The World According to Walter Van Beirendonck

Einstein once remarked that there’s no inspiration in an empty room, which is probably why the fifth floor of Antwerp’s Royal Academy smells of burnt leather. A student is adding loafer details to his Adidas Superstar sneakers, while in the back of the museum-like white cube chamber, students are gazing at a Stockman tailor dummy.

You could say that there’s a certain creative flow going on here, but to really understand the underlying structure of this elite school for aspiring fashion designers there’s one man you need to speak to: the head of the fashion course, Walter van Beirendonck. In the heart of the Belgian fashion capital, we covered a range of topics, from The Antwerp Six to finding his students’ voice.

You’ve been teaching for a long time now.
I’ve been teaching since 1985. Just four years after graduating I was asked to come back and teach. It was something I really didn’t want to be doing at first.

Why the reluctance?
I was just as young as the students! To be working with such young people, as a teacher, was like working on the same level. Now I have some authority, but then it was just about sitting down with someone your own age and critiquing them. It was hard.

Can you immediately see if a student has a worthwhile vision?
Nowadays I can easily see where there’s potential. I see students from their third year on, so by that time they’re pretty developed.

What did you do during the gap years between graduating in ’82 and starting your label in ’85?
I did a lot of competitions. We all did [The Antwerp Six]. It made sense to have that experience. We traveled a lot too. We had national recognition, but internationally that meant nothing. Belgium didn’t even have a proper fashion culture. We had no forefathers who paved the way for our success. We decided that if we wanted success we had to work it out by ourselves. That’s why we traveled, first to London, afterwards to Japan and America. Sometimes Martin Margiela came too — we were seven.

You were perhaps the first Western designers to crossover into Asia.
Yes, we did a tour through Japan, but it was a tour with a Belgian minister who went for business and took us ‘for fun.’ It wasn’t about a market or anything. It was just about going and exploring.

What do you tell your students is the key to commercial success?
You can’t program it, success. You can be ambitious and want your work to be successful, but there is nothing to steer that. I can’t really teach students the key to success. But working hard, getting a signature, and staying true to yourself is a good way to find people who will help you get somewhere.

Was that taught to you while you were a student at the academy?
That was something I learned by myself. When we studied here times were different. It was mainly due to our own ambition and our own exploration that we went to fashion weeks all over the world.

It’s a sort of synergy.
Exactly! There was no sense of competition or envy. For example, Ann was good at presentations so Dries wanted to improve his. That’s how it went. It was very friendly, we were always working together.

Can you spark that with your students?
Some years you do, some you don’t. It has to happen organically. For us it’s most important that students have their own voices. Some years you see that the students stick together, but sometimes they split up into smaller groups. We can’t package them.

Raf Simons was an intern of yours. Did you know he faked much of his portfolio when applying with you? Those magazine covers he ‘styled’ were actually faked.
I didn’t even want to hire him at first. He was so driven that I let him pass. But I didn’t know about this faking. I believed he did some fashion things before. I still do.

[London men’s designer] Craig Green worked with you and you’ve been quoted as saying you taught him to voice himself. How do you get that out of people?
It happens naturally. People come to work here and find their voice, the same goes for Bernhard Willhelm. I think it’s due to the environment. We have a small team and lack many luxuries. There isn’t an abundance of computers or machines. It’s a huge experience to not be overwhelmed by those in the fashion world, where money is so common. We prove that with creativity and belief, something is possible that can’t be purchased.

His graduate collection was incredibly controversial, something you have been known for yourself. How much does your voice influence your teachings?
My strong imagination really prevents me from being influenced. I try to view stuff from the students’ perspective as much as possible. At other schools teachers seem more dominant, like Vivienne Westwood. She makes little Westwoods all the time. With all due respect, because dominance isn’t easy to maintain, but that’s not how we do things here.

But students still cry from time to time here, don’t they?
It’s only natural. Tears usually prove that there’s an acknowledgement, an understanding of something. If I see a student’s work is not there, I demand more effort, research and work. They might cry in the process, but that’s nothing horrible.

Your collections always seem to have a certain amount of provocation. Depictions of the phallus return often in your work. Do you ever back down?
I never think about shocking people. It’s more a problem for those who are shocked than it is for me. If I think I should show something, I do it.

Do you teach your students how to shock?
We never speak in terms of shocking, we speak about experimenting and changing boundaries. I feel, and this is how I work with students, that over the years I changed a lot of boundaries — on gender, the link between male and female, etc. It’s always about making a difference, which sometimes can be shocking. But shock value is never an objective.

Your last collection was a commentary on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. How did that happen?
A part of that message was already there. I later added STOP TERRORISING OUR WORLD, which was something I actually made for the winter 2006/2007 collection. I decided it fit well.

Do you condemn fashion houses that have lost their urge to speak out?
Some designers choose money and backing, but then you can’t do ‘raw’ stuff anymore because it isn’t appreciated by your backers. It always has to do with the urge for money and, perhaps, possibilities.

What is your advice for young designers?
They shouldn’t be too money-grubbing. These decisions give more possibilities but also way more limits. This process repeats itself indefinitely. These are hard choices everyone has to make.

Students easily romanticize the idea of being taken up by a mega-conglomerate, don’t they?
Students are fascinated by it! And by the power these houses have. Those places are usually where they start out and learn a lot. Some get motivated to start their own business, others will want to stay there. Creative consultancy isn’t something you easily get to do. We have some talent scouts come over and they usually decide who would be a good match for them.

Your husband, Dirk van Saene, once remarked you have the same unorthodox drive as Karl Lagerfeld. Karl’s work ethos comes at the price of isolation and detachment. Are you familiar with this artistic isolation?
Well I think he’s very happy. He chooses to be happy this way and that’s a great thing. He still enjoys doing all these projects and runways. I think it’s beautiful that that works out.

Your work is always described as very pop, while I’ve always thought it’s more punk, in the sense of anti-establishment.
I consider myself to be more punk than pop, mainly because I play with elements of a punk mentality: opposition, reaction. It’s not so much in the visual. I’m way too colorful; punk is never colorful. Perhaps that makes me seem pop.

I used to go to school with kids who’d wear a Ramones shirt while not even knowing the word ‘punk.’
Well, iconic designs get translated to mainstream appeal. That’s how the mainstream works. People buy into a feeling and don’t know what it stands for anymore.

Does that include fast-fashion collaborations, like Alexander Wang x H&M?
I won’t be the first to say that those collaborations have to happen, but it does bring democratisation to fashion. It’s not even about the money for these designers. It’s about reaching an audience.

But just a year earlier you would see Wang’s iconic designs copied by H&M without any collaboration.
I don’t have any problem with those cheap clothes, but they shouldn’t be copied from other designers. I would love it if strong designers would go to H&M to make their own collections under the H&M brand. H&M are already realizing they shouldn’t just interpret current trends. And here I do believe they have good intentions, which are not working out perfectly yet. But it will happen, just watch. We’re at a turning point in fashion, where the old ways aren’t functioning anymore, but the new ones aren’t either. It’s just like in the eighties when there was a particular take on fashion. Just ten years later it changed — and now it’s happening again.

How would you describe this change?
Evolution. It’s an evolution of communication. The change of communication is shifting fashion. How people treat [and share] images now changes how we value and critique products.

Your last collection played into this very well, I believe. The backside of each piece was ‘undesigned’ simple calico.
Yes, yes, yes. The reference goes way back. In menswear in the 1800s, only the frontside of garments would be decorated, to save money. That made me think of not showing backsides to clothing. It was a direct response to the site. Creative clothing just doesn’t work very well on web shops or I’ve seen Comme des Garçons pieces not getting sold because the photography doesn’t show the genius of it.

Newspapers are a recurring theme in your work, like the ‘fashion is dead’ newspaper you handed out at a show. Last year Suzy Menkes wrote a popular op-ed on the circus surrounding shows.
I think I read it.

Do you find the amount of peacocking around fashion shows vulgar?
There’s nothing vulgar here. It really doesn’t bother me. I like it, its expression and enthusiasm. Even if these bloggers get paid to wear some things. At the end, fashion is effectively a circus.

Bloggers judge something from a “Do I think it’s good” perspective while a journalist tries to answer “Is it good?” Would you agree?
Yes, very much. Most bloggers with a serious passion for journalism move on from there. They apply at magazines and papers. I try to work around all that. [But] there are some things that don’t make sense here. Like, it’s weird to see celebrities and bloggers get clothing for free, while they’re the ones who can afford it. Being in the industry for a while, I can sense that it is a question of time. Fashion is constantly shifting and that’s what I like about it.

You’ve also curated a newspaper and curated for a museum. In the late 80s you designed a comic book (King Kong Kooks). You’re all over the place.
I’ve always been interested in broadening my field of work.

Does it work the other way around? Kanye West had a dance with the fashion world and didn’t survive — complaining to be marginalized as a rapper.
Kanye came to me for an internship. He also applied at Raf [Simons]. But could you believe that? Kanye interning with me? I thought it was funny. He brought his mood boards and had a lot of ambition, but you could see a lack of formal training. He noticed it too. It’s something you can’t fake. He aggressively stormed the fashion world without the proper initiation or introduction. He had a lot of connections and possibilities, but not the right skills or talents. The result of that of course is falling and getting up again. But it’s just sad because of the energy that went into it. That first collection was so bad.

Rick Owens does the same with his furniture line, and young avant-gardists like Sruli Recht and Kofta actively step into the field of product design.
Some designers think other disciplines are redundant, but the nice thing about this world is that these possibilities exist and can be used. If my mailman wants to record an album, he should.

Thanks to 1Granary