Walter Van Beirendonck’s outrageous designs may be a little out there for your typical conservative Dallas crowd, but that didn’t stop Dallas Contemporary from inviting the menswear designer to exhibit there.
As one of the Antwerp Six—the influential group of avant-garde Belgian fashion designers who graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the early '80s, including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester—Van Beirendonck helped put the Belgian city on the map as a fashion incubator. Currently head of the Royal Academy’s fashion department, Van Beirendonck has mentored such notable designers as Veronique Branquinho, Bruno Pieters and Bernhard Willhelm.
This past Friday, the museum opened an exhibition of his quirky and colorful designs called “Lust Never Sleeps--Silent Secrets,” which are also the titles of his winter 2012/2013 and summer 2013 collections.
We caught up with Van Beirendonck the day before the exhibition opened to ask him about Dallas (he said he hadn't seen much of the city, but that he really wants “to see some line dancing, some rodeo, some real cowboys”) the effect of museum exhibitions on fashion and the possibility of an Antwerp Six reunion.
Fashionista: What did you think when Peter Doroshenko, the director of Dallas Contemporary, first approached you about having an exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary? Walter Van Beirendonck: It was a strange invitation because I’m a fashion designer, and I’m not working so much in museums or in galleries. [But] it was a nice invitation too. When he [gave me the opportunity] I really did want to present the collections in the museum. Every season I make a collection which is presented on the catwalk. I think it’s a good idea to present it in an installation as a kind of art piece, because at the end, that’s what it becomes.
Have you been to Dallas before? I’ve never been to Dallas and I was also totally fascinated how Dallas would be.
Do you think that Dallas is ready for your designs? What has the reaction been to the exhibition so far? Last night I was installing and next door there was an opening for an art installation and there were a lot of gallery people passing by. They were all fascinated by it because you immediately see that it’s about fashion and clothes, but the way that it is presented, and how it is installed, it looks immediately like an art installation. I feel that fascination and that respect for what I’m doing. That’s really nice. I think there will be respect and understanding at the end.
Why are you showing your winter 2012/2013 and summer 2013 collections in the Dallas Contemporary Show instead of doing say, a retrospective? There are two reasons for that. At the moment I have a traveling retrospective which was last year in Antwerp. It’s now traveling to Melbourne, to Australia, so all these pieces were already taken and they are also booked for expositions. After Australia it will travel to Germany, so for several years, all these pieces are used for that. Peter wanted to have it contemporary and show new collections, so that’s why I chose these two recent collections.
Tell me about the two collections, Silent Secrets (summer 2013) and Lust Never Sleeps (winter 2012/2013). What are they about?
The first one, Silent Secrets, it is the one which is now in the shops and it’s the summer collection. The Silent Secrets name is referring to what’s going on the social networks today, that everything is so easily spread and there is no privacy anymore. Images are taken from everybody, they are sent immediately, also you can’t keep anything secret anymore. It’s really spread all over the world. At the same time what I’m a little bit upset by, is that images are traveling without credits, nobody is telling what is this and what is that, so it’s a very strange feeling I got with social media. That was one of the first inspirations.
It’s also referring to secret societies--their dress codes and the hidden underground feeling of secret societies. The collection from summer is also formal inspired, like formal clothing with a twist and with my typical ingredients. The heads and the collars I made with a Dutch artist, Folkert de Jong. It’s all made in foam. It was collaboration, so we did the heads and the big collars.
The other side, Lust Never Sleeps, it’s the winter collection that is the one with the leather masks. That is more inspired by Tahitian voodoo. I wanted to create a future dandy silhouette almost, but with a very strong tension. That’s why I was using these masks inspired by Papua New Guinea and the canes--a lot of elements to create a tense atmosphere. The looks are represented like they were on the catwalk.
A lot of fashion designers are collaborating with artists these days. I did it all my career because I do like it. I think that cooperations can really add something to your own work also, and in the past I collaborated with a lot of artists, like Erwin Wurm. I collaborated with the French artist Orlan. I collaborated with a lot of photographers--Juergen Teller, [Jean-Baptiste] Mondino. There are a lot of collaborations I did all over my career.
Why do you think fashion and art are so closely connected? I think there is kind of a thin line between it, because fashion is a very particular field, and all fashion designers are aware that they are producing something and creating something which is finally sold and which is to be put in a shop, but at the same time the way that the independent fashion designers are dealing with the models, the styling, the presenting of it, arrive on a kind of level which is close to art and to how the art world is working, and I think there you have a kind of synergy between the two fields. I feel like in the first place a fashion designer, but on the other hand I can imagine that there is an interest from the art world and I felt it last night already. I feel rather comfortable in both worlds.
You’ve already exhibited at Antwerp’s ModeMuseum. How do you think museum exhibitions are affecting the way the public perceives fashion? There is a kind of a popularity for the moment. You see that fashion exhibitions are really attended by big audiences and they’re really interested in it. I think that the public understands better the creative process of fashion. You lose that a little bit when you just see the commercial way of working with fashion. I think it’s nice that they realize how fashion designers are working, the creativity they’re trying to put in, their inventive way of working. That is something that they are going to discover in exhibitions. I think that’s what they like also to discover.
After nearly three decades in fashion, how do you manage to keep menswear fresh? Where do you find inspiration? I chose to concentrate on menswear, and through the years I found it to be a very interesting field to work in because on one side you are more restricted because it’s menswear, but on the other side you can experiment more because there is a very thin line and you have to keep a certain balance. It’s a rather difficult exercise to work in menswear, but I like that because it gives you the possibilities to push the boundaries also. I think over the years that menswear is getting bigger and bigger.
Which menswear designers do you think are making the biggest impact? I think that Thom Browne as an American designer, is doing an important statement about menswear. Comme des Garçons--Rei Kawakubo--she’s doing that too. Thom Browne is much more interesting in menswear than in womenswear.
When you set out to show in the London Fashion Fair with the Antwerp Six in 1986, did you have any idea that you would be putting Antwerp on the map as a fashion hotbed? No. We were very ambitious, we wanted to get out of Belgium. That was also the reason why we went to London. But on the other hand we were also very naive and we didn’t know what to do. It was really nice to team up because that created a kind of energy that we would have never had alone. When we went to the fair we were really discovered by press people, and the impact was much bigger. Suddenly they are seeing all these people from Antwerp, a city nobody ever talked about in the context of fashion, and they were really impressed by what we were showing and how we were showing it. And from that point on everything happened for us, but also for Antwerp and the Antwerp school.
Yeah, it was really nice because we stick together for a purely practical reason, but we already had very clear statements, very personal statements. It’s nice that everybody found his way afterwards. I’m really happy that worked out for everybody.
Do you still keep in touch with all of them? Yeah yeah yeah, not with everybody all the time, but several designers, I see them everywhere.
Are there any plans for a reunion? No, not a reunion, but I’m working on an exhibition [at Antwerp’s ModeMuseum]--I’m curating it--which will open in September, which is about 50 years of the fashion department in Antwerp. It is an exhibition which will show the 50 years and the evolution and there will be a special room for the six, plus Martin, Martin Margiela, because we were at the same time in the school. I’m going to see it as a room of friendship, and we’re going to try to recreate the atmosphere from the moment we were working in the school. “Lust Never Sleeps--Silent Secrets” is at the Dallas contemporary through August 18.
Photos: Jenifer McNeil Baker