A major new fashion exhibition entitled Voices of Fashion. Black Couture, Beauty and Styles. is set to open at the Centraal Museum. The show will be the first ever staged by an art museum in the Netherlands to query the white gaze as the default vantage point from which to present, wear and collect fashion. Underpinning the exhibition are years of research by black, brown and white people that show that the fashion world and our relationship with it continue to be shaped by the legacies of European colonialism. Voices of Fashion takes you on a little told story of fashion, with a stunning exhibition design by Afaina de Jong of AFARAI. An exclusive conversation with Ninke Bloemberg, co-curator of the exhibition for Paris Fashion Week.
The exhibition “Voices of Fashion. Black Couture, Beauty and Styles” questions the white gaze on fashion. What are the main conclusions of your research?
There were several interesting conclusions, to name one of them: stereotyping. For example, many Black designers are asked if they make streetwear while designing couture. This was an important reason for us to start the exhibition with COUTURE and do it big: ranging from upcoming, to more experienced, from the Netherlands/Europe to the USA and Africa, without any hierarchy.
Furthermore, we question the fashion system (as museum we are a part of this system) and deconstruct, unravel (or start decolonizing) this system. For example, the way we use our language: ‘mode’ is usually synonymous with the ‘west’, dynamic and modernism, whereas garments from outside West-Europe and North-America are often put away as ‘traditional’ and more static. Our terminology, assumptions, prejudices are deeply intertwined, so change is not a matter of months. Think of the word ‘nude’, usually referring to a beige skin colour, while this could be a dark skin too.
Virgil Abloh states “I want to show the industry that I am not one specific scenario, but that the future of fashion can be diverse, also in advantage to the ecosystem.” Do you believe there is still a lack of professional role models for young black creatives?
It is wonderful to see that there seems to be a shift and more awareness of the imbalance in the fashion industry, at least when you look at designers and models. The main challenge lies behind the scenes, there is still a lot of work to be done in the field of inclusion. It starts with a wake-up call. Let’s now hope this is not a trend and the current developments last.
How does the exhibition contribute to change the view on black fashion?
We have opted for a positive approach with critical notes throughout the exhibition. The exposition is not called VOICES for nothing. We especially wanted to celebrate the Black designers and models and not do too much finger pointing. For this reason we have worked closely with almost all the more than 70 lenders / designers / artists, who were all very generous. The main goal is to give a new generation a different frame of reference, additional to the one that is usually offered through the classical fashion history. Many designers of colours missed this while studying fashion or looking at magazines or catwalk shows. We hope to help providing insights, stimulate the discussion and inspire further research and therefor add new chapters to fashion history. The accompanying book also gives more in dept interviews.
Do you observe a common thread between the designers presented in the exhibition?
One thing we noticed is that communities are very important for many of the participating designers. And the urge, or sense of responsibility to speak out, use their name, platform and experience to stimulate the visibility of Black designers within the fashion world. There is also a great sense of togetherness. As some of the important Black-owned businesses in the Netherlands stated: ‘In unity, there is strength’.
What are the main actions the fashion industry has to take in order to acknowledge and recognize the “curators of cool”?
Terminology is an important matter. Teaching as well. step out of the comfort zone. Who has been telling which stories? Adding more references, not only at first glance, but behind the scenes as well. Hope we can make a modest contribution with our exhibition.
Janice Deul (Platform Diversity Rules) together with Anne-Karlijn van Kesteren and Ninke Bloemberg are the curators “Voices of Fashion. Black Couture, Beauty and Styles” at Centraal Museum. Scenography by Afaina de Jong of AFARAI.