Representing the creative future

A.F. Vandevorst on why you should take investors as a young company

Whenever young designers expect world fame after their brand has received good press for its first two seasons, it’s always good to keep in mind the lessons that established brands can offer. Like those of Belgian designer duo An Vandevorst and Philip Arickx, who started their brand A.F. Vandevorst in 1997, worked their asses off (‘we were even afraid to go on holiday — ‘can we really do this? leave the company?’) for more than a decade, and realised that the work gets easier and better when somebody else is dealing with the business side. Young talent, take note and learn from one of Antwerp’s best fashion houses, who put storytelling first and reassure that it’s OK to trust others.


What has changed for you in the past 15 years?

Filip Arickx: The speed changed.

An Vandervorst: The speed is very high, but on the other hand you see that because of the economy, manufacturers and fabric suppliers work with less people. So the time to make the collection is longer. That’s really a big difference. In the beginning it all went much faster. It now takes almost double the time to develop the fabrics.

Filip: They also work with less stock.

An: Before, they would already be weaving the fabric but they didn’t dye it. So they already bought the yarns and started weaving. Now they don’t take stock anymore so they just weave on demand; then they have to still order their yarns. In the beginning I didn’t get it and it was really frustrating. Sometimes you’d think ‘oh they probably took a bigger client in priority to us’. But yeah, that’s not true. Now the person who did the following-up also does the selling and fabric control.

You now have a business partner — does this mean you’ve got the freedom to fully focus on the creative side?

An: Yes, for us everything changed in a positive way because of the investor. Before they came on board we had to think about so many things, like staff and payments.

A.F. Vandevorst SS99

Did it limit your creative capacities?

An: In the beginning we wanted to do it in our own way, the Belgian way.

What is the Belgian way?

An: The independent way. If we see how the company is structured now, we think: why didn’t we do this much earlier? Before, we were even afraid to go on holiday — ‘can we really do this? go on holiday? leave the company?’

Filip: Now it’s much more relaxed and fun in the office.

An: They also cut on the people, so our staff became smaller. In the beginning we were very afraid of it, thinking we’d have to work double as hard. The people who stayed also panicked. But after two years, we now all see the benefit of it. They found solutions to do things with less people. We could open a store… They are very dynamic and that’s nice, they don’t interfere for 1 centimetre of a hemline. They interfere 0% in the creative process. They say: we don’t know anything about creativity, we only know about business. The investors also didn’t know anything about fashion.

A.F. Vandevorst AW98


What advise can you give young people on that business aspect and finding the right partner to work with?

An: You never know. We also hear so many stories where people think they found the right business partner, but after one year it’s a complete nightmare. Unfortunately you cannot do a test. Most of the time when investors are coming, everything goes quite quick. Once they start investing, they want to move on.

Did you have offers earlier?

An: Not really, we also weren’t open for it. We weren’t looking for it, so we didn’t see or hear about an opportunity. Our investors are four brothers, they like art and creativity but they are not creative themselves. They like to be surrounded by creative people. They decided to start a holding, so they’re now also investing in other brands. They hired some people that have fashion experience to do the consulting for them — so that somebody could explain how the business works.

Business aside — could you tell me about a fond memory of your creative collaborations?

Filip: Ivo van Hove, he’s a great director — a huge one in Belgium and The Netherlands. He’s going to work together with David Bowie. We also did the costumes for Alice in Bed, the Susan Sontag play — then in the end we met Susan Sontag.

An: Stephen Jones was also really nice…

Filip: You have something in mind for yourself, because you know what your input in a collaboration can and will be. But you don’t see, for 100%, what the influence will be from the other person. Stephen Jones is a great hat maker, and we go there and explain a little bit about what we want, and then you say, ‘ok Stephen, go!’ and two weeks later he comes with amazing ideas…

An: It’s also very nice to work with him because he’s such a wise guy. His background is incredible. He does the hats for all the top designers, all the big houses worldwide. Rei Kawakubo, Dior… So with our last show it was a complete chaos with the paint and everything. We were a bit afraid of what he might think, but he was always like: ’this is real rock and roll, guys!’.

What music are you listening to a lot now?

Filip: Blixa Bargeld. He’s the one we named our company after.

An: He stopped his band for a while, for a reason which I still don’t know. Some Belgian people asked Blixa, who is German — to create a music piece on the war, so he decided to do it again with his band Einstürzende Neubauten. He made a record out of it, so now he’s touring again. It’s really nice because before he did some side project which was very extreme, freaky.

Did you like the extreme and freaky?

Yes, but I also missed the beat and the rhythm. I’m happy that they restarted.

A.F. Vandevorst SS00


How do you find that within fashion: if a musician stops, nobody else will make music under his/her name, but if a designer stops, it’s easy for a different person to step in.

An: I don’t think it’s very easy to do. It’s also the big difference between fashion, art, and music: fashion is a brand.

Filip: I don’t like it that much. I also compare it with when Picasso died: nobody had any intention to buy the name and continue. Credibility is very linked to that discipline. It’s true that ours is much more about ‘product’, it’s much more commercial. It’s not an industry, the painting side. It’s true that it’s possible that they can continue under the name and just change things. They can continue under the name of Picasso but paint like Monet. But where is the credibility? Where is the sense? That bothers me a bit, but on the other hand we can’t be pretentious. We’re not painters, we’re not artists. Although why it bothers me, is that — it’s my personal reason — I like the artistic side of fashion so much. McQueen was an artist. They can continue McQueen, but they can’t fool McQueen.

How do you feel about it if you’d place yourself in that position? You have investors now, if you’d disappear, would you want the brand to continue?

Filip: I don’t care. It’s our thing now, I don’t know, I don’t need a statue. Whatever happens afterwards… I think I want to enjoy it now and it might be the case that the investors think: we have that name now, we have to do something with it.

An: I think I would find it weird. Anyhow, I would be curious what the other person would do. I don’t think I could say: I’m not going to look at it.  I think I’d be too curious. Sometimes someone can surprise you, so it doesn’t have to always be negative.

Filip: I would feel uncomfortable.

An: But you just said that you don’t care.

Filip: I should feel uncomfortable by seeing other designs…

A.F. Vandevorst SS99


Do you look at what other people are doing? Do you follow the news?

An: We follow what other designers do. Not in detail, but I think it’s nice to see what everybody’s doing, when all the shows are done. It’s always interesting.

Filip: And the gossip!

An: We always work in contrast. Maybe that’s because we’re man-and-wife, or masculine-feminine. We always twist a garment. When it’s a feminine garment, it will always have a twist that makes it masculine or different, not just too pretty. We don’t like too pretty.

Filip: Pretty, that might be a negative word for us. Sometimes we think about what’s negative: pretty is negative. Or the use of ‘interesting’. You’d go to a gallery and ask somebody at the end what they thought and they say: it was interesting.

An: Or, ‘yeah there were some nice works’.

Filip: With friends, we always have this game in the evening: when you’re dead what is it that you really don’t want people saying about you? One word. For me it’s: sweet. Can you imagine? You’re like 60 years old and they say, ‘oh he was so sweet’. You don’t want to be sweet.

If you would have one advice for young designers who now starting their own brands, what would it be?

An: Don’t be afraid and just go for it. You hear so many things about that it’s hard to start, etcetera. Really, there is still room for creative people. If you have a nice story to tell, people will pick it up. Just do it. Don’t be afraid. Focus on this and nothing else, and it will happen. We hear this many times: ‘what do you think? it’s such a difficult time, the economy is very difficult…’ But every time has its problems. There is always a crisis somewhere. For such a long time they’ve been saying it’s a crisis, so if you’re waiting until it’s over, you’ll wait forever.

Filip: The best advice from my side is that it’s team work. Make sure that the team around you is strong. In Belgian you say: the team is as strong as its weakest team member. Don’t try to do it on your own and think you’re going to conquer the world.