He had his own universe. A universe where catwalks were irrelevant and Belgian fashion legends Inge Grognard and Ronald Stoops shot all the outfits from his collections. It was dark, something ethereal. Anyone familiar with the work of Belgium’s most famous photographer/make-up artist duo knows that Grognard and Stoops capture youthfulness in all their work. Yet, with designer Jurgi Persoons, they made their bleakest shots: models on the verge of an existential breakdown.
After all these years they worked their magic again, creating posters for the KABK 2015 SHOW. I spoke to Jurgi about his views on young designers: “they should not be decorators”, and the academy: “we offer the classical preparation you need along with a socio-cultural context”.
I guess journalistic credibility urges me to be honest here: I am madly in love with the clothing Jurgi Persoons made. I can’t really name a lot of labels that ever spoke to me on a personal level, but Jurgi Persoons did. His run wasn’t long, just 8 years. They were given innocuous yet shrilling titles such as ‘Re-interpretation of english classic man clothes by a lazy rich girl’ and ‘Anorexic young girl alone in her grandmother’s Benidorm residence’. They were beautiful.
I straight up told him his work is very sought after by a certain niche. The type of people sniping away your ebay-finds. Jurgi Persoons looked at me in disbelief – as if he never had been a designer. Just half an hour earlier he guided me through the neoclassic hallways of the KABK building in The Hague. There he’s been head of the fashion course for a year and a half now. We talked for 2 hours. And he told me, after some pressing, that it was a fun ride but it had to end – the designing. He donated his entire archive to the MoMu in Antwerp and went on to greater things. Here’s what went down:
Cesar Majorana: I heard Ann Demeulemeester is doing loads of gardening and painting now that she’s not heading her own brand. What did you do after quitting yours?
Jurgi Persoons: I stopped in 2003, I was 34 years old, and I had to kick the habit of fashion. I was burned up for a while and needed to find rest again. I needed to make sure there was a world beyond fashion, so I worked at my partner’s printing company. It was nice to have a 9 to 5 job for a while. A job that ends at the right time.
Jurgi answered with a modest tone, something you would expect from a frail man dressed in Comme Des Garçons. However, throughout this conversation there was something that bothered me;
The second Belgian wave of designers, after the Antwerp Six, struggled. I wouldn’t know why. Was it the economic environment? Were the clothes too niche? It took a while for me to have the courage and ask, but I did.
How was it to be part of the generation after the Antwerp Six?
We all had the dream of the Six. We all thought we could be like Dries and Ann. In the 90s a lot of talent graduated with that mentality.
So why did the Six succeed while you didn’t? Most of the second wave designers quit their labels.
The scenario changed too much in a short time. It wasn’t the same as ten years earlier, or later for that fact.
Speaking for myself: I was too young and made too many mistakes. I got offered licenses and deals but refused them, wanting to do it like Dries did. I said “no, Dries also doesn’t do licenses either”. That was bullshit, maybe I should have taken those chances. But then again, I was young and well… you learn those things afterwards – don’t you?
“Fantastic that you have an initial idea of what you want to do, but this doesn’t mean you’re a business genius.”
Tell me more about that time.
I always worked with minimal budgets, just taking our bus to Paris and improvising with the money we had. We’d find the best fitting venue for the money we had and would work it out from there. The fashion industry does not allow that nowadays, and just maybe it didn’t back then either.
What was the highlight of all those years?
Well, the brand was booming in America, after working for six years. I have the most beautiful memories of it really. If I told you just one memory I would forget to mention ten others. I met many great people and cherish those times.
9/11 happened. My collection was on its way to New York when the first building got hit. The airports were cleared and the collection wasn’t allowed out of the plane. It never left the New York airport. It came back eventually and we showed in Paris with it, but no American felt safe to travel by plane then. We lost all our American clients. 9/11 was a tragedy, it was a big thing for the whole world – and we had to start all over, invest again. We lasted 3 more seasons before calling it quits.
“The worst designer is someone who is only making ‘nice’ things – you’re just a decorator then.”
You were a very solitary designer, yet here you’ve helped the academy to become more social. Since you came to the KABK the department has been way more accessible by inviting newspapers and it has started social channels.
When I was a designer I was just way more a recluse. I thought I was guarding myself by doing so. I had this identity of a young designer “I do what I want, not what you’re doing,” which is why I didn’t do runways or editorials. What I do here, with the entire staff, is underlining the value of getting students in contact with professionals, people from the industry. Just creating contacts. You can’t do that by being a recluse. It’s our mission to create opportunities. You cannot seclude yourself anymore now. Fashion is a universal language. It’s understood everywhere, so I feel like I have this obligation to make sure people speak to each other.
What’s the biggest trap for any designer?
A designer gets confronted with realities. And realities are sales numbers, manufacturers and financiers. There’s a business around you. You need to find your own path through that, with or without compromises (in the best case without). Living without compromising is a hard thing to do. There are designers who haven’t had to do that. Look at McQueen or Comme Des Garçons. You also have designers who are overwhelmed by it all. Sometimes you also just evolve, you lose your wildness. Everyone has to manage to get through this path, some don’t survive.
Do you teach these realities at the KABK?
We work on it with the entrepreneurship class. It’s not necessarily the most appreciated class. We try to make it informative, not just a bookkeeping thing, by making it personal: what does this certain garment cost, what is the margin on it?
“A designer who only sits at a table will tell you a very scary story: something between his/her head and the table.”
Was it a class you appreciated in Antwerp?
I had this class twenty years ago and hated it. It always had me thinking: “shall I go today or not?” – Which is why we try to be creative with it now.
What’s the biggest misconception students have when walking into this fashion department?
Students don’t realise that this is a very hard degree. Or at least they don’t realise it enough. It’s a nice career, but a complex one.
The curriculum keeps expanding on all creative academies. Today, designers are not just designing.
This is a job in transition. Society changes quickly, but it doesn’t mean you don’t need your traditional understanding of fabrics – you need that to have a basis with which you can grapple today’s problems. Twenty years ago we didn’t have this because society was much more static.
What is the ideal student then?
First off all, an ideal student is someone with talent, who is ambitious, knows what he/she wants and strives to learn more. An open vision is important – to see what is important for his/her work in the world. Someone who can create engagement.
How do you create this student?
By inspiring, intriguing. Giving input and options: communication really. Fashion is communication.
“I was trying to leave the whole societal hierarchy of glam cult behind. There had to be something else.”
I heard you use a lot of mood boards, what’s the magic behind them?
It’s an overview of inspiration. You’re never just making clothes, you’re also sending a dispatch – and a message is based on its profundity, so the moodboards are an overview of what inspires depth.
In the first stage we collect inspiration (this can be anything that travels through your head). Later we bring that together: in this last stage a personal narrative needs to be formed. A way in which it all ties together with the designer, you know.
I spoke to some students in Antwerp and they had their own interns. It strikes me as dubious. Walter (van Beirendonck, head of the Royal Academy in Antwerp) told me he can’t oversee it and doesn’t grade on it.
Yes, it happens. A student has to learn to build a team. I consciously encourage it. A designer learns only so much, you need inspiration from other people. You have to work together, always. It is the company-esque side of it all. If you’re a designer you need a team. You. Need. A. Team. You need people with more technical experience, a better feeling for textiles, make-up or anything really.
So what do you tell students then?
“Fantastic that you have an initial idea of what you want to do, but that doesn’t mean you’re a business genius.” There are exceptions, but I really speak from my own experience here: a designer without a good team is lost. There are designers who can, but these are rare and often don’t end up too well. Find your team.
“We all had the dream of the Six. We all thought we could be like Dries and Ann.”
What do you think about this new rebellious generation in fashion? Aggressive labels like HBA and OFF WHITE?
The new generation has to have something rebellious in them. Otherwise they don’t bring something new. I believe in idealism within fashion. As a young person you have this ambition to change the world. The opposite is always weird: if young people don’t want to be rebellious – what’s the art of designing, then?
It’s an art itself really, to be young properly.
Society, globalisation, social media… the world has become so small. Put your work on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and you can have the whole world looking at it. These are the opportunities young people should trust in more.
It’s weird to consider that there are labels that are founded on Instagram and only exist there.
That’s just fashion moving forward.
“Fashion is a universal language. It’s understood everywhere, so I feel like I have this obligation to make sure people speak to each other.”
How did you move forward?
For me, that shift happened with show. Front rows, who’s sitting where and the calendar of shows: that was something of which I thought “there has to be something else here”. So I just did presentations off the regular calendar – in the most beautiful places I could think of. I was trying to leave the whole societal hierarchy of glam cult behind. There had to be something else than girls just walking around like this *motions index finger from right to left and back*.
I often get this question myself: why is the Netherlands not a fashion country?
It is cultural. Belgium doesn’t really have it either, I would say. The northern countries have a history in patternmaking and fabrics, but making clothes is something else. Something that you do see in England. Pret-a-porter isn’t embedded in culture here like it is in Italy or France.
Clothing here is function above anything.
Except for those traditional costumes. You have those. They are beautiful.
What inspires you here in The Hague?
Museums and the classic architecture here are to die for. But inspiration lies in everything. It doesn’t have to be something pretty. It can be something that disgusts you. Like pollution or actual international social problems, which inspired the poster for the graduate show.
I want to stress this really: fashion is international. Don’t let yourself be contained by any border. Go somewhere. There are no boundaries on this small planet. If you don’t find your thing here, go somewhere else.
So why would someone go here?
What draws students here is the interaction between textile and fashion, which is quite unique. Our course is unusual in the sense that we offer the classical preparation that you need, along with a socio-cultural context. It allows you to question what is happening now, in the entire world, while also positioning yourself towards it: e.g. “What does your relationship with society look like?”
“If young people don’t want to be rebellious – what’s the art of designing then?”
That differs from the age old paradox where students go to an academy where they spend 5 years making collections, but essentially they are removed from the world for those years.
And that is a problem. Because that approach gives you designers without a relevant message. A designer cannot live with tunnel vision, but has to have an open vision towards society. A designer who only sits at a table will tell you a very scary story: something between his/her head and the table.
A fashion designer is not an artist. He or she is a designer, creating something temporary that has to be used and will decay. An article of use.
There seems more recognition of what fashion is here.
That’s because depth is important to us. As a designer you cannot have enough depth; a collection with depth will always be relevant. Especially in this time, with so many horrible things happening in the world. Make your point. The worst designer is someone who is only making ‘nice’ things – you’re just a decorator then.
Words by Cesar Majorana
Photography by Sanne Nadine Hes