ANTWERP - Ann Demeulemeester, 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. This does not mean that celebrities don't wear her meticulously crafted garments. "I want to wish a Happy Birthday to my dear friend, Ann Demeulemeester," says Patti Smith during her annual concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. "Who?" a drunken man next to me asks. "She's 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 a 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 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 by the French voila! "The most important thing about my work is communicating emotion through my garments. Sure, music helps accentuate certain feelings. The risk is that the music can take attention away from the clothes. I never had the idea of making a 'punk collection.' Punk was a big part of my culture when I was 18, 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 PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. She makes the soundtracks for all her shows in a music studio herself.
Demeulemeester was born in a small Belgian town, Waregem. She enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp at the age of 18, at the time when the Belgian government was promoting fashion in order to help the country's textile industry. The program was not as experimental as it is today; Demeulemeester recalls quarreling with her teachers, who wanted her to imitate Coco Chanel. In 1982, the Academy set up the Golden Spindle Award to promote local talent. Demeulemeester won the first competition. She still has a close relationship with the industry, which is now dying out all over Western Europe.
"I've always tried to produce in Belgium," explains Demeulemeester. "Some of the manufacturers are still in business because they produce clothes for Belgian designers. Still, it's difficult for them finding skilled workers and keeping production costs down. We are moving some production to other European countries, but we do it slowly."
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 were dubbed "The Antwerp Six." Although every one of the six 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 remained in Antwerp (she shows in Paris). She spends most of the time working in her atelier, which is adjacent to her Le Corbusier-built house. Demeulemeester works closely with her husband, photographer Patrick Robyn. They have a 23-year-old son, Victor, who is an art student.
In an 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. Her sartorial vocabulary - cropped tailored jackets, slim black trousers, biker boots, and asymmetric cardigans - is as fresh today as it was 20 years ago. Even though you will never see a logo on her garments, Demeulemeester's clothes are unmistakably hers, a continuation of her personality. She wears her own designs every day.
Demeulemeester has been designing for over 20 years, and her work has a clearly marked trajectory. "I stay faithful to my own style," she says. "It's interesting to have strong individual voices in fashion. I do not switch every season from this to that - I would be betraying my own label." Although Demeulemeester adores a 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. 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 10 years ago with something from today, and it will work, because the soul is the same."
Thanks to such integrity, Demeulemeester attracts an avid and loyal following. I encountered her work for the first time in 1999. At Barneys, I bought a black loosely knit wool sweater. It looked and felt like an elegant spider web. This was 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. I thought I found a friend who spoke to me through her clothes. To Demeulemeester, that is the best compliment: "My clients buy my clothes not because they are trendy, but because they understand them. This communication through clothes is beautiful. It's what I started in fashion for."
Like any romantic, Demeulemeester is wooed by human imperfection - her jackets are asymmetric, the hems of her T-shirts uneven, shirt seams twisted. "I don't want my clothes to be perfect, because human beings are not perfect. I want to put a soul in a garment. You can meet somebody in one of my jackets and it can look a bit wrong, but also human and beautiful. Cutting nonchalance into a garment is delicate work. If it's too obvious, 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 infuses Demeulemeester's garments with a sense of sweeping elegance rarely found elsewhere. The clothes are soft and confident at the same time, neither off-putting nor inviting, but intriguing.
Demeulemeester grows her brand carefully (she still employs only five assistants). She expands when it feels right. For the first 10 years, she designed only clothes for women. Menswear came after her husband and her friends persuaded her. Recently, Demeulemeester launched a small fine jewelry collection, which includes necklaces with diamonds from Antwerp. Despite the fact that her line is sold in 300 stores worldwide, there was only one Ann Demeulemeester boutique in the world until last year. The stunning 19th Century building that houses her shop sits across from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp's now trendy Zuid neighborhood. 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 left the beautiful facade untouched, but the inside we made ours. I wanted one big space, a garden, and big dressing rooms. I thought of how I would want to be treated when I buy clothes. I wanted real luxury - a space of one's own."
Last year Demeulemeester opened three boutiques - in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Seoul. The latter caused a storm of publicity in architecture magazines. Its facade is completely covered with live green plants. The interior contains all the elements of the original store, complete with blank canvas screens and white sofas. The store seems rather whimsical 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. We wished to put our own piece of greenery into a rapidly expanding city of glass and cement. The shop reminds me of my house, which is really a white cube."
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. I couldn't do a shop like that here."
Demeulemeester is open to the idea of having more boutiques in the future, provided she finds the right partners.
Moody and romantic
We are sitting in a small room in back of Demeulemeester's Antwerp shop. 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 is dressed in a white asymmetrical T-shirt, 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 for the current men's collection, for which she bought a bunch of old scissors, took them apart, and dipped them in paint.)
Demeulemeester detests the idea that femininity is automatically equated with prissiness. She makes women's footwear wider, so it's comfortable. "Are we modern, or are we old-fashioned? We are still fixated on the idea that women have tiny feet. Things don't have to be that way. I can make a perfectly elegant pump, but it will be comfortable."
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.
You have a close relationship with art. What do you feel when you transpose an artist's work into your medium?
"The most important thing about people who make emotionally driven works is that their creations have energy. That pushes me to create something beautiful too. Sometimes I experience a piece of music, or the mood in a painting, something abstract, nothing to do with clothes, which goes right to my heart. That is what I experienced when I saw a Jim Dine exhibition. I felt bewitched. I wanted to relay this emotional impact through my work. I wrote Jim a letter, and two weeks later he was in Antwerp. 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, enwrapping yourself in it.
In the current menswear collection you reference an entire art movement. What attracted you to Dada?
"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 were alive today, and 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, like Dadaists. 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."
You primarily work with black and white. Why?
"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. 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 also feel it's nice to add color too. Since the 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 10 years ago. Sometimes I feel like concentrating on the purity of the design, or I feel like I need some romanticism, something light and beautiful in its naivete. I look at color in another way - it's not just a print for a dress. There are emotions in the colors. We make the prints ourselves, and they fit within a certain story."
What is the story behind the prints in the upcoming collection?
"It was inspired by a Bob Dylan antiwar song, 'Knocking on Heaven's Door.' For the show I got together all the versions of the song covered by different musicians. I imagined that Bob Dylan was 20 today - what would he wear to bring the message of the song? I thought of flowers. I could never find the combination of colors that the flowers in my garden have, so my husband suggested that we make a print of them. I cut and dried the flowers, and he photographed them. We then we put the print on fabric."
I sense that this is a bit of newly-found creative freedom for you. Do you feel like you have come to a place in your life that allows you to do that?
"Yes. I feel like Ann Demeulemeester as a brand is clearly recognizable by now. The aesthetic is there, and we can now work with color in our own way. It also gives my assistants more freedom. And it surprises people, which is good."
Do you often feel like you know what fabric you need to manifest a certain idea?
"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."
What are your favorite fabrics?
"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 we think of the patterns, the yarn, and the weave. It rarely happens that we find the fabric we need. There are manufacturers who have worked with us for 20 years, and they are willing to listen. It's a long process, but in the end we have the fabrics that no one else has."
Originally, you designed only for women. How did the menswear come about?
"My friends kept asking me, starting with my husband! They would point to a particular garment and ask for a men's version. I already felt busy with the women's line, but they convinced me. Now it's grown into a big collection. I like that there are men and women who can relate to the same aesthetic. It's not difficult to project the same mood, but the male body is different and so is the work that goes into making men's garments."
It may seem that you have androgyny in mind.
"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 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, 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 human beings. I want to make beautiful and wearable garments."
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."W
Eugene Rabkin teaches critical writing at Parsons the New School For Design in New York.
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