I met Jan-Jan Van Essche at his studio-cum-store, the Atelier Solarshop, tucked away in a non-gentrified neighborhood of Antwerp. Chill-pilled and dreadlocked, Jan-Jan was accompanied by his better half, Pietro Celestino, who likens himself to a cheerleader ("Go, Jan-Jan, Go!") "Pietro is the first person who sees my collection," Jan-Jan clarifies, to which Pietro replies, "Yeah, someone who gives him the first objective view," eliciting from Jan-Jan: "What are you saying? You're never objective."
It's a miracle anything gets done, which may explain Jan-Jan's one-collection-per-year maxim. "It's my philosophy and a way of life," he says. "It means I can concentrate on one collection at a time. I would go crazy if I had to design three times a year. Besides, I don't wear different stuff throughout the year. Winter or summer clothes are not so different for me. You just pile on more clothes during the winter and take some off in the summer."
Primarily a line of high-end basics for men, Jan-Jan's clothes also possess a vaguely ethnic, urban nomad, unisex appeal. "In fact," he says, "half of my customers are women and the fit is just as good, where the female body flows." To prove his point, when a woman came in and tried on a shirt, on her it became a loose shirt-dress that, when worn with a luxurious wool leggings, looked fantastic.
Not everyone could be equally inspired by Mali and Madeleine Vionnet, but Jan-Jan isn't like everyone. "I was in Mali and loved the fluidity in the way they wear their clothes. Everything had a perfect place when draped. So I decided not to design in sizes; my pieces are cut to fit. Madeleine Vionnet has also been a huge inspiration for me, especially the early years. I like the way she used ethnic patterns and draping to let the body speak for itself. She did this in a very avant-garde way and I can only imagine how liberating her clothes must have been for women in the 1920s."
After only two collections, there is already a cult following of early adopters who share a penchant for his unaffected, Muji-esque looks (albeit with a more sophisticated price range). "I am quite lucky. I know a lot of my customers. I see them and talk to them. It's growing steadily. It's worth all those long dark years."
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