When did you first arrive in Antwerp?
I actually applied to Antwerp twice, but I didn’t get in the first time.
Oh, that’s great, everybody loves a good comeback story!
[laughs] Exactly! I discovered the school in Antwerp when I was in high school and came to Paris for a masterclass in arts and fashion. We did a day trip to Antwerp and visited the MoMu where the graduate Mariel Manuel was presenting their work. I remember being completely blown away. I had never seen anything like it. I was just like – “What the hell is this? This is magical.” That’s when I became obsessed. There was this playful energy, something humorous. To me, Antwerp was always a feeling, an instinct I followed. Studying here wasn’t necessarily a rational decision based on the pedagogic qualifications of the school like it might have been for others.
However, I told myself I wasn’t ready yet, so I went to study in upstate New York first. I thought I had to do something more academic first. Then, after my first year at Cornell, I did an internship at the Antwerp designer store Ra with Romain Brau, so I came for a month and a half, and applied to the school… but got rejected.
“In the U.S., design always needed a purpose. But if you only focus on concepts it gets quite heavy, it distracts from the expression.” – Brandon Wen
Do you think it’s possible to describe what attracted you to Antwerp? What did this city have that you couldn’t find in New York or L.A.?
Because everyone was so focused on creativity, there was a very exciting view of fashion. In New York, things can get too serious. “Why are you doing this? Are you making things that have a meaning for society?” In the U.S., design always needed a purpose. But if you only focus on concepts it gets quite heavy, it distracts from the expression. To me, it was so cool that there was a place that was all about beauty, and not necessarily about function.
When I finished Cornell, we were going to Spain to visit family. One of my teachers suggested I visit Antwerp and the school again. So I was like – “Okay mommy, could I go stay with a friend and figure this out?”
Wait, “mommy” being your actual mother, or is this how you address your teachers?
[bursts with laughter] My actual mother!
Okay, just verifying.
I came to Paris for a month and started looking for work. It wasn’t easy, because people didn’t really understand the education I had in the U.S. A friend of mine was like, what about an MA? We were looking at MA’s in Paris, and suddenly I thought about Antwerp. I applied on a whim, got in, and ended up having this huge emotional reaction, so I realized – maybe this means more to me than I thought. Obviously, that ended up being the best decision ever.
“People often say European art education is too harsh, and there are aspects of it that are indeed too harsh, but there was a level of brutal honesty that was so foreign in the U.S., where everything is covered in politeness.” – Brandon Wen
When you say that, are you referring to your recent appointment, or are you thinking of your time studying?
Both, but my appointment helps to confirm that. The cosmic path that led me to where I want to be, to who I am as an artist. It opened me up entirely, in terms of working and in terms of understanding myself. There was a moment of self-awareness, and I realized this is what I love doing.
“With art education there is always a fine line – when are you conceptualizing and when are you bullshitting?” – Brandon Wen
I want to understand what that means to you – finding yourself as an artist.
People often say European art education is too harsh, and there are aspects of it that are indeed too harsh, but there was a level of brutal honesty that was so foreign in the U.S., where everything is covered in politeness. This level of honesty really helped me see myself, my work, and how I interacted with who I am. I learned what I’m bad at.
Sometimes the critiques could get very personal, but even then, it was helpful. In other places, teachers would be scared to make comments on your personality, but for me, it really helped me find out what I wanted to do.
Could you give an example?
My drawing teacher would always comment on my energy, and on the positive presence I brought to classes. My design wasn’t there yet, but there was something about my character that would bring out the design later. Before, no one had ever commented on my personality, in terms of how it related to my work, and that was so enlightening. I suddenly became aware of it, and it was something I could work with.
On the other side of the same coin, I also received some comments that were hurtful, because they were personal, but then I also learned to deal with that. The same teacher would also be the one to tell me when I didn’t put in the work that I should have. That was very shocking to hear the first time because I wasn’t used to it, but ultimately, it was so good for me. I was called out on my bullshit. With art education there is always a fine line – when are you conceptualizing and when are you bullshitting?
This is a very important debate, the one around criticism and it’s one we have at 1 Granary too. When are you empathizing, and when are you coddling and tiptoeing around someone’s feelings? This generation is known to struggle with harsh feedback and criticism. How do you plan to deal with that from an educational perspective?
I don’t know yet for myself where that line between nourishing and criticizing lies. I will find that out next year.
“I want to work with a new generation of creatives who know their self-worth and who know what they’re good at, and know that they can make a place for what they want to do.” – Brandon Wen
What are the moments where it goes too far?
I think it’s when the comments get too personal. When, as a teacher, you don’t understand the work, so you focus on the student. Sometimes that happens. When there is a lack of open-mindedness, which can come from both sides, the feedback is no longer about the work. Then you get the offhand comments about people’s personal habits and behaviours.
Miscommunication is also more likely to happen when there are cultural differences. What was your experience of that as a foreign student and will you take some of those experiences into your approach as a tutor?
You know, one of the “problems” I have, if I can call it that, is that I had a very positive experience here in Antwerp, so I don’t always have the mistakes to learn from. For me, it went very well, but it was because I had a good connection with all of my teachers. So my priority will always be to build a good rapport with the student first, so that misunderstandings are less likely to happen. You need to spend some time getting to know the student.
“Fantasy isn’t just this thing that exists for four years while you study and then it has to be tied up with a bow and put away.” – Brandon Wen
I want to go back to what you said about your studies in the U.S., that design always needs a purpose. Could you talk more about your need for creativity?
In the U.S. we understand art differently. Again, I preface this by saying that I love the U.S., but art is tempered with this need for business and efficiency, which is very American. Sometimes art needs the opposite of that, it needs more decadence and time. The U.S. is a place where you can do anything, as long as you have the research for it. As long as it’s justified, it’s good. Which is a very clean and scientific way of working. Have a thesis, prove it, and conclude it. But sometimes, you need to be able to go off on a feeling, and I think art and fashion benefit from that. You need to allow for humanness and mistakes.
I appreciate your point, it’s a defense of imperfection and messiness, something we desperately need in fashion! But if you’ll allow me to play devil’s advocate… At the end of the day, our industry is incredibly business-minded, and structured around efficiency. Isn’t there a risk that this system will swallow graduates whole if they aren’t sufficiently prepared to recognise that? Could this total dedication to creativity not render them naïve? How do you see this bridge from university to industry?
My dream would be to create a space where creativity is nurtured, as it has been for the past 60 years, but where graduates also have a space to explore that outside of the academy. That fantasy isn’t just this thing that exists for four years while you study and then it has to be tied up with a bow and put away.
During my internships after graduation, I met a lot of people doing not-fashion things or fashion-related things. It was so empowering to see people do creative things in different ways. You realise there is space for creativity, but you need to look for that and create a space for it. I want to work with a new generation of creatives who know their self-worth and who know what they’re good at, and know that they can make a place for what they want to do.
“It’s nice to make students aware of that ‒ it’s not because you don’t become a designer that you haven’t made it.” – Brandon Wen
I feel like that is also one of the strengths of the school, the many ways creativity is explored outside of clothes: painting, illustration, ceramics… However, this does tend to disappear during the final show, which is more traditional. Perhaps it’s a bit too early to talk about end-of-year presentations, but do you have an idea about how you would like to approach this?
I agree with you, but I am a purist. I love fashion, I love a collection, I love a show with a catwalk. I don’t think we need to rethink the entire system. There are ways in which we can innovate, but I don’t think it’s necessary to get rid of the beautiful traditions we have. I do want to keep an open mind to how we can present the work in a way that helps the audience connect to it more.
When I graduated, I thought you had to either work for a brand or start your own, that those were your only options. Then after the first eight months of graduating, I saw so many different possibilities. It’s nice to make students aware of that ‒ it’s not because you don’t become a designer that you haven’t made it.
“When I graduated, I thought you had to either work for a brand or start your own, that those were your only options.” – Brandon Wen
I notice you’re very careful with your words…
I tend to be a very casual person, I feel very comfortable, but I don’t want to make any comments that could misrepresent the school or my colleagues. I wouldn’t want to say something that I haven’t fully considered beyond me.
You’re no longer a student having a glass of red wine after school.
Exactly! [laughs] It’s easy to have an opinion about something you haven’t contributed to yet.
“As a student, there are things that you wait for the industry to do, and it’s very empowering to realise that I don’t have to wait anymore, I can just do things. That’s very exciting.” – Brandon Wen
As someone who was a student not too long ago, do you feel the responsibility to incorporate some of the feedback of your peers into your direction at the school?
Well, that has actually been a little bit frustrating. People will come to me and expect everything to change drastically next September, but you can’t come into an institute like a wrecking ball. You have to understand why things are the way they are before you can change them. Of course, as a student, there are things that you wait for the industry to do, and it’s very empowering to realise that I don’t have to wait anymore, I can just do things. That’s very exciting.
“When they take time to get to know the student and are able to understand their universe, understand the work from the student’s point of view. That was always important.” – Brandon Wen
Talking about changing things, there is an exercise that students feel increasingly dissatisfied with – the ethnical costume. [3d year BA exercise where students are asked to recreate a typical costume or dress]
Oh my god, of course.
Are you aware of the critique?
It was during my studies that those criticisms became more vocal, and not just a general malaise. I do find myself at a crossroads about it. Costumes are important, they can mean very specific things to certain cultures and need to be treated with a lot of care and a lot of dignity. However, my personal feeling is that cultural appropriation is part of how culture builds and evolves. Things can be mistranslated or misunderstood, but then it evolves into something else for somebody else.
I think this exercise, called World Costume now, can be an extremely eye-opening moment. For me, cultural appropriation is problematic when it’s done without any regard for the subject matter that is being treated. And I think that this exercise is the opposite of that. You spend several months getting to know a costume, where it comes from, and its context. It’s a way to learn more about the tradition of garment making, and in that sense, it’s extremely important and it’s crucial we study that. If that inspires a student in their personal work, I think that’s beautiful. That’s design. That’s not just copy-pasting another culture and claiming it as your own.
“I hope that I can bring the focus back to studio time.” – Brandon Wen
That’s a good point! Thinking back on your own experience as a student, what makes a good teacher?
When they take time to get to know the student and are able to understand their universe, understand the work from the student’s point of view. That was always important. But also, just being fun to be around. When the teacher was there because they enjoyed themselves and wanted to be there, that made such a difference. Of course, that varies from student to student, but having fun is really important to the creative process, it improves the work. It makes such a difference when you feel free. So I hope I can contribute to that too, creating a more fun environment.
How would you practically do that?
I hope that I can bring the focus back to studio time. Because of COVID, school started feeling like a series of consultancy appointments, where you came in for your tutoring only. I want to make sure we fully take advantage of the time we have together, to make the school feel like an open lab.
That sounds great, Brandon, best of luck on your first day!