Jan-Jan van Essche: the fashion designer embracing slowness
Talking with Jan-Jan van Essche in a tiny courtyard at the back of his Solar Shop in Antwerp — in which one can buy collected objects of desire as well as his clothing — is like being pushed into a meditative state. On day two of a trip to the Belgian city, I meet the fashion designer who takes a very craft-based and non-seasonal approach to creating garments with soul and longevity, and it takes a mental effort to adapt to his stillness when living and working in a city as fast-paced as London. His long dreadlocks are draped on the table between us, on which a glass of water stands, and a phone. Halfway through the conversation, his friend Charlotte Koopman — a chef who creates food in Het Bos that tastes as soulful as Jan-Jan’s clothes (a testimony: we ate it) — pops in and out of a kitchen at the very back of the shop. The conversation we had on one of the hottest days of the year, while both wearing black, follows below.
“GROWTH IS ALSO NOT AN EASY THING IF YOU HAVE TO PRE-PRODUCE YOUR COLLECTIONS. MOST BUSINESSES THAT FAIL CAN BLAME IT ON GROWING TOO FAST.”
What is growth for you, because I know that a lot of people see growth and success as something in which you go from one million profit to five, to ten, to fifty million; selling in more stores…
Growth would be, ideally, to be able to do more experiments next to what we do now — the collection. Getting it done sometimes asks a lot… There are things that I cannot start doing. I would love to do more, I guess it’s almost like couture, the hand-made stuff. We have weaving looms, we have spinning wheels that we haven’t touched. Handwork and really building stuff is what I love to do. We make all the patterns and the first prototypes in the studio; that goes to the factory and they make the showroom prototypes. To have more means of time to do things more profoundly would be a dream. I would love to have a studio where there’s a dyeing station, a weaving lab, a knitting lab, and in the meantime I can do my patterns and my strong points. I would love to have a few more stores, but I don’t need to conquer the world in that sense. Growth is also not an easy thing if you have to pre-produce your collections. Most businesses that fail can blame it on growing too fast. You cannot breach the cash-flow, so it’s better to grow slowly in that sense, I think. I’m not such a politician, but the main cause of that is our ‘growth economy’. I think we need to find a steady economy instead of an economy that needs to grow to be successful. If I look at myself, I should also find a business plan that is successful if it doesn’t keep on growing. You need to find a steady ground in that, also because I make specific things that I don’t think will cater to the whole world. I don’t want it to be the next staple look for everybody. Who loves it can have it, but not all men feel comfortable in these things.
Dries van Noten once mentioned that he was fine with the way things go within his company— why would he need to be bought by a big conglomerate which means he’ll have to make more collections and maybe earn more, but have less of a quality of life?
I totally understand. I know a little bit about Dries’ company, I worked there as a student in the stock when I was sixteen. I think his business is one that’s really admirable, when you consider the size of it, and the fact that he manages it all himself. I mean, they have a gigantic impact, but he still controls it. It’s still really his collection; I can only admire the way he works and the way he built it up.
When you were a student at the academy— I read that your transformation there was quite big from start to finish. What do you think was your biggest key change?
I grew up there— I started when I was 19. I’m now also teaching and when I see my students it’s like a mirror. I was also this kid. You grow up in this school… In school I really found the start of how I work now. In the second year you have to make a replica of a historical silhouette, and I did a Madeleine Vionnet design but an early one of the twenties — not the Hollywood-look, but really the Charleston-look. It was an eyeopener for me to see what you can do with a square if you just drape it nicely. Then the two years after, the third and the Masters year, I really learnt how to build up a collection from that. I think that the seeds for how I work now were planted then. My foundation is there, quite clearly.
“CREATIVITY TO ME IS ABOUT INSIGHT, LIFTING IT UP AND USING WHAT IS THERE, BUT REINTERPRETING IT AND PUTTING IT ON THE TABLE IN A NEW WAY. CLEANING OUT, GETTING TO THE CORE OF IT.”
What is a creative mind for you, and how do you approach creative collaborations?
I don’t collaborate so much with other people. I do try to give my interns, for instance, a lot of liberty to give their own input; I ask a lot of questions and I doubt about a lot of things during the process. I’m a lot about communicating and building things together, I’m not a dictator in that sense. In the end, it’s me who decides, but I really try to have the process as open as possible, and if you then meet people who understand the approach you’re searching for— that’s fantastic. If you can bounce back… Creativity to me is about insight, lifting it up and using what is there, but reinterpreting it and putting it on the table in a new way. Cleaning out, getting to the core of it.
You say you have almost too many ideas to actually execute. How do you select what is more of a ‘priority’?
First of all, what you would really like to see first. Sometimes also through the process, when things don’t come out of the production like you’d want them to, you don’t put them out there yet. Also the coherence of a collection sometimes tells you to leave a chapter waiting for a next time. It’s an organic process. I start drawing without thinking.
Yes, I just really draw for the fun of drawing. Then I see what is there and what kind of feeling the looks have, then I try to combine it with pattern principles and the ideas that I have already thought of developing. These things fall together and that becomes the concept of the next collection. I don’t have a story or an image of something particular — I have my muses and my algorithms, but they’re constant over all the collections.
“IF YOU GIVE MEN A JUMPSUIT THAT FEELS LIKE A DRESS, THERE’S NOTHING HOLDING THEM TOGETHER. SOME GET REALLY LOST.”
What is your idea of comfort and why do you think it’s not so present in the discourse of fashion? It’s much about power statuses, or transforming the body in a different kind of way, but not really about ‘letting it be’ in a natural way.
I haven’t worked enough like that to be able to decipher that, but I know that I look more confident when I feel more comfortable. I know that I will be more at ease when I know that my clothes won’t obstruct me, and that the feeling on the inside is relaxed. I think being able to move the way your body wants to move is important. Walking in shoes that are a size too small, or having a blazer which is cut too sharp under the arms… These kinds of things really bother me every second of the day when I feel it, so I cannot imagine making things that do that somehow. I felt this openness and comfort in more ethnicl and folkloric kinds of shapes, but also in the Vionnet structure I mentioned earlier. However, I think that you do sometimes really want something structured to hold yourself together. I totally understand the blazer or leather trousers but there are other people who are better at making them. In my work I really try to make something comfortable without making it look shabby or slouchy. It has to look refined.
There’s a fine line.
Yes, it’s often just changing the fabric, or the finishing. It’s about details and finding a balance in all that. A lot of it is equalising, a bit more of this; a little less of that.
It’s the final mixing of a song.
Yes, music is always my first inspiration. I cannot work without music, and all my collections are named after songs.
What is the biggest difference in when you work with or without music?
It’s much more enjoyable, and you need some rhythm to keep on going. If I’m hearing music I stop thinking too much. It can really annoy me when it’s too silent— sometimes you need it. I mean, when I’m drawing, I’m dancing. I need to have that kind of joy in the process. It’s hard enough to keep it fun, there are enough things to make it not funny.
“JAPAN HAS THIS THING FOR QUALITY AND NOT SETTLING FOR MEDIUM BUT WANTING TO DO IT BETTER. “
I am interested in the inhibition of movement within clothes and how that informs the behaviour of people. How do you see the difference in this aspect between men and women? Because with women it’s easily visible…
Women have a more extreme alphabet to do these things with. You go from flip-flops to high heels and you have skirts in all lengths and trousers in all sizes, and then there are much more things that women can wear than men. So women react to it more with knowledge, somehow, they know more that there’s a difference between denim and a dress, and they are more used to playing with it. Men— if you give them a jumpsuit that feels like a dress, like there’s nothing holding them together. Some get really lost.
They freak out?
They almost freak out, they jump a hole in the air of enjoyment. “I have no obstruction, I feel free!” The funny thing is that when I’m in the shop and they’re trying on my things, or when I see them in the showroom, the first thing they do is moving. They throw their arms around or they do a few steps back and forth. I think it’s very important to be able to move the way you want to move. I love the confidence some women are showing when they wear the perfect pair of heels with a perfect dress, but I try to add something to that spectrum which is also refined. I’ve always thought about movement in clothes, it’s super important.
I know you’re quite inspired by the Japanese as well.
I love the thing they were/are able to express. It’s a certain vision on reality that I really love. But even more so, the traditional Japanese clothing inspires me and the architecture, food, ceramics — I mean, the whole aesthetic and the fact that they have such an eye for detail and that they are non-compromising.
Do you think most Western designers are compromising?
I’m not the right person to ask, I don’t know most Western designers. Sometimes when you see a garment Made in Japan, the level of finishing is just another thing. Japan has this thing for quality and not settling for medium but wanting to do it better. Look at what they did with denim, they copied it and improved it. They copy something that exists but then do it in the best way they can think of.
They do it with whiskey as well.
Yeah, whiskey, reggae music, jazz. They have this tendency but they get away with it often, and that’s really cool I think. But people like Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons, and certainly Miyake have for sure inspired me next to the Antwerp School of designers. It’s a bit like my starting point, and I’m super honoured to be selling next to some of those people. I still sometimes feel like ‘wake up, it’s happening!’ I’m pinching myself every now and then.
“NOTHING ENDS BEFORE YOU STOP.”
It seems like Antwerp is on a different level — it’s got a different rhythm in how it moves in comparison with maybe other cities. It seems more ‘outside of schedule’, and not too worried about being part of ‘the game’ and making six collections per year.
Ah yes but that’s maybe also because most of the Belgian companies are still independent. We have quite a down to earth mentality — we’re not shouting ‘look at me’. I think if you go into it, it will have more practical reasons. I think it’s enough to do two collections per year…
Nobody needs as many clothes as there are being brought out.
The weird thing is that everybody says it but it still happens, so who is deciding this and who is buying it, I don’t know? But I’m happy I don’t have to deal with those kinds of things. You don’t need so many clothes… And you also want to have your previous clothes seen, and if it’s already snowed under by next…
Young designers might worry about being ‘part of the game’ while it doesn’t necessarily have any longevity to it.
Nothing ends before you stop. I sometimes also panic about not having enough publicity or that people won’t know that I’m out there— sometimes you have these things in the back of your head; the things you need to do because they are happening. On the other hand, there also is reality. I wish to not ever do seasons, but if you bring winter stuff to the summer’s week, you’ll just not sell it. There’s the ideal, there’s the reality and somewhere in between they meet. But I do think that within schools, the amount of students that will become an independent designer is not so big, but all the other ones have value in the fashion world too, and I think it should be more emphasised that we’re a group of people making an industry, not just the top names. They’re of course the billboards, but it doesn’t mean the other ways don’t have value. What I’ve learnt in the five years that I’ve been doing my collections is that if you stick to what you know and you work from your belly and your heart, you will most probably arrive somewhere.
Words and photography Jorinde Croese