WAL­TER VAN BEIRENDONCK

Fas­ci­na­tion and rit­u­als

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Stephen Crafti

Bel­gian fash­ion de­signer Wal­ter Van Beirendonck quickly de­flects the word ‘ob­ses­sion’. “I don’t think I should talk about ob­ses­sions but rather fas­ci­na­tions or rit­u­als,” says Van Beirendonck, who cites a list of rit­u­als that are con­tin­u­ally drawn into his world: an­i­mal, eth­nic, folk and art rit­u­als to the darker side, in­clud­ing sado­masochis­tic and voodoo rit­u­als. Both of these di­men­sions are played out in his col­lec­tions. Men in skin-tight la­tex com­plete with out­stretched la­tex penises are jux­ta­posed with men in corseted gar­ments. Those who saw Wal­ter Van Beirendonck’s 2011 fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tion, Dream the World Awake, shown at the Fash­ion Mu­seum in An­twerp, would have seen this du­al­ity come to life. “Most cre­ative peo­ple are ob­sessed with some­thing,” adds Van Beirendonck.

“As a young­ster, I was al­ways fas­ci­nated by David Bowie. It re­ally started with his Ziggy Star­dust look,” says Van Beirendonck, who was im­me­di­ately drawn to the an­drog­y­nous char­ac­ter Bowie cre­ated in the early 1970s. It wasn’t just Bowie’s dis­tinc­tive jagged flame-red hair or out­landish makeup that cap­ti­vated Van Beirendonck, but rather the singer’s words and de­liv­ery. “I loved his looks and the way he com­mu­ni­cated fash­ion through im­age and mu­sic.” Bowie’s highly in­di­vid­u­al­ist ap­pear­ance in­trin­si­cally linked both fash­ion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “I fol­lowed Bowie through his en­tire ca­reer. You could say it was an ob­ses­sion. But it’s more about sim­ply hav­ing an enor­mous re­spect for such a cre­ative ge­nius.”

Van Beirendonck has al­ways been fas­ci­nated by the world around him, par­tic­u­larly in the char­ac­ters he meets. In Fash­ion! An­twerp! Academy! 50 years of Fash­ion Academy, the book that marked the fifty year an­niver­sary of the An­twerp Fash­ion Academy, lead­ing fash­ion jour­nal­ist Suzie Menkes wrote, “Van Beirendonck’s fourth year col­lec­tion book (as a stu­dent) took ‘in­sects’ as its theme and na­ture—its im­por­tance, its en­dan­gered sit­u­a­tion and the power of its shape and colour—has been in­trin­sic to his work.”

Char­ac­ters have con­tin­ued to in­spire Van Beirendonck’s col­lec­tions, in­clud­ing toys and crea­tures that have been abun­dant in his work. “I al­ways work in a highly spon­ta­neous way—from my gut. But I’ve al­ways had a strong imag­i­na­tion and love it when there’s an explosion of ideas,” says Van Beirendonck. Many de­signs push the bound­aries of men’s fash­ion. Bearded mod­els, in Van Beirendonck like­ness, reg­u­larly walk down the cat­walk wear­ing un­der­wear with a sig­na­ture ‘W’ em­bla­zoned upon their crotch. Other de­signs lit­er­ally en­case the wearer, with phal­lic-like ex­ten­sions pro­trud­ing from head to toe. “I’m al­ways ques­tion­ing the con­di­tioned way of think­ing. I love ex­per­i­ment­ing with shape, colour and so­cial codes. You of­ten find this method in the con­text of women’s fash­ion,” says Van Beirendonck.

The de­signer’s col­lec­tions seem to have re­sponded to all facets of life over the decades. Avatars, aliens, African war­riors, Ja­panese geishas, sadism and masochism prac­ti­tion­ers, techno fairy­tale char­ac­ters and cy­ber cul­ture all find their way into Van Beirendonck’s imag­i­na­tion. While phal­lic sym­bols are in­te­grated into some of his col­lec­tions, so are other el­e­ments from his fan­tasy world, in­clud­ing mush­rooms; clouds, stars and moons; snakes, bears, rab­bits and other an­i­mals. Nu­dity, in­clud­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the de­signer fully nude, is also likely to be ex­pressed in var­i­ous guises. “Sex is part of this world. It’s not an ob­ses­sion. It’s just part of the broader state of mind,” says Van Beirendonck.

When asked about some of the strong­est in­flu­ences and those that have shaped his fash­ion world, Van Beirendonck is care­ful about his choice of words. “In­flu­ence is the wrong word in the fash­ion world. I’m fas­ci­nated—not ob­sessed—by con­tem­po­rary artists such as Paul Mccarthy, Mike Kel­ley, Folk­ert de Jong, and artists such as Grayson Perry. But that doesn’t mean I copy their ideas in my work. It’s more about the way their work opens up my mind and al­lows me to think and fan­ta­sise.”

In his fan­tasy world, good and evil com­pete within a land­scape where a Bo­li­vian-style devil mask or Darth Vader mask adorned with in­sects is not un­usual. “It re­ally could be any idea that starts up my fan­tasy world. Most of the time, I’m very spon­ta­neous and re­search every­thing that in­spires me at the time. When I fi­nally have the con­tent in my head, it’s only at that point that I di­vert to my sketch pad,” says Van Beirendonck, who adds that each col­lec­tion is a learn­ing process. “You want to con­stantly push your own bound­aries. Each col­lec­tion is like start­ing from some­thing that’s new,” he adds. And while some of Van Beirendonck’s col­lec­tions have stood out, some of his great­est fan­tasies live on, not only in his mind, but also with the broader pub­lic con­scious­ness.

When asked to nom­i­nate col­lec­tions that have res­onated for sev­eral years, Van Beirendonck cites ‘Revo­lu­tion, Sex Clown, Lust Never Sleeps and Home Sweet Home as some of his piv­otal fash­ion mo­ments. “You al­ways want to cre­ate the best thing pos­si­ble. And with each col­lec­tion, you be­come more ma­ture and ideas are eas­ier to con­cep­tu­alise,” says Van Beirendonck. One of Van Beirendonck’s mem­o­rable im­ages is of him­self wear­ing a pointed red hat with a T-shirt em­bla­zoned with the words: ‘where I live, there are rain­bows’ (taken for the Fairy­tale col­lec­tion in 2006). “It’s how I think about fash­ion and dream­ing. Dream­ing is a strong tool to fight your de­mons and the world’s prob­lems. I’ll con­tinue to dream.”

The Revo­lu­tion col­lec­tion from Au­tumn/win­ter 2001-2002 in­ge­niously evoked the 18th cen­tury dandy gen­tle­man. The shirt col­lars and neck­ties were highly ex­ag­ger­ated—al­most apron-like in their pro­por­tions. A ba­sic starched shirt was sub­verted by com­bin­ing it with bondage gear to cre­ate a con­trast­ing aes­thetic. While the pro­por­tions of the Revo­lu­tion col­lec­tion were highly ex­ag­ger­ated, Van Beirendonck fur­ther sought to em­pha­sise these dis­tor­tions by clash­ing polka dot­ted ties with ging­ham shirts. Tapestry-style coat jack­ets, rem­i­nis­cent of the 1970s, were also added as the per­fect foil for the wild shirt -and-tie com­bi­na­tions. “I’ve al­ways felt com­fort­able clash­ing ideas and pat­terns to­gether. Our world is re­ally a huge clash in it­self,” says Van Beirendonck.

The cre­atives who work closely with Van Beirendonck, in­clud­ing Bri­tish milliner Stephen Jones (fea­tured in Is­sue 2), share the de­signer’s abil­ity to move into worlds where other de­sign­ers fear to tread. Jones has been de­sign­ing hats for Van Beirendonck since 1997. “At the time, Wal­ter was gain­ing no­to­ri­ety not only for his clothes, but for the way in which they were shown: on gi­ant el­e­va­tors, in the Paris Lido and, most ex­cit­ing for me, with out­ra­geous head­gear,” says Jones. “My imag­i­na­tion soared and I was thrilled to be one of the new acts in Wal­ter’s crazy world,” adds Jones.

Ob­ses­sion does creep into the con­ver­sa­tion when men­tioned with the word beauty—par­tic­u­larly in as­so­ci­a­tion with his 1998 win­ter col­lec­tion, A Fetish for Beauty—“We are now so over­whelmed by im­ages of dead peo­ple, war, dis­as­ter, and killing, that we’ve lost the sen­si­bil­ity for beauty, an in­cred­i­ble and im­por­tant sen­si­bil­ity for hu­man be­ings. Every­body has the right to en­joy beauty,” says Van Beirendonck, who also sees the beauty when ideas clash around him. “I’m al­ways keen to re­flect this chaotic world in my col­lec­tions.”

Van Beirendonck con­tin­ues to chal­lenge tra­di­tional con­cepts in fash­ion. In a sense, his ‘re­flec­tion’ or ‘ob­ses­sion’ to make us think about fash­ion hasn’t changed dra­mat­i­cally since the time his first col­lec­tion was pre­sented in Lon­don, along­side his Bel­gian com­rades. “What has pro­gressed since that time is the ad­vance­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. When we were in Lon­don with the An­twerp Six, we were com­mu­ni­cat­ing with only Lon­don. Now, you’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing your ideas with the en­tire world, a huge dif­fer­ence for the fash­ion world,” says Van Beirendonck. And whether the word ob­ses­sion is used or not, ac­cord­ing to Van Beirendonck, “cre­ative peo­ple are al­ways ob­sessed with some­thing. I would say that it is com­pletely nor­mal”.

Photo by Dan Lecca. Copy­right Wal­ter Van Beirendonck. Photo by Fred­erik Ver­cruysse. Copy­right Wal­ter Van Beirendonck. Photo by Dan Lecca. Copy­right Wal­ter Van Beirendonck.

Photo by Dan Lecca. Copy­right Wal­ter Van Beirendonck.

Photo by Jean-bap­tise Mondino. Copy­right Wal­ter Van Beirendonck.

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