Einstein once remarked that there’s no inspiration in an empty room, which is probably why the fifth floor of the iconic Modenatie building smells of burnt leather. A student is adding loafer details to his Adidas Superstar sneakers. In the back of the museum-like white cube chamber students are gazing at a Stockman tailor dummy. You could say that there’s a certain creative flow going on here, but to really understand the underlying structure of this elite heaven for aspiring fashion designers there’s one man you need to speak to: fashion’s own antithesis Walter van Beirendonck. In the heart of the Belgian fashion capital we spoke about Kanye West, the current state of fashion and teaching success – “If I see a student’s work is not there yet I demand more effort, research and work. They might cry in the process, but that’s nothing horrible.”
Just like I imagined, Walter van Beirendonck carefully strokes his beard when pondering an answer. The head of Antwerp’s Royal Academy fashion course is sporting a pair of his own Crocodile shoes. I’m wearing sneakers by his former intern Raf Simons, hoping he’d understand the homage. I’d come to regret that choice later in the interview when Walter tells me “I didn’t want to hire Raf at first.”
There are mainly two types of answers you can get to any question you ask Walter. The first kind is a sort of appropriation, where he makes you regret your question and serves you an answer you could’ve easily guessed yourself. He typically adds a small anecdote to those answers “What I learned from my time with Raf? Nothing, well his mom used to make nice egg sandwiches for us”, like an uncle at an indolent Belgian birthday party rehashing past memories. The second kind, my favourite, is when he makes sharp omniscient statements. Getting to either of these answers requires a little wariness.
During our 2 hour talk Walter van Beirendonck cuts me off twice to tell me I’m being gossipy. I might be. When I eventually ask the Antwerp Six icon for which reasons he might expel a student, he gazes at my notebook and says “Now I don’t like where you are going with these questions. You need to think about what you’re doing”. I reply resolutely, saying “Yes, it’s just that this whole process interests me” but it’s a misplaced retort to his ears as he confronts me “I feel like you’re being gossipy. I don’t like gossip”. In just two hours’ time I don’t think the head of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts’ Fashion department has grown very fond of me. Nonetheless, the number two type answers made it worth a visit to Antwerp. Take, for example:
In the late 80s you designed a comic book (King Kong Kooks), you’ve since also curated a newspaper and curated for a museum. You’re all over the place.
I’ve always been interested in broadening my field of work.
Rick Owens does the same with his furniture line and young avant-gardists as Sruli Recht and Kofta actively step in the field of product design. Is the creative vision of a fashion designer justified to be multidisciplinary?
Every person’s creative vision is justified to be expressed. Some designers think other disciplines are redundant, but the nice thing about this world is that these possibilities exist and can be used. If my mailman wants to record an album he should.
But does it really work the other way around? Producer and rapper Kanye West had a fatal dance with the fashion world and didn’t survive – complaining to be marginalized as a rapper.
Kanye came to me for an internship. He also applied at Raf. But could you believe that? Kanye interning with me?
I thought it was funny. He brought his mood boards and had a lot of ambition, but you could see a lack of formal training. He noticed it too. It’s something you can’t fake. He aggressively stormed the fashion world without the proper initiation or introduction. He had a lot of connections and possibilities, but not the right skills or talents. The result of that of course is falling and getting up again. But it’s just sad because of the energy that went into it. That first collection was so bad.
“I feel, and this is how I work with students, that over the years I changed a lot of boundaries – on gender, the link between male and female etc.”
You’ve been teaching for a long time now.
I’ve been teaching since 1985. Just 4 years after graduating I was asked to come back and teach. It was something I really didn’t want to be doing at first.
Why the reluctance?
I was just as old as the students! To be working with such young people, as a teacher, was like working on the same level. Now I have some authority, but then it was just about sitting down with someone your own age and critiquing them. It was hard.
Can you immediately see if a student has a worthwhile vision?
Nowadays I can easily see where there’s potential. I see students from their third year on so by that time they’re pretty developed.
You managed to keep your independence as a designer at the difficult cost of offering your creative flow to more commercial outlets. Were you ever prepared to make those choices at the Antwerp Academy? How do you make sure your current students are prepared to?
It was a choice I made. It depends on the temperament or character of the person at hand. There are some who look to experiment and others who automatically gravitate towards the commercial side. I really work closely with my students to make sure they’re at a level where they can choose for themselves.
We meet two times a week and it’s a made to measure course where everyone gets what they need. We do fittings together, look at volumes, materials and drawings. It’s really like working together.
Between graduating in 82 and starting your label in 85 there’s an undeniable pair of gap-years. What did you do during those years?
Between graduating and my first collection (85/86) I’ve done a lot of competitions. Like The Golding Spindle. We all did [The Antwerp Six –red.]. It made sense to have that experience. We travelled a lot too.
“Fashion is constantly shifting and that’s what I like about it.”
The six of you decided to travel overseas early on.
We had national recognition, but internationally that meant nothing. Belgium didn’t even have a proper fashion culture. We had no forefathers who paved a way for our success. We decided that if we wanted success we had to work it out by ourselves. That’s why we travelled, first to London, the British designer show. Afterwards to Japan and America. Sometimes Martin Margiela came too – we were seven.
You were perhaps the first Western designers to crossover to Asia.
Yes, we did a tour through Japan, but it was a tour with a Belgian minister who went for business and took us ‘for fun’. It wasn’t about a market or anything. It was just about going and exploring.
The secret to commercial success in contemporary fashion is incredibly sought after. What do you tell your students about this?
You can’t program it, success. You can be ambitious and want your work to be successful, but there is nothing to steer that. I can’t really teach students the key to success. But working hard, getting a signature and staying true to yourself is a good way to find people who will help you get somewhere.
Was that taught to you while you were a student at the academy?
That was something I learned by myself. When we studied here times were different. It was mainly due to our own ambition and our own exploration, especially just the group motivating itself, that we went to fashion weeks all over the world.
It’s a sort of synergy.
Exactly! There was no sense of competition or envy. For example, Ann was good at presentations so Dries wanted to improve his. That’s how it went. It was very friendly, we were always working together.
“At the end, fashion effectively is a circus.”
Can you spark that with your students?
Some years you do, some you don’t. It has to happen organically. For us it’s most important that students have their own voices. Some years you see that the students stick together, but sometimes they split up in smaller groups. We can’t package them.
I heard that some students here have their own interns. What’s that about?
That started with the Asian students. I don’t know why. I’ve never seen European students work this way. These interns are mostly people who can’t get in here. They want to gain more experience before reapplying.
I would feel upset as a hardworking student who can’t afford interns.
You shouldn’t be, we usually don’t know about these interns – it’s not like students take them to school. We judge your work as it is.
Perhaps those students deserve some slack too, managing people isn’t an easy job.
Perhaps, but we shouldn’t get caught up in these anomalies. It feels gossipy.
Craig Green worked with you and you’ve been quoted as saying that you taught him to voice himself. How do you get that out of people?
It happens naturally. People come to work here and find their voice, the same goes for Bernard Wilhelm. I think it’s due to the environment. We have a small team and lack much luxury; there isn’t an abundance of computers or machines. It’s a huge experience to not be overwhelmed by those in the fashion world, where money is so common. We prove that with creativity and believe, something is possible that can’t be purchased.
His graduate collection was incredibly controversial. Something you have been known for yourself. How much does your voice equal that of Craig Green? Or even your students?
My strong imagination really prevents me from being influenced. I try to view stuff from the student’s perspective as much as possible. At other schools teachers seem more dominant, like Vivienne Westwood: she makes little Westwoods all the time. With all due respect, because dominance isn’t easy to maintain, but that’s not how we do things here.
“We’re at a turning point in fashion where the old ways aren’t functioning any more, but the new ones aren’t either.”
But students still cry from time to time here, don’t they?
It’s only natural. Tears usually prove that there’s an acknowledgement, an understanding of something. If I see a student’s work is not there yet I demand more effort, research and work. They might cry in the process, but that’s nothing horrible.
Any WvB collection always seems to have a certain amount of provocation. Depictions of the phallus return often in your work. Do you ever back down?
But wait, I never think about shocking people. It’s more a problem for those who are shocked than it is for me. If I think I should show something… I do it.
Do you teach your students how to shock in the contemporary age of fashion?
We never speak in terms of shocking, we speak about experimenting and changing boundaries. I feel, and this is how I work with students, that over the years I changed a lot of boundaries – on gender, the link between male and female etc. It’s always about making a difference, which sometimes can be shocking. But shock value is never an objective. By no means.
Your last collection made remarks on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. How did that happen?
A part of that message was already there. I later added STOP TERRORISING OUR WORLD, which was something I actually made for the Winter 2006/2007 collection. Just ten days after what happened in Paris I decided it fitted well.
Do you condemn fashion houses which have lost their urge to speak out? I used to love Damir Doma, who over the years shifted towards a safer clientele. Is it really necessary to do that?
You should go and speak with him about that. Some designers choose for money and backing and then you can’t do ‘raw’ stuff anymore because it isn’t appreciated by your backers. It always has to do with the urge for money and, perhaps, possibilities.
What is your advice for young designers?
They shouldn’t be too money-grubbing. He probably knows that. These decisions give more possibilities but also way more limits. This process repeats itself indefinitely. These are hard choices everyone has to make.
“Kanye came to me for an internship.”
Students easily romanticise the idea of being taken up by a mega-conglomerate. Don’t they?
Students are fascinated by it! By the power these houses have. Those places are usually where they start out and learn a lot. Some get motivated to start their own business, others will want to stay there. Creative consultancy isn’t something you easily get to do. We have some talent scouts come over here and they usually decide who would be a good match for them.
Your husband, Dirk van Saene, once remarked you have the same unorthodox drive as Karl Lagerfeld. Karl’s work ethos comes at the price of complete isolation. He’s almost famous for his sense of detachment. Are you familiar with this artistic isolation?
Well I think he’s very happy. He chooses to be happy this way and that’s a great thing. He still enjoys doing all these projects and runways. I think it’s beautiful that that works out.
Your work is always described as very pop, while I’ve always noticed it’s more punk in the sense of anti-establishment and anti-convention.
I consider myself to be more punk than pop. Mainly so because I play with elements of punk-mentality: opposition, reactionary. It’s not so much in the visual: I’m way too colourful. Punk is never colourful, perhaps that makes me seem pop.
I used to go to school with kids who’d wear a Ramones shirt while not even knowing the word punk.
Well, iconic designs simply get translated to mainstream appeal. That’s how the mainstream works. People buy into a feeling and don’t know what it stands for anymore.
Punk fans are upset seeing their iconic band-shirts selling at fast fashion stores, yet fashion enthusiasts are stuck waiting in line to consume offerings such as Alexander Wang x H&M. Do you think that opposition is paradoxical?
I won’t be the first to say that those collaborations have to happen, but it does bring democratisation to fashion. It’s not even about the money for these designers. It’s about reaching an audience.
“If I see a student’s work is not there yet I demand more effort, research and work. They might cry in the process, but that’s nothing horrible.”
But just a year earlier you would see Wang’s iconic designs copied by H&M without any collaboration. It’s almost humiliating.
I don’t have any problem with those cheap clothes, but they shouldn’t be copied from other designers. I would love it if strong designers would come up to H&M to make their own collections under the H&M brand. H&M are already realizing they shouldn’t just interpret current tendencies. And here I do believe they have good intentions, which are not working out perfectly yet. But it will happen. Just watch.
We’re at a turning point in fashion where the old ways aren’t functioning anymore, but the new ones aren’t either. It’s just like in the eighties when there was a particular take on fashion. Just 10 years later it changed – and now it’s happening again.
How would you describe this change?
Evolution. It’s an evolution of communication. The change of communication is shifting fashion. How people treat images now (sending them around immediately) changes how we value and critique products.
Exactly! Your last collection played into this very well I believe. The backside of each piece was ‘undesigned’ simple calico.
Yes, yes, yes. The reference goes way back, in menswear in the 1800’s only the frontside of garments would be decorated to save money on the backside. That made me think of Style.com not showing backsides to clothing. I told Tim [Blanks, editor at Style.com – red.] that it was a direct response to the site. Creative clothing just doesn’t work very well on webshops or style.com. I’ve seen Comme des Garçons pieces not getting sold because the photography doesn’t show the genius of it.
Newspapers and printed press are a reoccurring theme in your work, like the ‘fashion is dead’ newspaper you handed out at a show. Last year Suzy Menkes wrote a popular op-ed on the fashion circus surrounding shows. Did you read it?
I think I read it.
Do you also find the amount of pea-cocking around shows vulgar?
There’s nothing vulgar here. It really doesn’t bother me. I like it, its expression and enthusiasm. Even if these bloggers get paid to wear some things. At the end, fashion effectively is a circus.
Bloggers judge something from a “Do I think it’s good” perspective while a journalist tries to answer “Is it good?”. Would you agree?
Yes, very much. Most bloggers with a serious passion for journalism move on from there. They apply at magazines and papers. Lidewij Edelkoort’s recent statement Fashion is Dead is very on point here. Everyone should read it.
How has this change of front-row guests, from fashion elites to bloggers had any effect on the production of fashion?
I try to work around all that. There are some things that don’t make sense here, like… it’s weird to see celebrities and bloggers get clothing for free, while they’re the ones who can afford it. But being in the industry for a while I can sense that it is a question of time. Eventually other people will fill the front-row. And there is nothing wrong with that. Fashion is constantly shifting and that’s what I like about it.
Words by Cesar Majorana
Photography by Charlotte Boeyden