Alumni Interview: Elisa De Wyngaert

Antwerp based alumna Elisa De Wyngaert, graduated from the Documenting Fashion MA in 2014. Counting Helmut Lang and Pierre Balmain among her research interests, Elisa has continued to write about fashion and contributed exhibition reviews to Belgian radio since leaving the Courtauld. After pursuing further study and undertaking work experience for Raf Simons and A.F.Vandevorst, she now works as a fashion curator at the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp.

What made you want to study Dress History at the Courtauld?

I read Art History at the University of Leuven and wrote my MA dissertation on “The House of Balmain: Before and After Pierre Balmain”. This research process was new and fascinating to me, especially as it was very different from my previous art historical research. I found it challenging to analyse proper academic sources and it took longer to determine the correct methodology. That being said, it was exciting and I couldn’t wait to specialise in this kind of research, and to find the right academic guidance to do so. I believe I Google’d something along the lines of “Academic Fashion Studies”, and the course ‘Documenting Fashion’ at the Courtauld Institute of Art seemed to offer just what I was looking for. I knew Rebecca Arnold’s name because I proudly owned some of her books – it was a perfect match.

Pierre Balmain Atelier (1952). Copyright: Vogue Paris via Tumblr

Pierre Balmain Atelier (1952). Copyright: Vogue Paris via Tumblr

What were your personal highlights from the course?

Looking back, I think the strength of the course lies in its intensity: it was an unbelievably enriching year, both academically and personally. It was a high-paced course and it is astonishing how much you can learn in just one year. Being surrounded by fellow students who are as passionate as you are about their topic is inspirational, and, it goes without saying, having Rebecca as a tutor was priceless. Not only is she an outstanding scholar who challenges her students, she also has a great sense of humour. Again a good match. 

You wrote you dissertation on Helmut Lang, what was it that inspired you about his work?

I knew Helmut Lang’s work from images in books about fashion in the 1990s. He was, however, still an enigmatic designer to me: I was not prejudiced with knowledge, nor was I a longtime admirer of his work. I thought it was interesting that Helmut Lang decided to leave his fashion house in 2005 to “move on to art”. In this narrative, it appeared that being an artist is still in certain aspects regarded as higher than fashion in the hierarchy of the arts. After leaving his house, Lang decided to shred his archive and use the shredded pieces in an art installation. This, however, only happened after he had donated a large volume of his most interesting designs to fashion museums worldwide. The idea of a designer curating his own end, leaving the fashion world infected with infinite Helmut-Lang-nostalgia, was the starting point for my research. I got to appreciate the characteristics of Helmut Lang’s sensuous work, especially after studying it closely in the archives of the fashion museum in Bath and MoMu in Antwerp.

Google search screenshot of Helmut Lang Art Installations

Google search screenshot of Helmut Lang Art Installations

Since leaving the Courtauld you have worked for Raf Simons and A.F.Vandevorst, as a personal fan I would love to hear a little more about what your work experience was like with these?

I didn’t like the idea of becoming a “fashion writer high up in her ivory tower”, so I decided to do a course in Fashion Management and to get hands-on work experience with Antwerp designers. I undertook a short internship at Raf Simons. Raf Simons’ company in Antwerp is surprisingly small-scaled but has a high impact on fashion, which is an important characteristic for independent Antwerp designers. After that, I was hired by A.F.Vandevorst, where I worked for more than a year. I learned about the logistics behind the production of a collection. We often tend to focus on the shows and the magazine editorials, but we don’t always realise that after that there is quite a long and tumultuous road before those pieces end up safely in the stores and with the customer. A.F.Vandevorst has a small but strong creative team and the energy leading up to a fashion show is incredible. You can’t compare that to anything. In general, I was happy to learn that these brands are still authentic and true to their DNA and signature.

What else have you worked on since leaving the Courtauld?

During the week I worked at A.F.Vandevorst and on occasion I gave guided tours in the evening at MoMu. In the weekends, I created time and peace to focus on what I am most passionate about: the less commercial but more reflective side of fashion. I wrote a piece for Vestoj on Helmut Lang and I wrote some shorter articles for the new Bloomsbury Fashion Photography Archive. As a fashion critic, I reviewed fashion exhibitions for Klara, a Belgian radio station. By now, I think I have reviewed more than 20 fashion exhibitions, which proved to be not only insightful, but also my favorite adrenaline kick.

From what I understand you are currently working at MoMu as a curator. What does your work there entail and what current projects are you working on?

MoMu organises two major exhibitions a year, one of these focuses on a theme and the second one on the work of a living designer. We want to expand this offer with a (rotating) permanent exhibition on Belgian fashion and an online exhibition platform. At the moment, I am researching and writing about the designers and the pieces in the MoMu collection to prepare this project. MoMu actively acquires pieces by living designers, which ensures a rich and ever-growing contemporary collection. I discover new items every day and the challenge is to make a sensible selection of pieces per designer that haven’t been displayed too often, and that are telling for the signature of the designer.

Do you have any advice for budding dress historians? Particularly for those aspiring to work within fashion curation?

I think it is important to keep thinking about fashion the way we were taught to at the Courtauld. Often people look at fashion studies, and fashion in general, as something shallow and superficial. It can be of course, but we have to keep demonstrating how it is so much more than that: fashion remains an integral part of our society and daily lives. I know, from experience, it’s hard to find work within fashion curation. The only thing I can advise is to, even when you are working another job full-time, try to squeeze in some fashion history and research on the side and to stay both critical and passionate. And then maybe some serendipity?

Photograph of Elisa. Copyright: Elisa De Wyngaert

Photograph of Elisa. Copyright: Elisa De Wyngaert

Research in the MoMu archives in preparation of a permanent exhibition - dress by Dries Van Noten

Research in the MoMu archives in preparation of a permanent exhibition – dress by Dries Van Noten

Dress Secrets: Documenting Fashion goes to NYC part 1

People keep asking, and I keep failing to share a single favourite thing from our recent trip to New York. Certainly, the group went into collective paroxysms of bliss when a 1923 opera coat of black velvet, gold brocade and grey chinchilla trim was whirled in front of us at Museum at FIT. There were more than a few exclamations of, “But this place has my entire undergrad art history coursework in it’s collection!” from those who had never been to MOMA. And when the Museum of the City of New York turned out to be a veritable Aladdin’s cave of costume and couture from the city’s historic hoi polloi, I will admit to a certain amount of gaping.

Giovanna inadvertently channeling Meret Oppenheim's 1936 'Object' at MOMA (L) & The MA's trying to find the best angle for photographing the light installation at the Museum of the City of New York (R)

Giovanna inadvertently channeling Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 ‘Object’ at MOMA (L) &
The MA’s trying to find the best angle for photographing the light installation at the Museum of the City of New York (R)

Perhaps that’s it. Proximity, presence, reality—the physical experience of objects we’d only previously seen in print. There is inevitably a certain amount of staring at reproduced images in Art History, and Dress History is no exception. The world doesn’t hold an endless supply of Fortuny Delphos gowns to pass around, no more than it has endless Matisse. Neither can Fortuny be replicated more easily than Matisse, his pleating technique, lost to history has never been accurately replicatedSo when a peach silk Delphos is uncoiled from its box, and the lightness and fragility of the silk has to be carefully balanced in an archivist’s hand against the incredible comparative weight of the Venetian glass beads at its sides you can’t help but feel like you’re being let in on a secret. In pictures, both on the body and on mannequins, the Delphos gown lends an air of the impenetrable, neoclassical statuesque. Up close in the Museum at FIT archives, it looks so delicate you begin to imagine what it would be like to wear  how it would cling and skim over your body, the hang of the beads and stretch and pull of the intricately pleated fabric.

The Mariano Fortuny 'Delphi's' Dress at FIT

The Mariano Fortuny ‘Delphos’ Dress at FIT

Again at FIT, a Charles James gown on display conjured up romantic visions of an idealised 1950’s silhouette, all curves and flounce and extremes of femininity. Exterior layers of tulle belie a lightness, the impression of which is quickly dispelled when confronted with a muslin archive copy that audibly groans on its hanger from the sheer weight of fabric involved in these creations. James’ wish to be regarded as a sculptor make more sense than ever from this vantage, as the dress is able to stand under its own support, and the addition of a body inside it seems inconsequential to its existence.

The enormous Charles James muslin copy showing in thick folds of padded fabric

The enormous Charles James muslin copy showing in thick folds of padded fabric

I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs of examples—how seeing the serious corsetry under a loose, a-line 1962 Balenciaga, or hearing the sheer volume of noise created by a fully beaded 1920’s flapper dress made me feel like I had been handed closely guarded knowledge about dress history. Seeing these garments, even on hangers, or being gently removed from archival boxes gave a sense of weight and movement and even sound that images will always struggle to convey, and which going forward encourages me to seek the real thing out wherever, and whenever possible.

The heavily boned Balenciaga (L) and the beautifully noisy flapper dress (R)

The heavily boned Balenciaga (L) and the beautifully noisy flapper dress (R)