With a vast knowledge gathered after working in many different aspects of fashion, Filep Motwary got the idea of putting together the concept Haute-à-Porter, currently on presented at Modemuseum Hasselt in Belgium (known for exceptional past exhibitions like Paul Smith and Ultramegalore). Haute-à-Porter features an outstanding selection of garments by high-end designers and fashion houses from the past 30 years, completed with photography, film and art. The exhibition aims at getting a deeper understanding of the differences between custom made and ready-to-wear, and it offers a real insight into today’s fashion industry. On occasion of the exhibition, a book has been published by Lannoo including interviews and contributions by some of the most remarkable names of the fashion world. We talk to Filep, the mastermind and curator behind this project.
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You started off your career assisting as a stylist for the Greek editions of L’Officiel and Vogue. Were you always into couture and luxury craftsmanship?
Cyprus, my birthplace, was heavily traumatized by the war of 1974; I was born just three years after it happened. My mother was a seamstress, so in a way my whole life I’ve been surrounded by clothes, fittings, fabrics, magazines and sewing machines. From the age of 11-12 onwards, and through television, I discovered there was an industry out there that took clothes very seriously. It was the moment when I realized there were designers with a name and signature, magazines, models, stylists and photographers who shaped the global trends along with the presence of a fashion system as a whole. And also beautiful women, so many beautiful women!
By a prosperous mistake, I ended up in Greece and found myself working for two prestigious magazine titles, almost simultaneously, having to carry all these clothes to the photo shoots, dress the models, check that every detail was right for the stylist I was assisting and ready for the photograph to be taken. There was no way to see the collections online or a showroom to “re-see” them. We had to visit the boutiques, collect the pieces. We had to be very careful while working with the clothes not to stain or damage them. Then came my move to Paris and somehow it felt like a coveted invitation for being in the right place at the right time. I had been interested in couture –Ferré and YSL, Westwood, Gaultier or Chanel– since my teenage years, yet there was longing and much of imagination before I finally laid hands on any of these high-end brands, saw the details on a garment or knew the difference between a Chantilly and a Guipure lace… 
Fashion does not interest me for products like the IT-bag or the substance of logo print and how celebrities wear it. It is a much deeper and personal understanding, I guess, appreciated in silence. At moments my interest focuses on certain aspects: some glimpses of historical significance, anthropology, the differences of gender and sociology, creativity or talent. But I am hardly an academic as I would like to be. The hierarchy of fashion interests me deeply.
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Haute-à-Porter was an idea of yours to question the changing relationship between custom made and ready-to-wear. It seems to have become one of the top fashion exhibitions of this year. How did your experience working in different areas of fashion help you come up with this exceptional idea?
This project truly reflects my view of the industry, and it is about the designers whose work have kept my imagination rolling and those who I’ve idolized for the past 30 years. It questions the relationship and meaning of the terms haute couture and prêt-à-porter, both in a metaphorical and literal way through –hopefully– a poetic approach. Gladly, the director of the museum, Kenneth Ramaekers, saw the potential behind my idea and gave me his full support. And happily, the exhibition has been embraced around the world; French and American Vogue ranked it as one of the Top 3 for 2016. This is a huge compliment for an exhibition that is presented in a small city like Hasselt!
For the past decade I have been travelling the world to photograph, write, participate in jury panels and interview exceptional designers within the context of fashion. I also create costumes and present them in exhibitions and museums. At times I am an observer whilst also being a listener, a translator or an “interpreter” in the casual meaning of the word. Whilst collecting all these experiences, the moment came for me to distance myself and ask and justify, through the works of others, my tastes and limits. The fact that I as well have a designer background, which evolved to costume design, helps me appreciate the work behind clothes and their making.
The exhibition is a spectacular selection of garments, images, videos and art by many of the high-end designers and fashion houses from the 1980s until today. Do you have any specific favourites out of this large-scale show?
This is a difficult question. Each garment has the designer’s creative language, its own “organs” and vocabulary, as well as a story and the period within it was created. When I started the process of researching and requesting the clothes with the museum’s team, we came across issues like the lack of availability, and in cases the lack of archives. And, like every exhibition, there were compromises, changes and decisions I had to make in order to maintain my concept. About 70-80% percent of the pieces that were initially on my list made it to the expo. The rest of the clothes –those that came later– were as well chosen with care during the 8-month set-up period process. In conclusion, the exhibition is about pieces I favour – a taste from collections that have caused a stir and emotion in the past 25 to 30 years. Each garment was chosen for its own existence. So, I would say I love them all without being forced to admit so! Separated into themes such as embellishment, draping, the corset, print, religion, history, the future, and the crinoline, I feel that the clothes speak for themselves.
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What about the animals that surround the exhibition?
The animals resemble the beauty as a fact of nature. In comparison with us humans, we are always searching ways to redefine our outline and appearance, through clothes or plastic surgery, and yet we can never surpass the glory of animals. We never judge an elephant for its size or a giraffe for its long neck, we simply accept them as they are. I worked closely with scenographer Lien Wauters who helped me into translating this parallel universe.
For a designer to be able to call their collection haute couture, they need to fulfill special rules according to the Syndical Chamber for Haute Couture, based in Paris. Do you think this is why we see less couture on the runway and that the contemporary prêt-à-porter is taking over?
I salute the rules of the French Chambre Syndicale, as they help to preserve haute couture’s own heritage. Can you imagine the future of France if they don’t secure their own history? It would be a blasphemy if the generations to come were unaware of what haute couture stands for, if these techniques fade…
In the past 25-30 years, we’ve seen the work some really outstanding contemporary designers like Yamamoto, Lacroix, Galliano, Kawakubo, McQueen… Some of these names serve and create both couture and prêt-à-porter, and the designers who went beyond the limits of the category and context they worked within, pushed the bar much higher for the rest to follow. Today we experience the phenomenal rise of prêt-à-porter into something much more luxurious, impeccably crafted and of course available in much higher prices.
Technology also helps in this evolution. We see brands like Prada, Burberry, or Balmain overcoming their initial DNA and being transformed into an echo of what they once represented, or even something new. And I mean this in a good way. From the late 90’s until 6-8 years ago, there has been less interest in haute couture indeed, and this has meant a period of great prosperity for prêt-à-porter. It wasn’t until recently, and through a handful of designers, that we started to witness the rise and relevance of haute couture again. There is somehow a redefinition of the terms and, in many cases, couture today borrows ideas from prêt-à-porter and vice versa. There is also a new wave of creative freedom. Take for instance John Galliano and how he transformed Margiela. I think the timeframe of his work in whole is just incredible! Or how Slimane turned Saint Laurent into a cash machine by approaching the youth through youthful designs.
Can you see more detailed work on the older items of the exhibition, or will haute couture always remain the same?
It depends on the designer and the House. The greatest characteristic of haute couture is the ability to go beyond reality as opposed to prêt-à-porter, which needs to be pragmatic and for the masses. Having said that, I wonder how valid my statement is. And although in this exhibition most of the pieces presented come from prêt-à-porter collections, most of the visitors wonder if indeed this is the case, as many of the pieces speak a very strong language, much stronger than what the streets can take.
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As today’s fashion cycles are very ephemeral, some designers seem to back off from the bigger fashion houses. Do you think the industry is in a shaking position, and can we blame ready-to-wear for that?
Unfortunately, the only one to blame is ourselves for being too greedy. Not only in the fashion industry. We are experiencing a new Babylon.
Would you say the book Haute-à-Porter complements the exhibition or are they two completely different things?
To translate Haute-à-Porter only as an exhibition would probably leave a lot of names whose work I acknowledge out, as well as houses that did not respond to our request or did not wish to participate yet their presence is very important as they own a full chapter in fashion’s contemporary history.
For this exhibition to be completed, I thought of analyzing my themes through interviews; and that I did with certain people that I usually read, from other curators, journalists to others whose opinion shape the industry, designers who are always a step ahead and who come under the title of Haute-à-Porter by maintaining the element of romance in their work. The pages are illustrated by the most profound fashion images that reflect these themes signed by legends of photography, from Lindbergh to Fabien Baron, Miles Aldridge and many others. The publisher, Lannoo, is known for exceptional fashion books like Ann Demeulemeester’s Monograph, Dries Van Noten, Stephen Jones, Les Belges, Walter Van Beirendonck…
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Vivienne Westwood FW 15-16, Photography by René Habermacher
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Yohji Yamamoto SS 1999, Photography by René Habermacher
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Cate Blanchett, Photography by Matthias Vriens-McGrath
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Molly Ringwald, Photography by Sheila Metzner
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