ANTWERP - Ann Demeuemeester, one of the few successful independent fashion designers
today, hates talking about celebrities. "Even if I see them in my
clothes, I would never tell anyone," she says. That does not mean
that celebrities do not wear her meticulously crafted garments. "I
want to wish a Happy Birthday to my dear friend, Ann Demeulemeester," says
Patti Smith during her famous annual concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York
City. "Who?" a drunken man next to me asks. "She is
a fashion designer," I reply. The man stares at me blankly.
"Never mind," I turn around. And that's just the way I like to
think of Demeulemeester, my unsung hero, the further away from the public, the
closer to me.
Like Patti Smith, Demeulemeester is an incorrigible romantic. In the world
where self-deprecating irony has triumphed and people are mortally afraid of
being serious, she is as intrepid and earnest in her words as she is in her
work. She loves music, from which she draws so much inspiration that fashion
critics often label her dark, moody clothes as punk or rock and roll.
"It's always limiting to put a label on someone's work," says
Demeulemeester in a low, but confident voice, her English punctured with the
French "Voila!" whenever she finishes her train of thought.
"At a certain point in my career I was influenced by this type of music
and the freedom it symbolized. Music was quite present in my fashion
shows, but there is much more to it. The most important thing about my work
is communicating emotion through my garments. Sure, music helps
accentuate certain feelings. The risk is, as I realize now, is that music
can take away attention from the clothes. I never had the idea of making
a rock and roll or a punk collection. Punk was a big part of my culture
when I was eighteen, just like certain poets and artists are a part of my
culture. It's an exchange of energy, but I get it from many sources, not
just rock. I love classical music, too." These days
Demeulemeester listens to The Cowboy Junkies, PJ Harvey, and Nick Cave, and she
makes the soundtracks for all her shows in a music studio herself.
Demeulemeester was born in a small Belgian town, Waregem (in 2001 she became
its honorary citizen). She enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in
Antwerp at the age of 18. This was the time when the Belgian government
was heavily promoting fashion in order to help the country?s textile
industry. The fashion program was not experimental as it is today ?
Demeulemeester recalls quarreling with her teachers who wanted her to imitate
Coco Chanel. In 1982, with the help of the textile industry, the Academy
set up the Golden Spindle Award in order to promote local talent.
Demeulemeester won the first competition. She still has a close relationship
to the industry that is now dying out all over Western Europe. "I've
always tried to produce in Belgium ? not because I am chauvinistic, but because
I think it is right to support the businesses in your own country,"
explains Demeulemeester. "What I couldn't do here I did in Italy.
Some of the manufacturers are still in business because they produce clothes
for Belgian designers. Still, it's very difficult for them now, because
they have trouble finding skilled workers and production has become very expensive.
We are trying to move production to other European countries, but we do it
slowly. We test heavily before we commit
to manufacturing somewhere new."
Demeulemeester burst onto the fashion scene in 1986. Along with her five
fellow students she took her collection to the London Fashion Week, showing it
in a small stall. Their success was instant (Barneys ordered
Demeulemeester?s entire collection on the spot). As critical acclaim
piled on, these youngsters out of Belgium, a country back then known for
anything but fashion, were dubbed ?The Antwerp Six? ? a term that was born because the fashion reporters were not used to
Belgian names (someone asked Demeulemeester if she could change hers). Today,
the term has become a fashion legend. Although every one of the six
(Dries van Noten and Walter van Bierendonck, among others) had a different
style, a phenomenon known as Belgian fashion was born. Demeulemeester is still referred
to as ?a Belgian designer,? although one would be hard pressed to say what is
Belgian about her work. Like some of her fellows, she decided to remain
in Antwerp instead of moving to Paris or Milan (she shows in Paris). She
spends most of the time working in her atelier, which is adjacent to her Le
Corbusier built house outside of Antwerp. Demeulemeester works closely
with her husband, photographer Patrick Robyn. They have a 23-year-old
son, Victor, who is an art student. Recently, Demeulemeester bought
another house in the country, where she works some of the time.
In the industry as transient as fashion, where clothes and people rapidly go
out of style, Demeulemeester has remained steadfast. She has built a successful
career based on permanence, disregarding trends and eschewing
advertising. Demeulemeester's sartorial vocabulary - cropped tailored
jackets, black slim trousers, biker boots, and asymmetric cardigans - is as
fresh today as it was twenty years ago. Even though you will never
see a logo on her garments, Demeulemeester's clothes are unmistakably hers, a
continuation of her personality. Needless to say, she wears her own
designs every day.
Demeulemeester has been designing for over twenty years, and looking back on
her work one can see a clearly marked trajectory. "I stay faithful
to my own style," Demeulemeester says. "It's more interesting
to have strong individual voices in fashion. I am not the kind of a
designer who switches every season from this to that ? I would feel like
betraying my own label." Although Demeulemeester adores blank canvas (an
artist's ground zero), she isn't one herself. "I aim to construct an
individual style from one collection to the next. Each collection tells a
different story and projects a different mood. Yet, the Ann
Demeulemeester style is clear. Whatever we want to express, we do so
within our own aesthetic. This enables our clients to gradually construct
their wardrobe. You can wear something from ten years ago with something
from today, and it will work, because the soul is the same."
Thanks to her integrity and singular view, Demeulemeester attracts an avid and
loyal following. I've encountered her work for the first time in
1999. At Barneys, I bought a very loosely knit wool sweater, blacker than
the black hole. It looked and felt like an elegant spider web. This
followed by a pair of white pants painted muted silver. Wearing both, I
felt like a chic version of Trent Reznor. Better yet, I felt myself. My
infatuation with her clothes has not diminished since. I feel like I found a
friend who speaks to me through her clothes. I did not need to get to know
her, I knew her already. To Demeulemeester, that is best
compliment. "My clients buy my clothes not because they are trendy,
but because they understand them. I go to another side of the globe and I
meet people who know my work. I don't know who they are, but this
communication through clothes is beautiful. It's what I started in
Possessing a strong vision allows Demeulemeester to concentrate on seemingly
small things ? on how your wallet pulls at your pocket and makes it stand out
with time, for example. She then cuts these intangible ideas into her
clothes. If you are looking for perfectly streamlined garments, look
elsewhere. As any romantic, Demeulemeester is wooed by human imperfection
? her jackets are asymmetric, her tees' hems uneven, shirts' seams
twisted. "I want to put a soul in a garment. I don't want my
clothes to be perfect, because human beings are not perfect. You can meet
somebody in one of my jackets and it can all look a bit wrong, but also human
and beautiful. Cutting nonchalance into a garment is difficult, because
you can't just make an oversized or an asymmetric garment ? it will look ugly.
Making it look natural is delicate work. If it's too obvious, then it looks
fake. Balancing the garment is a painstaking task, because you have to
keep in mind how the clothes move."
Such attention to detail and preoccupation with the moving
silhouette infuses Demeulemeester's garments with a sense of sweeping elegance
rarely found elsewhere. The clothes are soft and confident at the same
time ? they are neither off-putting nor inviting, but rather intriguing.
"How the clothes fall and move is an indispensable part of my sartorial
language. For instance, in the jacket I am wearing,? she puts her cropped
blazer on the table, ?one side hangs off just a little bit, but it's no
accident ? it's cut to always hang like that. I balanced both sides
towards the front, one more than the other, so the front is a bit longer than
the back. To achieve this, I had to move the shoulder seams
forward. To maintain this subtle balance I had to move the side seams to
the back, and I added another dart in the back. The result is that the
jacket takes a lived-in, human shape. Also, the fabric is different on
the reverse side of the lapel. I was thinking of poets, and I had a piece
of fabric from the 19th century where the black stripes resemble handwriting,
so I asked my manufacturer to replicate it. I did a similar thing
with men's jackets. I wanted to make a jacket that hangs a little lower
in the front than in the back ? it makes men fragile, human, and poetic."
Demeulemeester grows her brand carefully (after all these years she employs
only five assistants). She expands when it feels right; therefore she has
never had to bow to outside pressure. For the first ten years, she only
designed for women. Menswear came only after she was persuaded by her
husband and her friends who wanted the same clothes she did for women. Recently,
Demeulemeester launched a small fine jewelry collection, which includes
necklaces with translucent and opaque diamonds from Antwerp.
Despite her line being sold in hundreds of stores worldwide,
there was only one Ann Demeulemeester boutique in the world until last year, in
Antwerp. The stunning 19th Century building that houses her shop sits
across the Museum of Fine Art in the now trendy Het Zuid neighborhood. It
used to be a chemistry laboratory for the ministry of agriculture. The
huge lofty space is completely open ? all the furniture is white, just like in
her studio, and the walls are wrapped in white canvas. "We wanted to
have a shop for a long time," explains Demeulemeester. "We
dreamt of a place where we could fully depict our universe. One evening
we were having dinner in this very square, and we saw this old building with a
'for sale' sign. We instantly knew we
wanted it. We didn't think we could afford it, but three days later it
was ours. I wanted one big space inside and a garden, so we gutted
everything. We left the beautiful façade untouched, but the inside we
made ours. We wanted to make big
dressing rooms where you can feel absolutely comfortable and private. I
thought how I would want to be treated when I buy clothes ? I hate pushy salespeople
and tiny changing rooms without mirrors.I wanted a real luxury ? a
space of one's own."
Last year Demeulemeester opened three boutiques, all in Asia. There is a
Tokyo shop in Omotesando Hills, one in Hong Kong, and most recently a store in Seoul.
The latter, a product of collaboration with the young South Korean architect
Minsuc Cho, received a lot of publicity in architecture magazines. Its
façade is completely covered with live green plants (embedded sprinkles ensure
their growth). The interior contains all the elements of the original
store, complete with blank canvas screens and white sofas. On first
impression, the store seems rather whimsy for the normally sober
Demeulemeester, but she finds it fitting, "We wanted that shop to be our
wild child, that's why you see a wall full of plants, which will grow and take
new shapes. The older I get the more I need nature and I love gardening.
We wished to put our own piece of greenery into a rapidly expanding city of
glass and cement. The shop reminds me of my Le Corbusier house, which is
really a white cube. The soul is the
same as the Antwerp shop, but in another package." Working on the
store was an interesting experience for Demeulemeester, "In Seoul
everything is new. You can't work like that in Europe where everything is
old and built up, and you have to respect that. In Seoul we started from
zero. It's nice to adapt to a different place ? I couldn't do a shop like
that here." She is open to the idea of more Ann Demeulemeester boutiques
in the future, provided she finds the right partners.
We are sitting in a small room in the back of Demeulemeester?s Antwerp
boutique. The room is painted white, with a white table in the middle and
a rack of clothes in the back. The one big window opens up onto a little
courtyard framed by a vine covered red brick wall. Demeulemeester
sits across from me, dressed in a white asymmetrical t-shirt with a painted
circle in the middle, a black cropped vest, and black pants. She is
petite, but her energy is relentless. Her expressive face shows slight
signs of aging, which she loves. Growing old is human, and therefore
beautiful. (Pointing to a photograph of Leonard Cohen on the wall, she
says dreamily, "What a handsome man.") Her hands are those of an
artisan, uncared for and alive (She still does a lot of things herself, like
the half-scissor necklaces she did for the current men's collection, for which
she bought a bunch of old scissors, took them apart, dipped them in paint, and
put them on a black string). Demeulemeester detests the idea that
femininity is automatically equated with bubbly fussiness. She makes womens
footwear wider on purpose, so it's comfortable. "Are we modern, or
are we old fashioned?!" exclaims she. "We are still fixated on
the idea that women have tiny feet and have to squeeze into tiny uncomfortable
shoes. Things don't have to be that way. I can make a perfectly elegant
pump, but you will be comfortable in it."
Lighting up her Kent cigarette, Demeulemeester talks of passion, emotion, and of
the visceral impact of art. Oscar Wilde once declared, "One should
either be a work of art or wear a work of art." Demeulemeester fully
subscribes to this notion. Indomitable in her philosophy of creating from
the heart, she fashions her own world, tailored of moody, romantic clothing,
rendered in black and white, and as close to art as fashion can get.
ER: You have a close relationship with art. You've referenced Kara Walker
and Jim Dine, among others. What do you feel when you transpose their
work into your medium?
AD: The most important thing about people who make emotionally driven work is
that their creations are charged with energy, which pushes me to create
something beautiful too. Sometimes I experience a piece of music, or a
sentence in a poem, the mood in a painting, something abstract, nothing to do
with clothes, which goes right to my heart. It's this spiritual impact
that inspires me. That is the feeling I got when I saw a Jim Dine
exhibition. I felt bewitched. I thought, ?I am going to write him a
letter.? I know it sounds naïve, but I did it anyway. I wanted to
relay this emotional impact through my work, to let my audience discover what I
discovered. Two weeks later Jim Dine was sitting with me in
Antwerp. I felt giddy, like a little girl, but in five minutes we were
working together. I wanted to imagine a photograph of his as a garment, to
enwrap myself in the photo. Jim made an image especially for the
collection, and I put it on silk through an inkjet printer. The idea was
that instead of putting his photo on your wall, you put it on your body.
ER: In the current menswear collection you reference not just one artist, but
an entire movement. What attracted you to Dada?
AD: I am very drawn to High Modernism in general and Dadaism in
particular. Marcel Duchamp is one of my favorite artists. For this
collection, I imagined that Dadaists are alive today, and they are going on
vacation to the South of France. How would they dress? We thought
how beautiful and free, how distinguished and chic they would look in a modern
and a bit shocking way. I don't know how they dressed back then, I just
envisioned it from seeing their work: the black, the white, the red, the
graphic elements. And we wanted to be playful ourselves, the way the
Dadaists were. So, we took the famous ?DADA? print, but we made the
"D" a bit longer, so you can read ?DADA? or PAPA, or you can read it
backwards and see my initials. At the show we played an interview with Marcel Duchamp
I found by coincidence. I was in
Shanghai a few months before the show with my husband and we bought a beautiful
red record at a flea market. We decided that it would be Dadaistic to
play this record at the show for the first time without knowing what's on it,
which is what we did.
ER: You primarily work with black and white. Why?
AD: Originally, I had worked a lot on the shape and the cut
of the garments, and when I am making a new shape, I don't want to be
distracted by color. Doing it in black or white allows me to see the
garment in its purest shape. It's like sculpting ? the sculptor does not
work with color, he sculpts in plaster. I always make the first version
of a garment in black and white. If in the process of making a garment I come
to a finishing point, then I don't feel like I need to add anything, because
the garment is exactly to my liking. And this would often happen before
thinking of color. It still happens, but I feel that with time it's nice
to add color too. Since the main image of Ann Demeulemeester is clear, we
can now experiment more with color and print. Color is also a feeling,
and I don't feel the way I did ten years ago. Sometimes I feel like
concentrating on the purity of the design, or I feel like I need some romanticism,
something light and amazing ? something beautiful in its naiveté. I try
to look at color in another way ? it's not just another print for a
dress. There are emotions in the colors and the prints. We make the
prints ourselves, and they fit within a certain mood or a story.
ER: What is the story behind the prints in the upcoming, fall 2008, collection?
AD: The entire collection was inspired by a Bob Dylan song, Knocking on Heaven's Door[/i]. It is a
great anti-war song ? it shakes you out of your skin. For the show I got
together all the versions of the song covered by different musicians. I
asked Patti Smith to record a version for it as well. I imagined that Bob
Dylan is 20 today ? what would he wear to bring the message of the song?
I don't know what he wore back then, but I thought of flowers. I could never find the combination of colors
that my favorite flowers in our garden have, so my husband suggested that we
make a print of them. I cut and dried the flowers, and my husband photographed
them. We then we put the print on fabric.
ER: I sense that this is a bit of a newly found creative freedom for you.
Do you feel like you have come to a place in your life that allows you to do
AD: Yes. I feel like Ann Demeulemeester is a brand that is clearly
recognizable by now. The aesthetic is there, and we can now work with
color, but present it the way we want. It also gives my assistants more
freedom. And it surprises people, which is good.
ER: Do you often feel like you know what fabric you need to manifest a certain
AD: Absolutely. And the other way around, we often start with the
fabric. First we develop the material, and then we think about finding
the perfect shape for it. The material often dictates the design.
ER: What are your favorite fabrics?
AD: I love light nicely woven wool that can age with time. I like the
essence of white cotton. I like silk. We often make our own
fabrics, so we start with the basic ones ? then other materials can come into
play, such as linen and ramie, then the patterns and the yarn, the weave, the
treatments. It rarely happens that we just find the fabric we
need. We have the manufacturers who we've worked with for twenty years,
and they are willing to listen to us. It's a long process, and there is
always the pressure of time, but in the end we have the fabrics that no one
ER: Originally, you designed only for women. How did the menswear come
AD: Many of my male friends were asking me for clothes, starting with my
husband. They would point to a particular garment and ask for a men's
version. I did not want to do it, because I felt already busy with the
women's, but they convinced me. Now it grew into a big collection.
Sometimes I make something for women with a certain mood, but there are also
men who can relate to the same aesthetic. It's not difficult to project
the mood, but the male body is different and so is the work that goes into
making men's garments.
ER: It may seem that you have androgyny in mind.
AD: I don't consider my clothes androgynous at all. There is tension in
human beings between the feminine and the masculine elements, and that is
intriguing. I am not saying that I like masculine women or feminine
men. I believe that these elements are intertwined in everyone. Possessing
something aggressive and fragile creates a contrast, and if I succeed in
putting that contrast into a garment, it comes to life. Some say
that putting a woman in trousers, a vest, and boots is androgynous. I
don't feel that way. I don't put men in skirts (well, maybe one day I
will), but I have put men in pink trousers or a jacket with flowers, which are
not classic men's items. I think that fragility in men is
beautiful. It's not for everyone, but I like different men. I
always make collections where there is a choice in sensibility, something that
my father, my husband, and my son, can wear. I try to stay close to the
human beings, and not in a fashion bubble. I want to make beautiful and
ER: Unlike most fashion designers, you never advertise. Why?
AD: If I advertise, then I have to raise the price of the clothes, which
does not help my audience. We did not have the money in the beginning,
and it?s become sort of a tradition not to advertise. Nevertheless, it's
very gratifying to see my clothes in a magazine. It makes the compliment
real. I like the clothes to speak for themselves.
ER: How did you end up working with your business director, Anne Chapelle?
AD: She started working for me more than
15 years ago. The firm was growing fast, and I was still controlling
everything myself. To design collections and run the company was too
much for one person, and I was losing control, because obviously the design
part would always prevail, and I'd leave all the paperwork behind. My son
was little back then, and he had a friend, whose mother was Anne
Chapelle. She used to drive them both to school. One day I started
talking to her about my problems, and she offered to help. She was
running another company at the time, but she left to work with me. We
work as partners, and this has allowed me to remain independent.
ER: There is a new Ann Demeulemeester line in the works, Collection Blanche.
Yes, it is a collection of pieces reintroduced from my archives. I called
it Collection Blanche because it's like a blank canvas ? each time I can start
it anew. I put the name in French, because it is the language of the
poets I admire, such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire. With this collection I
wanted to transcend time. The pieces in it are like the old friends that
everybody misses. I've gotten many requests from friends and clients who
missed a certain piece and really wanted to own it. I decided it would be
a good idea to reproduce some garments. We are starting our second season
of Collection Blanche, and the memories of the pieces I want to wear again come
At a certain point the line was born out of need, because
some stores in the middle of the season sell out of my clothes. They kept
asking me for a cruise collection, but there will be no Ann Demeulemeester
cruise collection, so I found my own solution. The collection is very
limited ? a few pieces that construct a wardrobe ? a pair of trousers, a shirt,
a skirt, a jacket, a bag, etc. For now it is women's only.
Demeulemeester does not feel comfortable making grandiose plans. She
would like to do a perfume, if she finds the right partner. "I need
to do it my way, because I am not interested in just making anything with my
name on it," she says. ?You know those perfume commercials where
it's always the same girl running to the same tree ? I don't want
that." For now she is getting ready for the Paris menswear show at
the end of June. As we drive to my hotel in her black convertible Saab,
she talks in Dutch to her assistants on the car's speakerphone. For
Demeulemeester, "What remains is the future," as one of her t-shirts
reads. "I always say the future is open, and having the impression that
anything can happen makes everything exciting. Freedom is the biggest
luxury, so I try to make decisions as I go. Hopefully I can still invent
a lot of things."
Eugene Rabkin teaches critical writing at Parsons the New School For Design in New York.