When we talk about great painters, we talk about the integrity of the line –- the confidence, clarity and personality in their brushwork. The artist's spirit shows itself in those strokes: you needn't be told a Rubens is a Rubens, because his line is uniquely his and you know it when you see it. The same is true of a really singular designer – their look and feel can be approached but never convincingly replicated. Ann Demeulemeester is one of these artists -- her line is purely, unmistakably her own.
Last week, Demeulemeester announced that she would be stepping away from her eponymous label. The decision is unexpected, but on reflection not so surprising –- Demeulemeester has always walked her own path at her own pace. She has spent the past three decades developing her own moody, romantic cosmos, expanding her vision through steady iteration rather than bounding from one idea to the next. Blending brooding, punk energy with exquisite tailoring and bold shapes, she created as significant a body of work as any contemporary designer.
Demeulemeester rose to prominence with the Antwerp Six in the late 1980s. Their story has become legend, a turning point in contemporary fashion: In 1986, the group traveled to London in a rented van to show their wares at the British Designer Show and turned the fashion world on its head. Picking up where Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto had left off, the Six became the new subversives, resetting the standard and pacing the vanguard of avant-garde fashion through the 1990s.
Demeulemeester's feel for volume and proportion made an immediate impact. Working with a muted, often monochrome, color palette, she would create striking silhouettes, pairing billowing, floor-length jackets with trim waistcoats and cropped trousers, or showing crisply tailored shirts with oversized, exaggerated cuffs. Her early collections focused on reworkings of classical garments. Her Fall/Winter 1992 collection -- one of her first to show in Paris -- offered a revisionist history, imagining an androgynous Edwardian era where women donned sleek topcoats over ankle-length gowns and chunky boots. She loved to work with contrast in both color and form, playing ornately finished pieces off raw, deconstructed garments in the style of Kawakubo's groundbreaking Comme Des Garçons.
Season by season, she would add to her repertoire, introducing gritty leathers, slouchy suiting and a feather motif that would become one of her trademarks. And though she's known for working mainly in black and white, she actually began using bright, bold colors to great effect as early as 1996. That same year, she debuted a line of menswear alongside the women's looks -- it would go on to become a significant part of the label, receiving standalone runway treatment starting in 2005. Despite overtures from several major corporations, the label remained independently funded and as rigidly devoted to quality craftsmanship as it had always been.
Demeulemeester was sometimes criticized for spending too much time working through the same set of ideas. What some saw as stagnation, though, was actually an impressive commitment to a vision. From the beginning, Demeulemeester knew exactly the world that she wanted to create and never wavered. That she maintained her focus and never chased trends is one her most admirable traits, and a great example for the designers who came after her. Moreover, that coherent through line, that elemental purity is precisely what entranced her patrons. Demeulemeester's clothing communicates on a level deeper than pure aesthetics -- for those tuned to its frequency, it resonates emotionally. It represents a disposition, an orientation, an entire world comprising music, literature, visual art and philosophy. The garments are an access point for those who want in. The poets, the paupers, the punks, the vampires -- elegant and grimy, in the gutter but looking at the stars.
This sort of connection runs deeper than clothing, and it's the reason why Demeulemeester is such a monumental figure in contemporary fashion. Her influence will be felt for years to come.