Dare to step off the beaten path and into an exhibition space where the usual suspects are anything but. Here, Snow White has traded dwarfs for a grittier crew, the path taking a turn: less fairy tale, more harsh reality. As you can imagine, wandering solemnly through the woods leaves one far removed from quaint cottages and singing birds, instead, thrust against the starkness of cracked concrete. Not far, where the shadows are deep, Mickey redraws himself with an edgier guise in the underbelly of Antwerp, where even the mice aren’t as meek. This underbelly, better known as the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp, is precisely where you need to be. Now, until August 4th 2024, reality frays at the edges as one walks through the inimitable Willy Vanderperre’s radical exhibition.
Daan, Dust #13, 2018. Model: Daan Duez, © Willy Vanderperre
Though by now your mind finds itself lost in fables and fairy tales, Willy Vanderperre is a photographer whose editorial work has blazed trails longer than any Snow White has followed. His images have long adorned the covers of your favourite magazines and have traversed campaigns for fashion houses such as Dior and Prada, to name just a few. These projects often feature his long-standing collaborations with husband Olivier Rizzo and close friend Raf Simons. 
Willy Vanderperre: prints, films, a rave and more… is less a showing, more a telling of his narrative through a three-decade career, with walls that don 250 photographs, featuring films and music. His work is nourished by his profound fascination with youth, a time marked by its fleeting nature yet deep complexities, where you’re figuring out who you are while also convinced that no one else ‘gets it’. This exhibition unfolds as a masterful exploration of youth, pulled apart and pieced back together through Vanderperre’s visionary approach. 
On the first page of the exhibition’s magazine, Vanderperre shares a reflection that encapsulates both the emotional depth that underpins the exhibition and the innovative approach to its curation. “Steering away from a traditional timeline, we challenge visitors to create their own one while walking through the exhibition. Mine started with meeting Olivier, my husband, to whom I dedicate this show. It is a celebration of our life and our work up to now. Our story isn’t finished yet, it keeps on evolving and growing.” 
This departure from conventions is partly due to the exceptional support and hosting of MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp. Co-curated by their own MoMu curator, Romy Cockx, the exhibition space was modified to take into account how various presentation factors, such as lighting and arrangement, impact the viewer’s perception of his work.
You’re clued into the unusual even before you walk through the door. Just outside the exhibition room, where you’d typically meet a ticket scanner wielding nervous smiles, here you’re met with a table of merch, immersed in walls that are heavily plastered with torn posters of Julia Nobis from the 2015 Document Journal cover. Though you’re well aware you’re standing in MoMu, it feels as though you’re walking down the street, flanked by posters advertising an imminent concert – some half-torn, others barely announcing their message. It feels both fleeting and beautiful, which appears to have been Vanderperre’s intent all along. As he lured us into the exhibition we all longed to see, he noted: “The posters are like an announcement of something that will happen. They already give you anticipation for what’s behind that wall.”
Walking in, it instantly felt as though we were peering through the very lens that has accompanied Vanderperre across three decades. With our first step in, we were greeted by an image of a chair, a young man [Robby Braem] facing a wall, and his t-shirt boldly proclaiming ‘You wanted to be a hero’ – an image for Arena Homme+. “It could not have been another picture than this one. Not only because this was shot at the academy [Royal Academy of Fine Arts] where I took my first steps into Antwerp, but also because it’s the place I met my husband, Olivier Rizzo,” Vanderperre explained. He added: “We gave it a ‘Dream Academy’ title because it’s also literally where our dreams started.” As for the statement on the t-shirt, he continued: “At that point in life, we all felt aspirational, you’re young and kind of naïve.” 
Vanderperre’s images have long been evocatively interlaced with deeply personal and cultural narratives. When all gathered together, and with him present, the space pulsed with his intense passion and affection for his work, his loved ones and his subjects. It was rare to pass a piece without a sentimental story following it. 
The people you see through his lens are those he has deeply connected with. In discussing a fanzine, characterised by its raw, unfiltered portrayals, he remarked: “Of course there’s Mika [Argañaraz], of course there’s Luca [Lemaire], of course there’s Anok [Yai]… there’s people that have inspired me so much. It was almost like a thank you to them. We try to portray them as you have never seen them because most of the times you see these people – because they are people – done off, or in a way seen through the eyes of the photographer, made-up with make-up, hairstyles. We just let them walk in. We took pictures of them as pure as they are.”
As we moved by another picture, he said in passing: “Beautiful people,” before pausing to elaborate further. “This is a picture of my helpers. I have a team that is bigger, but there’s a couple of them that are really core. That’s my technician and this is my light director, without whom we would not… you know what I mean – those are my family; we are so entwined.”
The rest of the tour unfolded in a similar way by viewing beautiful images paired with even more beautiful descriptions. At one point, we stumbled upon a gem: the iconic Vanderperre photograph of Robbie Snelders wearing Raf Simons’s coat, styled by Olivier Rizzo, with Mickey Mouse drawn on his face. “I cherish that one because it has such a  beautiful past and such a beautiful memory to it. If I have to look back, I look back with pleasure at Mickey. It was just a weird one, we shot that randomly, it never got published – it was a dummy for a magazine. It also took a life on its own; it was pre-internet and pre-Instagram, it was everything. It was just like word to word.  That image became a thing on its own.”
Robbie, V #0, 1999. Model: Robbie Snelders, © Willy Vanderperre
Continuing in the vein of the introduction, we naturally progress to the jack-o’-lantern image of Rianne Van Rompaey for i-D magazine. As one might easily imagine, this was indeed an homage to the ever-iconic jack-o’-lantern, also known as the quintessential face of Halloween. “I’m not American but Halloween is my favourite holiday. It’s an icon, it’s jack-o’-lantern (…) This is the face that you wear and instantly you know, Halloween. It’s a party, it’s also scary movies, at the same time it’s kind of childish, but if I would bump into that middle of the night, I would run away. So there’s that duality of that as well which is kind of fun.”
Swiftly transitioning from the jack-o’-lantern, you’ll be pleased to learn there are limited collectible items available for purchase as exclusive drops. Proceeds from sales will in part be donated to Çavaria, the Flemish advocacy group for LBGTI+ people. Çavaria is committed to the well-being, equal rights, and equal opportunities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals.
My words have not been shy in expressing the magnitude of Willy Vanderperre: prints, films, a rave and more…. Unparalleled in every aspect and unlike any other, the exhibition brims with emotional depth that emanates from every captured moment. With August 4th still some time away, to miss it would be far from advisable, and we recommend you follow it with a rave.