Helena Lumelsky’s Black Theatre

Video by Srdjan Stanic

MoMu Blog talked to Helena on the night before her trip to Spain, as she has been selected for the third edition of the Mango Fashion Award, in which young designers get the chance to create a collection for the high street chain. She laughs it off, but it is a sign that her great talent cannot go unnoticed. Born in Ukraine, Helena graduated from the Antwerp Fashion Department four years ago and is now an independent designer and artist.

Helena was selected for the Black exhibition at MoMu as one of the young designers that have a special bond with the colour black, because of her references to film noir and especially the femme fatales out of the films from the Great Depression era. Her ultra-feminine, threatening and sexy creations are sold at RA, the artistic platform that invited her for their ‘black’ project. The Black Theatre is a shadow puppet theatre sold at RA and MoMu. The edition was hand-made in Belgium in a limited edition of 200 copies, for those “who are inspired, even in the darkest places”…

Helena, what inspired you to make The Black Theatre?
When RA asked me to participate in an artistic project surrounding the Black. Masters of Black in Fashion & Costume exhibition at MoMu, I thought about who were my ‘Masters of Black’, which ‘black’ designers carry a special meaning for me. I also had a vision from my childhood: I remembered sitting under my bed at night with a flashlight, playing with dolls. So I added the flashlight to the Black Theatre. When I was young, I had a Czech encyclopedia about historical fashion, on the cover were typical silhouettes from historical periods such as rococo and baroque, with nearly abstract, yet very identifiable forms. These forms inspired me to create the decors. In my own work I like to work with shadows and black silhouettes, hence I thought of making a black shadow puppet theatre, with many of the iconic ‘black’ designers in it.

I must admit you really made a great choice of classic, avant-garde, up-and-coming designers as well as Belgians. You could have chosen other ones, nevertheless. How did you go about this?
The first that came to mind were the Belgians actually, because for which ever reason they use black, they are really well-known for it. Some are romantic, some deconstructionist, some rock’n’roll, some nostalgic, and some touch on all of these aspects. Then I added some personal favourites such as Rei Kawakubo and Azzedine Alaïa, who work in a very structural way. They are examples to me, because their use of black makes the form excel. With Alaïa, the focus is on the patterns, whereas Kawakubo is more focused on the shape. I composed the ‘young’ group by thinking of interactivity, cyberspace and young kids watching the fashion shows live on their computer. I chose for up-and-coming as well as futuristic labels such as Gareth Pugh and Hannah Marshall.

The ‘Black Catwalk’ scene is really nicely drawn. The characters on the front row, such as Anna Piaggi, Tavi, Diane Pernet and Mrs Wintour, are truly life-like.
Yes, there’s even a little wink to my friends Anna and Romain from RA, as you can see them sitting on the second row.

How did you think of the other scenes?
Well, Antwerp was of course not too hard. What I really wanted to convey with this scenery, and also with the whole styling of the theatre, was to show the subtleties of the city, the light changes and the art deco atmosphere. For me, Antwerp is not about baroque, gothicism or any other style but art deco. Also, what I like about Antwerp is that it’s not too big, you still have room and air to notice the small things. In London or Paris you’re being so bombarded with images the whole time you can’t keep track. Here you still look at the colour of the sunlight that changes. I like the small things in life, they inspire me. The Black Tie Affair scene was inspired by a ball Truman Capote organized in 1966 at the New York Plaza Hotel. All the guests had to be in Black and White and really made an effort to look spectacular. Hence, I drew a ballroom and chose celebrities that have become iconic by wearing a black outfit, all in different ways, such as Audrey Hepburn, Beyonce, Tilda Swinton, Catherine Deneuve, Jane Birkin, Liz Hurley and Madonna. Tilda Swinton is really one of my favourites since she always looks different and truly embodies a personal style. The Little Black Shop just has things that I would like to have in my own wardrobe: it’s the child’s vision again, to create a little place with all the (black) things you like for yourself. Then there’s the atelier, the private space of the designer where it all happens, where dresses are made and he or she can experiment, cut and create.

What does black mean to you for your own work?
I think it’s a great, mysterious colour. Because it absorbs all light, and it includes all the colours, there are many shades of black. There’s a different black for everyone. Although I am inspired by film noir, there are many other aspects (intellectual, gloomy, sexy and elegance) that also play an important role in my work.

Do you plan on doing any other side projects in the future?
Well, I keep my eyes open, since I really enjoy doing things like these. Working with the little printing factory that helped to produce the (handmade) theatres was really fun, as well as doing something that is fashion-related but also crosses borders. I really enjoyed the game aspect of this theatre, I think the fashion world is sometimes a little too serious. Also, the drawing was interesting: I drew all the silhouettes and figures one-to-one, they all exist in real life, so I didn’t really make my own interpretation but tried to stick close to the original form. It was something new to me, as I normally don’t make any drawings of my silhouettes.

You don’t?
No, I mostly work directly on the doll with patterns. I really like the old craftsmanship of patternmaking, draping and working with textures. I think the couture aspect in fashion has been neglected too much lately, that’s why I really like designers such as Alaïa, who still do everything the old way but keep coming up with modern visions.

Your own vision of women is quite classic, as you like heels and pencils skirts, but also rather dark and threatening: do you see the ‘femme fatale’ look as the new feminism of today, as an empowering feature?
Yes, I do love pencil skirts and heels, but I don’t think femininity is restricted to that: it can be dark, threatening, ‘fatale’, but also light and playful. I do think that women nowadays have more freedom, so it’s ok to dress the way you want. On the other hand, their old ‘weaknesses’, can now be turned into something more powerful with clothes that accentuate their femininity. I don’t like the very ‘obvious’ sexy babes with corsets or bikinis and heels, there’s no glamour in that. But I do think there should be an alternative, more closed and mysterious way of dressing up in a feminine way. This is a style I like to create with my clothes.

The Black Theatre is for sale at MoMu and RA’s online store.