Interview with Walter Van Beirendonck

“We were called the Antwerp Six because the English press didn’t know how to pronounce our names. We showed our work together in London in the 1980s and it had an impact on how we were perceived. It would be impossible to reproduce this now.”

Interview with Walter Van Beirendonck 

By Philippe Pourhashemi. Photography by Julien Claessens

“I’m not interested in porn, but the rituals that take place within the fetish world, which is something very different. I’m interested in rituals of domination, which are also quite close to ethnic rituals.”

Despite his bearish appearance and larger-than-life presence, Walter Van Beirendonck is a refined man with an appreciation for details and subtlety. You would expect him to be slightly goofy and eccentric, but he’s the opposite in person. Sitting down at a table in his Paris showroom, he comes across as an affable and polite man. However extreme his clothes may be, they are, in fact, the result of ongoing research around the notions of gender, identity and social codes. Focused, serious and educated, Van Beirendonck has countless references, which he uses in every single collection. They are often historical, cultural or personal, giving intense depth to his work and illustrating his thought process.

What Ann-Sofie Back and Walter Van Beirendonck seem to share is an understanding of irony and interest in lateral thinking. Using concepts as a starting point, both designers manage to come up with utterly original clothes, underlining their own singular voice and idiosyncrasies. In this exclusive interview, Van Beirendonck talks about his love of rituals, his unique take on tailoring and why porn has nothing to do with the fetish world.

Looking at your latest collection, I was intrigued by the fact that you gave tailoring an anatomical twist, using accessories to emphasize certain body parts. What reactions did you get?

“They were very positive. Of course, this was the result of an evolution, which started for me a few seasons ago. I started doing more tailoring and formal wear, giving them both a humorous twist. I named the collection “Silent Secrets.” which was a reflection on the growing importance of social networks. You can’t keep secrets anymore and everyone wants to know what’s happening in real time all around the world. People are confronted with things they don’t necessarily want to see or find out about. I guess the collection was a reaction to this process affecting us.”

Your work often deals with codes and rituals. Why are you drawn to them?

“I’ve always been fascinated with rituals. For my last show, I was thinking about secret societies and did some research on Freemasonry. I was not interested in their political stance, but drawn toward their dress codes and symbols. I explored this idea of formality and dressing-up, designing 1900s shirts with a stiff plastron, even though I wanted them to feel contemporary.”

Did your clients ask you for more tailored pieces?

“I would never do something just because someone asked me to. It was a natural and spontaneous step. I had worked with colors, prints and unstructured shapes for a while and felt the need to do something different. Focusing on black and white was pretty adventurous for me. You have this overdose of patterns and saturated shades in menswear shows, but this is not something attracting me at the moment. I’m only trying to find elements that make sense for me. I’m very instinctive when it comes to choices and directions within the collection.”

This issue is dedicated to Ann-Sofie Back and she mentioned you as one of her favorite designers. How familiar are you with her work?

“I used to buy her clothes when we were running Walter, our multi-label store in Antwerp. I really liked her ideas and met up with her a few times in Paris and London. I appreciate her approach as a designer and the freshness of her vision. She uses technique in experimental ways and I remember she made some great pieces using laser cutting one season. Whenever we met, we had good conversations and I also had the feeling I could relate to her. We basically got on.”

It’s interesting, because Ann-Sofie and you both enjoyed recognition from the English press, which is not something that can be gained easily.

“That’s true. I guess we’re both designers who do not limit ourselves to fashion and have other interests, which are not industry-related.”

Ann-Sofie Back works with strong concepts, which she turns into actual pieces. Is that a working method you’re also interested in?

“Of course, having a concept is really important. This is the way we do things at the Academy whenever we teach students about creating a collection. It’s not that their clothes necessarily have to be extremely conceptual, but you need an idea to start with. It’s about trying to tell a story and I feel that this narrative dimension is key within fashion. A collection should be more than just fabrics and cuts.”

Do you feel that “conceptual” has become a bit of a dirty word in fashion? We have moved on from the 90s and the industry seems to be more preoccupied with products than actual ideas.

“Yes, there’s definitely a bit of that right now. The industry has changed and I see so many things in fashion that are vulgar. Conceptual thinking was obviously something that was big in the 90s, but I don’t see it as a dated point of view, provided that you add a contemporary twist to it. It’s still possible.”

It’s funny, because you’re not the first designer I’ve interviewed lately who mentions vulgarity. What do you find vulgar in fashion?

“Well, I’m not going to mention any colleagues (mutual laughter). I think vulgar for me is when you envisage men and women in a certain way. People are increasingly objectified and treated without any respect. I’m sometimes surprised to see how much people seem to enjoy this and manage to get away with. When I look at the designers I admire, such as Rei Kawakubo for instance, they always have a strong experimental streak, which they are able to express in a contemporary way.”

I feel that this is also what Ann-Sofie Back does, constantly experimenting within her work, while staying true to her identity.

“Yes. I guess I have my world and own way of thinking. I feel rather comfortable in it and have the possibility to work freely as a designer. My clients have been loyal, following me for several years. You can keep on evolving and still talk to a similar audience that understands what you’re doing.”

With Walter closing a few months ago, do you feel that you’ve moved on and gained something from the experience?

“Well, it wasn’t my choice and a sad situation. I guess I was more affected by how it was picked up by the Belgian press. Journalists made a huge story out of it, which was never my point. I didn’t want things to happen that way, but didn’t have the possibility to stop this from taking place. I had no intention to stop.”

Would you open a new store then?

“There is one already.”

Is there? I didn’t know that.

“We opened a new space in Antwerp a few weeks after Walter closed. There was no official opening and we did not communicate about it either. Our clients knew about it, but we didn’t want to tell the press, as we didn’t think it’d be the right thing to do at that time.”

Is it the same idea as Walter?

“Yes, it’s a multi-brand store and we offer different collections to our clients. Delvaux contacted us and asked if we were interested in using the first floor of the building where their store is located. It’s a temporary thing, and we’ll move into new premises at the beginning of next year.”

Another thing you have in common with Ann-Sofie Back is porn. She deals with gender stereotypes and sexuality in her work, and you’ve often borrowed elements from the fetish scene, referring to pornography as a whole. What is it that you like about these worlds?

“I’m not interested in porn, but the rituals that take place within the fetish world, which is something very different. I’m interested in rituals of domination, which are also quite close to ethnic rituals. I like to read about them and see images too, which keep on inspiring me.”

So what would be the main difference between porn and fetish?

“I’m not into flesh or the actual act, which is what porn focuses on. I’m much more interested in latex and blow-up dolls for instance.”

Is this playful dimension something you like?

“No, I would say it’s definitely the ritualistic aspect that I’m interested in. The reason why people cover themselves in rubber is something that fascinates me. In fact, there’s nothing humorous about it, it’s a rather serious thing. It’s about individuals altering their bodies and identities, which are also key themes within my work. Fetish codes compare to primitive rituals.”

Fashion is also ritualistic. Simply look at shows and the various codes defining them…

“Yes, of course.”

Do you challenge these codes or accept them?

“I do accept and validate them. I enjoy the whole process behind a show, from casting and fittings to seeing the audience on the actual day. It may only last ten minutes, but you create a lot of energy through showing your work. This is your statement at a given moment and I feel you can’t replace this with something else. Some designers choose installations, videos or presentations. Still, it doesn’t have the same magical feel as putting on a fashion show. There are so many aspects that are part of a show’s impact, such as music for instance.”

Do you feel that seeing images of a show on the Internet tends to dumb the whole thing down?

“Well, it gets rather boring looking at images of shows online, doesn’t it? You never see what’s happening in the back and you’re missing out on a lot of details.”

Has the Internet changed the way you design clothes?

“No, not at all. I hear colleagues talking about this on a regular basis, and people seem to focus on the very first look a lot more now, wondering how strong it has to be for people to actually keep on clicking.”

Is there a pressure that comes with this then?

“Yes, but I don’t feel it.”

Going back to the 90s and the fashion industry then, do you think that it’s harder for independent designers to find their space now?

“It’s the same story. On the one hand, we are faced with a more challenging economy, but, on the other, it has never been easier to share your work with others. Young designers are aware of how they can use the Internet and its potential to their advantage. I think it’s less difficult having some sort of impact now than it was 20 years ago, because at that time you were forced to do a catwalk show and have a physical showroom.”

What would you advise a young graduate leaving school? Should they work for someone else or start their own label?

“I think it’s always good working for another designer first. Gaining a few years of experience in a fashion house gives you the opportunity to see how everything works. You can then think about setting up your own label, once you’ve gained that experience.”

Is this what you did when you left school?

“No. None of the Antwerp Six did this. We didn’t really find jobs at that time, because nobody knew us. After graduation, I went to Paris, approaching houses like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, but the only thing they offered was unpaid internships. I wanted to have a real job and most of us did commercial things, starting their own collection on the side.”

People keep referring back to the Antwerp Six, wondering if something like this could happen in Belgium now.

“I guess the circumstances were unique and I don’t think something like this could happen again. We were called the Antwerp Six because the English press didn’t know how to pronounce our names. We showed our work together in London in the 1980s and it had an impact on how we were perceived. It would be impossible to reproduce this now.”

A freelance fashion writer, Philippe Pourhashemi was born in Tehran in 1976 and grew up in Paris. Based in Brussels, he’s an editor for The Word where he supervises the style and fashion pages. He also contributes to Diane Pernet’s blog, A Shaded View on Fashion.