one longs to own at least half of it. Just how flattering any of it would be seemed no more relevant than whether it would be practical. As the exhibition came to an end, I grew worried about what the gift shop would do to my bank balance. Alas, there was no shop. Who would imagine such a thing in a city that remains the fifth largest port in the world? Salvation yes, but not satisfaction.
So on to the nearby shops of Walter van Beirendonck and Romain Brau, both represented in the show. At “Walter” everything was jolly summer cotton prints (ie, no need to linger). The Ra shop was more gripping: part art gallery, part restaurant/café, part perfume emporium. Many designers have pieces for sale here, all of them have verve and none is, shall we say, “mid-range”. Knits by Peter Pilotto (in the MoMu show) were elegant and edgy. But here in the shop, unlike the museum, the thought did occur that such fashions demand a very slim shape. On one rack there was a coat by Mr Brau that was similar to but simpler than the one in the show. Too simple. And, with a four figure price tag, the weight of the garment suddenly seemed too much to bear. I do, however, regret not having bought any of the colourful, if pricey, socks.
Unravel: Knitwear in Fashion is at MoMu in Antwerp until August 14th 2011