Like millions of other creatives, Karen Van Godtsenhoven not only envisioned a different way of life during the pandemic, she created one.
After joining the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute as Associate Curator in May 2019, she has since reconfigured her role there. While expecting a baby in mid-2020, Van Godtsenhoven returned to Europe, anticipating that COVID-19 travel restrictions would prevent her family and her husband’s family from visiting the US after their daughter’s birth. son of her
Initially working remotely for The Met, she and museum officials later agreed to an independent curator arrangement. Having worked on the recently launched Kimono Style: Edo Traditions to Modern Design, Van Godtsenhoven is collaborating on another Met project scheduled for next year that she wasn’t at liberty to discuss now. The Costume Institute exhibit is scheduled for fall 2023, she said.
She is also working on a Ph.D. on fashion and feminists, especially relating to feminist theory from the 1960s and 1970s and bringing that together with fashion theory and fashion designers. The curator herself also teaches at Ghent University, where she is organizing a course in fashion theory and history. While Belgium is famous for its design school, there are no more historical or theoretical fashion courses so far. “It’s still a new field here, so there’s a lot of excitement among the students.”
Furthermore, Van Godtsenhoven participates in different exhibition projects in Europe that focus mainly 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 that leads not only for the world of museums but for the industry as a whole.
After returning from 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 cool the way The Met offered a way to stay active as a freelancer and less institutionalized,” Van Godtsenhoven said.
Regarding the current state of fashion, he said he hoped the pandemic would be “a huge wake-up call and a catalyst for change.” But she has been a bit disappointed by how quickly fashion has returned to her calendar and the old ways of doing things. That said, through her teaching, she is encouraged by how new generations are embracing new and hybrid ways of working.
“They are very spread out. They don’t fly around the world to see shows and see each other. The way new students and young designers work will guide us forward for years to come,” said Van Godtsenhoven.
Having observed how other young mothers are also inclined to buy second-hand or vintage clothes, she said that younger consumers, like some of her cousins, like to buy clothes fast online, “because it’s easy and cheap.” While that kind of commercial consumption will continue to thrive, she is curious about the evolution of new technologies, such as on-demand ordering, 3D printing, or avatar creation, even if they may be dressed in digital fast fashion.
Antwerp-based American designer Shayli Harrison is a favorite. Her company Mutani creates for brands that want virtual fashion as well as their own digital or virtual fashion. The graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp also works with collectives of young designers. “It’s interesting because it’s very disruptive and experimental,” Van Godtsenhoven said.
Another up-and-coming company is Rebirth Garments, which specializes in gender-nonconforming clothing and accessories that target “non-binary, trans, disabled, and crazy queers of all sizes and ages,” according to their site. In addition to the creativity that the brand is incorporating, Van Godtsenhoven is interested in how technology and medical science can interact for new creations.
As for the impact of the unstable economy on fashion, Van Godtsenhoven pointed out how European consumers are worried about the substantial increase in energy prices and the war in Ukraine. Those factors are making them less experimental and more conservative.
When asked what the general public is not ready for in terms of how fashion is changing, he said: “Fashion always makes sure there is enough of a market. But if you don’t like online shopping or virtual reality types of environments, in five to 10 years it could become more difficult to go to a store. That way of shopping could change. It could create a huge chasm between people who are more digitally literate and those who are not.”
Overall, though, she’s happy with her career despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, especially as a new mom. “Working freelance 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 key for employers to be creative and think of ways to keep people on board in different ways.”
Asked if anyone had taken over his previous position or responsibilities, a Met spokesman declined to comment on Wednesday.