If Anyone Can Dream the World Awake, It’s Walter Van Beirendonck

Inflatable balloon masks printed with the words “Blow Job.” Horn prostheses on models’ foreheads. Hairy T-shirts. Vests with wings. Tulle sculptures shaped like clipped trees. Blow-up doll bodysuits with long, snaky phalluses.

Those are just some of the wearable oddities that have sprung from the fertile mind of Walter Van Beirendonck, who’s been pushing the boundaries of fashion for thirty years, addressing thorny issues such as AIDS, war, ecology, mass consumerism and the burqa. Along the way he’s collaborated with artists (Orlan), industrial designers (Marc Newson) and dancers (the Royal Ballet of Flanders). In essence he’s bridged the gap between art and fashion, proving that garments could also express extreme concepts, and he’s always done so with ample humor.

Now, finally, Van Beirendonck is being consecrated with a retrospective, Dream the World Awake, at MoMu Antwerp. There will be 100 outfits on view, from his 1980 graduate collection through today, as well as costumes and videos from the U2 Popmart tour and a kind of wonderwall covered with the designer’s various inspirations. These include memorabilia, images of contemporary art, and ethnic objects that he has been collecting since childhood. We spoke with the bearded visionary about masks, love, art, Bowie, and, perhaps his greatest inspiration, penises.

How did you feel looking at a lifetime’s worth of work? What would you say was your strongest contribution?
Every box you open is full of memories. Normally when you make collections you don’t look back so much. This time I brought together the whole archive. It looked like one huge collection. I have always wanted to work in fashion in a particular way. I started with one idea and kept working on it. This narrative aspect is really important because I see fashion as a communicator and a way to tell stories and convey messages. Sometimes it’s a simple story about happiness, like the last collection, or sometimes the themes are more loaded, such as AIDS, the burqa, censorship or safe sex.

Does fashion have a responsibility to comment on our socio-economic reality?
Interesting fashion designers are still using narrative storytelling to say something, even if it’s more subtle. Fashion designers I like, such as Bernhard Willhelm, Peter Pilotto or Hussein Chalayan, all have a message. Of course the first goal of fashion is to make people more beautiful, and of course it has a consumption aspect, but it’s also important to add this layer that makes it so much more interesting.

Does fashion reflect the world in a particularly powerful way?
The six-month rhythm reflects the moment, so you can quickly react on contemporary dynamics happening in society. The art world, for example, is much slower or quieter. I think the whole idea that fashion is worn and consumed makes it so much more powerful than art, which is less dynamic.

As the director of the iconic Antwerp Fashion Department, what is your responsibility? How do you help shape designers’ vision?
I started to teach in 1985, five years after graduating. I never stopped since. I teach two days a week, whatever happens. I enjoy it because I use my fantasy to get into the head of students. I use their own experience and push them forward with my possibility to fantasize. I push them beyond the limits of what they cannot do without me. Our graduates have different styles. Take Veronique Branquinho and Bernhard Willhelm, for example, but they all have powerful visions. For the Antwerp school, technique and content are equally highlighted. This job has kept me fresh. You show your students that you have something to say, that you’re still active and you can still work. Being competitive is good as long as it’s not vicious or strange.

How did you develop and maintain this capacity to fantasize?
I have been working for years and years on books with images I like, works by artists I like. They are the ingredients and food for my head and for my fantasy. I have the ability to take these inspirations and make them into this Walter language. This fantasy world goes back to my youth, when I was 12 or 13 and ended up in boarding school. At night I felt that I had different interests: David Bowie, painting and drawing. The others were interested in football and girls. I was mostly alone and started to write and draw and created a world for myself. Even at home I had a separate room with books and objects. It was this fantasy world that made me survive. I was fighting the other kids.

It’s interesting because in your work you are constantly fighting the status quo.
It is a little like a warrior attitude, because I think that things can change and things could be different. That is why I am also fighting the fashion world. That is why I am making certain statements. Even the small statements could help to change the world. It’s very ambitious, but it’s also the role of public figures to communicate something and let people think and change.

But the fashion world seems to be getting further and further from conceptual ideas.
Despite the fact that 90% of the fashion world is dominated by marketing and the younger generation is tempted to be commercial, there are still designers trying to communicate something. Of course I’m probably a bit naïve in that, but I’m a believer and I believe that change can happen. We are dominated by this fast fashion, which I’m not totally against. It’s making fashion more democratic and I believe it is a good thing, but I don’t think they are always doing it right. I’m not for the collaborations of designers working with companies. First they were copying designers and now it’s a called collaboration. I think it’s a little strange that companies take this opportunity to wash away their guilt. It would be more interesting if they used their power and money to work with designers who can communicate their individual vision through the companies.

Does the fashion world kill?
If you look at Galliano and McQueen, it’s very clear that fashion kills. It’s a very tough world. I knew McQueen from the beginning and the reality with backers has totally changed. They ask you to give so much energy that at a certain moment you start to doubt. I remember working with Mustang in the nineties. They created so much stress that I started losing my identity. In the case of McQueen and Galliano, the responsibility is huge and the thing with Galliano is a setup because he is not a racist. He is a good person. The Belgians have always tried to remain independent but that is extremely difficult.

What was the main impact of the Antwerp Six on the history of fashion?
Mainly a narrative approach to fashion, which came from the school. We also all use the same techniques, we are fascinated by tailoring and craft. It all started because we were totally unknown and very ambitious and we wanted to get out of Belgium, so we hired a van to go to London. We showed that with different visions we could build careers. When we were studying, all the Italians were there: Versace, Armani. Then the French: Gaultier, Mugler, then the boom of the Japanese with Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. It was a period that was extremely rich in personal statements. Two things were important: we were together and we were extremely ambitious, which was very stimulating. If I wanted to do something, Dries [Van Noten] wanted to do it better, so it was very competitive but we were also good friends.

You work very closely with your “family,” such as Dirk Van Saene, your partner and co-owner of the shop, Walter, as well as milliner Stephen Jones, graphic designer Paul Boudens, make-up artist Inge Grognard and photographer Ronald Stoops. How do you feed each other’s work?
It is in the Antwerp tradition to stick together. In one way or another we are very loyal to the people we like and work with. I feel comfortable working with people who know me. It’s not that I’m not adventurous. I recently worked with Nick Knight for the exhibition catalog, but it’s easier to work with people you already know. When we start the process I make a sketch of what I want, I figure out my fantasy and then we sit together. It’s really under control, it’s not about improvisation. I don’t work with stylists, I don’t work with people who add elements to my work. Everything is determined from the first drawing.

There is a tension between sexuality and romanticism in your work. How do you negotiate those two ideas?
It’s a tension that exists in life. There is a naïve side, romantic side, and a darker side. I believe in romance and love, but also I do love sex. In my work you can see that I like those two contrasts. I like the dichotomy. A good example is the Heidi collection at the Lido. That part of the show was inspired by Paul McCarthy and dolls and was dominated by lust, sex and power, but also AIDS. I don’t know, sex is important for me. Shall I do a demonstration? (Laughs.) A lot of people don’t allow themselves to talk about these topics.

Words and phrases are very important in your world. You have referred to the exquisite corpse of the Surrealists, a technique by which one generates art from the subconscious. Is your work inspired by Surrealism?
I am fascinated by the work of the Surrealists and I curated a big exhibition about Surrealism in Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. I do like this unreal world that they are referring to. My combination of subjects and words and images could be similar to their approach.

Shamanism, ethnic rituals, fetishism and S&M. Why do rituals fascinate you?
I am very much interested in the rituals that people and tribes are doing throughout their lives and of course everything that has to do with S&M, sex and bondage. S&M is not something that I’m actively interested in but I do like to research it. Mapplethorpe was a big fascination in the eighties. His work was a big shock for me because I discovered a new world, a new kind of male. His photographs create certain tensions with the body, the way the body is constrained and put in certain situations where it changes shapes or forms. It’s not that I’m turned on by these images. Some of them make me horny, but I don’t use them to turn me on. I’m trying to push my own boundaries in fashion. There will be one image by Mapplethorpe in the show, The Man in the Polyester Suit. There is a strong contrast between the dick and the suit. It’s like pushing your fantasy forward. You don’t see his head, it’s very powerful.

You have experimented with high-tech fabrics, new media, nano electronics, artificial intelligence, the potential of stem cells and intelligent clothing. How does technology influence you?
This fascination has been there for a long time. In the nineties I had the possibility to research new materials. We created a lot of fabrics, such as printing on neoprene, laser-cut fabrics. I see that as a balance. I am also extremely interested in craft, handmade embroidery and beading. It’s the past and the future. I have a big interest in the future and I’m embracing the past. I’m disappointed at how slowly technology has been evolving in fashion. The machines are still the same, the only new thing is that they’ve moved countries. If you look at Courrèges and Cardin, fashion evolved so much more then. That’s what haute couture should do, push fashion forward. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the economic times, people want to show off their wealth.

David Bowie strongly shaped your vision of beauty. How so?
In the middle of the 70s I started to build my own personality and was extremely fascinated by David Bowie and the whole glam rock thing. I loved the way he was using clothes and garments to express himself, as well as the music. I wasn’t really interested in making clothes but in communicating through clothes and he showed me that it was possible. From the first collections I started to search for new kinds of beauties. I worked with bellies and different types of men. I showed a collection called Beautify Big with larger models. The gender bending thing I find really interesting too.

You cover models with masks, squeeze them into corsets, turn their heads into giant phalluses. What is your vision of the homme objet?
I work with a variety of men. The homme objet would be a hyper masculine man with muscles, whereas I try to introduce new kinds of beauty: big men, hairy men. I am searching for a new kind of man-type. I try to take it further than just the homme objet. It can go from a very elegant, more feminine type of man to a very masculine stocky, heavy type of man. For me l’homme objet would be more accurate for Jean Paul Gaultier’s work. The way he did it is not heavy on irony. I introduce irony in my work to show the variety of the world. For example, the phallic head masks in Sex Clowns weren’t necessarily transforming them into sexual objects. Originally they were inspired by marionettes from Africa. Then to make them more sexual we made them look like a dick and the eyes look like balls. It’s kind of a fantasy dick.

Walter Van Beirendonck: Dream the World Awake, September 14, 2011 – February 19, 2012, MoMu Fashion Museum, Nationalestraat 28, Antwerp, Belgium