Darkness to light: Olivier Theyskens' fashion retrospective

By Melissa Zuleta Bandera.

The Olivier Theyskens – She walks in beauty exhibition debuted in October of 2017 in Antwerp’s Mode Museum with the intention of travelling through the successful career of the Brussel-born designer. The purpose of the exhibition aligns with that of MoMu: to exalt the work of Belgian fashion creators, to witness and demonstrate the legacy they are leaving on international fashion.
The hook-and-eye closures in different sizes are a signature detail for the creator. 
The goal was to make evident the evolution of his creations over his 20 years in the industry putting special attention in the elements that, according to MoMu, build the uniqueness of Theyskens and differentiate him from other fashion designers: impressive drawing skills, self-taught in sewing, not finishing formal fashion education and a couture spirit in ready-to-wear garments, as well as a mixture of equally remarkable artistic sensibility and technical skills.

His first collection. His title as “gothic prince of fashion” is made shown in this first section.
This piece, from his Parisian debut, demands the attention of the visitors:.
The exhibition displays garments ranging from Theyskens’ first collection, passing by his role as head of couture houses and ready-to-wear brands, to his most recent work (again under his own name). The garments are accompanied by his drawings and sketches (at times paired with fabric samples), quotes written in the walls, videos of his runway shows, backstage photographs and introductory texts to the different moments of his career.

Theyskens took an iconic symbol Rochas, the Femme perfume box (light pink, circular and covered in lace), and translated its key elements into garments.
This moments, five in total, mark the way the exhibition is divided and follow a strict chronological order: starts with Theyskens’ debut in 1997, follows with his time as creative director of Rochas (2003-2006), then as artistic director of Nina Ricci (2007-2009), later as artistic director of label Theory (2010-2014), and finalizes with the rebuilding of his own brand in 2016.
His time in Nina Ricci is presented in an all-white, well illuminated room as a continuation of his search for cuts that “followed the movement of the body”.
The use of all these elements follows MoMu’s intention to “tell a complete story” in each exhibition, with not only pieces of clothing, but also a designer’s “sources of inspiration, or connections to other art disciplines.”
With Nina Ricci it was all about voluminous shapes, stiff waves, soft and rough textures. Garments completely covered in sequins, as if they were scales covering an exotic, angular creature, are displayed.
The idea of a museum retrospective on a living fashion designer is problematic, to say the least. Questions regarding impartiality on the part of the museum and its curators and about the funding for this type of endeavors are asked every time an exhibition like this is presented.
The final space is introduced with a hand made wedding dress in silk satin duchesse with a 5 meters wide train embroidered with silk thread, feathers and sequins.
The question is not whether Olivier Theyskens is worthy of a retrospective, the question is why is his retrospective different from the ones on bigger names in fashion, besides scale and magnitude, considering the Belgian designer did have significant input in his own exhibition (as do all designers that are the subject of an exhibition at MoMu).
Taking all his experience in couture houses and ready-to-wear lines in his own new fashion interpretation, making homage to his early years with familiar motifs like leather, skins and hook-and-eye closures. 
Is it the museum’s mission (to acknowledge the work of Belgian fashion creators) what places their exhibitions on living designers in moral superiority over the rest? Must an exhibition like this be judged by its motivation (homage) or by the final result in provokes around it (free publicity)?  Should Theyskens’ retrospective be considered then as promotional of his work as Christian Dior, couturier du rêve (Musée des Arts Décoratifs) was for the French fashion house? 

This question takes even more significance considering Theyskens is still at the middle of his career. Despite having achieved so much in the past 20 years, the re-launch of his homonymous line is recent and his future still unknown, as is his legacy in the grate picture of worldwide fashion.

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