Like millions of other creatives, Karen Van Godtsenhoven didn’t just envision a different way of life during the pandemic, she created one.
After joining the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute as an associate curator in May 2019, she reconfigured her role there. While expecting a baby in mid-2020, Van Godtsenhoven returned to Europe, anticipating that COVID-19 travel restrictions would inhibit her family and her husband’s family from visiting the US following the birth of their child.
Initially working remotely for The Met, she and museum staff later agreed to a freelance curator arrangement. Having worked on the newly opened “Kimono Style: Edo Traditions to Modern Design,” Van Godtsenhoven is taking part in another Met project scheduled for next year that she wasn’t at liberty to talk about right now. The Costume Institute exhibit is planned for fall 2023, she said.
She is also working on a doctorate on fashion and feminists, especially in relation to feminist theory of the 1960s and 1970s and bridging fashion theory and fashion designers. The curator also teaches at the University of Ghent, where a course in fashion theory and history is being set up. Although Belgium is known for its design school, so far there are no more historical or theoretical fashion courses. “It’s still a new field here, so there’s a lot of enthusiasm from the students.”
Furthermore, Van Godtsenhoven is involved in different exhibition projects in Europe that mainly focus on themes such as women designers, sustainability and virtual fashion which is a hybrid of digital and physical fashion. Referring to the latter, she is eager to see where this takes us not only in the museum world, but in the industry at large.
After returning from her maternity leave following the birth of her daughter in July 2020, she realized that returning to New York for The Met would be logistically difficult. “It was really great the way The Met offered a way to stay active as a freelancer and less institutionalized,” said Van Godtsenhoven.
Regarding the current state of fashion, she said she hoped the pandemic would be “a big wake-up call and a catalyst for change.” But she was a little disappointed at how quickly fashion returned to her calendar and old ways of doing things. That said, through her teaching, she is encouraged by the way new generations are adopting new and hybrid ways of working.
“They are very distributed. They don’t fly around the world to see shows and see each other. The way the new students and young designers are working will carry us forward in the years to come,” said Van Godtsenhoven.
Having observed how other young mothers are also inclined to buy second-hand or vintage clothes, she said younger consumers, like some of her cousins, like to shop for fast fashion online, “because it’s easy and cheap.” While this kind of commercial consumption continues to thrive, she is curious about the evolution of new technologies like on-demand ordering, 3D printing or creating avatars, even if they may be dressed up in digital fast fashion.
Antwerp-born American designer Shayli Harrison is a favorite. Her company her Mutani creates for brands that want virtual fashion, in addition to their own digital or virtual fashion. The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp graduate also works with collectives of young designers. “It’s interesting because it’s very disruptive and experimental,” said Van Godtsenhoven.
Another up-and-coming company is Rebirth Garments, which specializes in non-binary wearables and accessories, focusing on “non-binary, trans, disabled and crazy queers of all sizes and ages,” according to its website. In addition to the creativity the brand is embodying, Van Godtsenhoven is interested in how technology and medical science can be intertwined for new creations.
As for the impact of the shaky economy on fashion, Van Godtsenhoven noted how European consumers are concerned about the substantial rise in energy prices and the war in Ukraine. These factors make them less experimental and more conservative.
Asked what the general public is not prepared for in terms of how fashion is changing, she said: “Fashion always makes sure there is enough market. But if you don’t like online shopping or virtual reality environments, in five to 10 years it can get harder to go to a store. This way of shopping can change. This could create a huge chasm between people who are more digitally literate and those who are not.”
All in all, she is happy with her career despite the challenges brought by the pandemic, especially as a new mother. “Working as a freelancer for different institutions gives me a lot of freedom and enriches my life. I’m also very happy with how things worked out with the Met. It is critical for employers to be creative and think of ways to keep people on board in different ways.”
Asked if anyone has assumed his responsibilities or previous role, a Met spokesperson declined to comment on Wednesday.