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Brand to Know: A Subversive Line Inspired by Mapplethorpe

By Kin Woo

 
Kira Bunse
 

Growing up, the 26-year-old French designer Ludovic de Saint Sernin felt like he never quite fit in. Born in Brussels to a French mother and Portuguese diplomat father, de Saint Sernin lived with his family in the Ivory Coast until he was 8, when civil war forced them to relocate to France. De Saint Sernin recalls his childhood in Africa as a period of intense freedom. “I was always playing around with materials, making something from nothing,” he says. “I didn’t realise how amazing it was until I left. It felt like a dream.” When he moved to Paris’s 16th Arrondissement, which he felt was stuffy by comparison, he retreated into a world of drawing and watching old fashion shows on television.

It wasn’t until he enrolled in fashion school at ESAA Duperré that he began to reconcile these different aspects of himself. He says, “When I started art school, I felt like I had been in a bubble and there was so much to discover. The work I do now is me trying to break free.” After graduating in 2013, he went to work at Balmain under the newly appointed creative director, Olivier Rousteing, first as an intern and then as part of the design team. It was an eye-opening experience. “There was an amazing energy there,” de Saint Sernin says. Olivier was inspiring — very generous and very close to everyone. The whole team was young and we would work crazy hours and go out partying together.” It was during this formative period that he fell in love with his first boyfriend and came out to his aristocratic family. “For me, falling in love with a guy and falling in with the gay community was shocking and amazing at the same time,” he says. “My personal life was filled with so many new experiences — I felt like I had to express that.”

Erick Faulkner
 

This might explain why the first collection for his namesake brand feels so autobiographical. “This was the first time I did something so personal, rather than work with this idea of a muse,” he says. De Saint Sernin repurposed borrowed items from his boyfriend or his own wardrobe in the collection, imbuing it with a sense of intimacy.

Consisting of only 10 looks designed to be worn by both men and women, the collection eschews the wild over-ornamentation and excess typically associated with Balmain. Instead, de Saint Sernin opted for a subdued colour palette and minimal tailoring. “After the flamboyance and sparkliness, I wanted something more laid back, earthy and natural,” he explains. “I needed to cleanse and go back to something closer to my aesthetic.”

Kira Bunse
 

He calls the collection a “coming of age story” — he hints at the homoerotically charged yet delicate imagery of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the kinky subversiveness of Helmut Lang. De Saint Sernin sourced most of the fabrics on a recent trip to Japan, and was inspired by the country’s craftsmanship and artisanal details. A handbag, for example, references traditional Japanese techniques of knotting, while a linen jockstrap is finished with sumo wrestler mawashi details at the back.

The sexual undertones of his collection will also extend to de Saint Sernin’s fashion week presentation, which will be held at a hôtel particulier in the Ninth Arrondissement. Inspired by the Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra, de Saint Sernin plans to create a seductive, voyeuristic mise-en-scène with the 10 models “cruising the space, flirting and fighting for the limelight.” He says, “I like the idea of desire, but also distance, and I like to play around with that. There are a lot of sexual references in my work. I always want to be very elegant — but it is a part of everyone’s life.”