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The Strange and Beautiful Universe of Walter Van Beirendonck

By Thessaly La Force

Walter Van Beirendonck in a jacket from his spring 2019 collection, Wild is the Wind, in front of looks from the spring 2012 Cloud #9 collection.
Mark Peckmezian
Walter Van Beirendonck in a jacket from his spring 2019 collection, Wild is the Wind, in front of looks from the spring 2012 Cloud #9 collection.

The collection was called Wonder and was shown in Paris’s Bataclan theatre, in the 11th Arrondissement, in late June of 2009. Large, hirsute men — bears, in the lexicon of gay male culture — stomped down the runway. A dizzying tempo of electronic music blared on the speakers. The bears had a variety of facial hair and wore a variety of looks: wide cotton cargo pants with zip pockets in the shape of dildos and clouds paired with electric blue and pink blazers fashioned from a lightweight cloqué material; acid pink and neon green PVC ponchos over sneakers with knee-high white socks scrawled with words like “bear” and “pleasure.” It was seemingly the end when the designer, Walter Van Beirendonck — himself a large, hirsute Belgian man, a chicer version of Santa Claus — emerged to do his own walk down the runway. As a finale, the bears assembled onstage, only to be upstaged by another group of bears, this one wearing white briefs, with a “W” sewn in red across the crotch, who arrived to stand defiantly in front of them, claiming the runway as their own. The crowd clapped. The show was over.

Van Beirendonck, who is 62, has been designing improbable, idiosyncratic men’s fashion for over four decades. He is one of the so-called Antwerp Six, a group of Belgian designers who in the mid-80s helped transform the city, only Belgium’s second largest, into an unlikely fashion center. He is also the director of the fashion school at Antwerp’s well-regarded Royal Academy of Fine Arts, from which he graduated, and is considered a mentor by many designers, including Craig GreenBernhard Willhelm and Kris Van Assche, the creative director of Berluti. He’s a contemporary and collaborator of artists as diverse as the Japanese founder of Comme des GarçonsRei Kawakubo; the Austrian conceptual artist Erwin Wurm; the French artist Orlan; the Irish rock band U2; and the Australian industrial designer Marc Newson. He is often credited with pioneering a new aesthetic: When he started his career in 1982, at the age of 25, European men’s wear was generally limited to suiting and separates cut in traditional tweeds, wools and cottons. Van Beirendonck was one of the lone disrupters of this code of masculinity and formality, melding technically futuristic fabrics — often those used exclusively in sportswear — with the couture-like craftsmanship he learned at the Royal Academy, while overlaying a uniquely sunny, humorous, almost childlike filter on his anarchistic silhouettes, which were otherwise informed by darker allusions to B.D.S.M. and punk rock culture.

He is also, in an age in which fashion has become a multibillion-dollar business — less a forum for artistic expression than one for potentially enormous profits — defiant in not only his singular sensibility but in his apparent lack of interest in the commercial and the compromised. These days, the runway is, with increasing frequency, a place for political provocations, for expressions of gender fluidity, kink and queerness. But this is a recent development, and one that arguably finds its roots in Van Beirendonck’s shows. He is the last punk, one whose work can today feel predictive in its obsessions and transgressions, and to which contemporary fashion owes a debt. “It was easy for me to do what I do when I started in the early 2000s,” says the American fashion designer Thom Browne, known for his own upending of traditional men’s wear codes. “In the early ’80s, it was brave, what Walter was doing. You have to cite real revolutionaries like him for leading the way. He’s inspiring to all of us who are designing now.”

A look from Sado, Van Beirendonck’s first collection, for spring 1983.
A look from Sado, Van Beirendonck’s first collection, for spring 1983.
Courtesy of Walter Van Beirendonck/KINOPROBYFrom the Worlds of Sun and Moon collection, for Walter Van Beirendonck, fall 2018.
From the Worlds of Sun and Moon collection, for Walter Van Beirendonck, fall 2018.

“What would you like to know about me?” Van Beirendonck asks. It is evening in the village of Zandhoven, a 30-minute drive east of Antwerp, where Van Beirendonck lives in a large 19th-century house, which sits on an expansive property covered by wild grass and old trees. He is about to travel to Tokyo to collaborate with Kawakubo on a new T-shirt.

Van Beirendonck was born in 1957 and grew up in the same small village where he lives today. His parents owned an auto-repair garage and gas station, and Van Beirendonck was mostly raised by his grandmother and his oldest sister. At 12, he was sent to boarding school in Lier, southeast of Antwerp, where he kept to himself, sketching and writing in his diary. He knew he was gay at 14, and came out to his family without much of an issue. It was the early ’70s then, and David Bowie had created (with the help of the Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto) his Ziggy Stardust persona, with his plume of red hair, graphic makeup and narrow, androgynous jumpsuits. For teenagers like Van Beirendonck, who “couldn’t play football” and were living in polite, bourgeois villages, Bowie and his compatriots — Iggy Pop, with his snakelike torso and skintight pants; Lou Reed, with his wild hair and kohl-lined eyes — were a revelation: Here was another way of being, another way of living. At 18, he picked up a Dutch magazine called Avenue, which described the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp; he enrolled the next year, in 1976. Founded in 1663, the academy was known for its classical pedagogy, emphasising art over commercialism — its fashion department, created in 1963, was a relatively new addition.

At the Royal Academy, Van Beirendonck discovered the rigours and ambition of design, as well as a coterie of like-minded friends. In his class was the prodigious Martin Margiela, who a decade later would be working in Paris for the designer Jean Paul Gaultierwhile launching his namesake line. A year later, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee would join the class below him. Antwerp only had a population of around half a million in the 1970s, but a particularly outré avant-garde movement had blossomed around the art gallery Wide White Space, which represented conceptual artists such as Joseph Beuys and Marcel Broodthaers. There was also a burgeoning experimental theater scene led by the young director Ivo van Hove. Like its European neighbours to the east and north, stolid Belgium — with its Magritte-gray skies and cobblestone streets — was rapidly transforming. Different in their aesthetic leanings but similar in their drive, Van Beirendonck and his schoolmates formed a clique. Van Beirendonck says, “When Ann did something, then Dries wanted to do it better, and then I wanted to do it better.” The emergence of new designers such as Giorgio ArmaniGianni VersaceThierry Mugler and Claude Montana — who piled big shoulders on ultrasexy feminine silhouettes and alluded to contemporary culture — was inspiring, too. They were proof that one didn’t need to build a couture house to make fashion that people wanted to wear.

Courtesy of Walter Van BeirendonckFrom the Lust Never Sleeps collection, for Walter Van Beirendonck, fall 2012.
From the Lust Never Sleeps collection, for Walter Van Beirendonck, fall 2012.

Though Belgium may have been waking from its slumber, Van Beirendonck’s real lodestar was across the sea. From the ’70s through the mid-80s, London was the primary seat of dissident and anti-establishment design, not just in fashion but across disciplines: Britain was in the midst of protracted financial recessions, the Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcherhad been elected, the performance artist Leigh Bowery had opened his underground nightclub Taboo, which fuelled the polysexual and New Romantic scenes, and all of young artistic life was in revolt. What they made thrilled a generation of young designers, who saw in their abandonment of old mores a chance for reinvention. “Walter was really focused on London,” recalls Van Noten, who was also enthralled by the city’s raw energy, riotous night life and anti-establishment punk rock bands and fashion trends. “He was a big fan of I-D and The Face and these types of magazines, and of punk clothes made by Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood, and of Adam and the Ants; he was following that scene very closely, so when there was a concert or anything like that, we all went together, completely dressed up. Ann Demeulemeester was more on the darker side. … I had more of a traditional upbringing, so for me, it was quality fabrics, couture silks. Everybody brought a different element in the group and everybody learned from everybody.” The friends traveled to London and Paris, sneaking into fashion shows on forged invitations.

Upon graduating in 1980, Van Beirendonck began styling and designing for the Belgian raincoat company Barston. His classmates took on commercial jobs as well. But they were still putting everything they earned back into their own collections; Van Beirendonck debuted his first, Sado, in 1982 (he titles all of his collections). “We really were desperate to be in foreign magazines and be picked up by press, and that’s why we had to leave Belgium. We did things, but nobody was talking about them outside of Belgium,” Van Beirendonck says. In 1986, the group — Van Beirendonck, Van Noten, Van Saene, Bikkembergs and Yee (Demeulemeester, nine months pregnant, stayed home) — traveled to London with Geert Bruloot, who ran a boutique in Antwerp. Bruloot showcased their designs as a collective at a London fashion fair; it drew interest from buyers in New York and Paris. The group was nicknamed the Antwerp (or Belgian) Six to avoid the difficulty of pronouncing their Flemish names.

Courtesy of Walter Van Beirendonck/Ronald StoopsLooks from the Cosmic Culture Clash collection, for Wild & Lethal Trash, fall 1994.
Looks from the Cosmic Culture Clash collection, for Wild & Lethal Trash, fall 1994.
Courtesy of Walter Van Beirendonck/Ronald StoopsCloud #9, Walter Van Beirendonck in collaboration with Erwin Wurm, spring 2012.
Cloud #9, Walter Van Beirendonck in collaboration with Erwin Wurm, spring 2012.

Suddenly, it seemed as though the centre of the fashion world was, if not moving away, then expanding beyond Paris and London — New York, Milan, Tokyo and even Antwerp were offering new models for how to be a designer, for new clothes. Kawakubo showed her collection for the first time in Paris in 1981 and was shocking people with her colorless, strange and experimental designs. Yohji Yamamoto would show a year later. Fashion was shifting from traditionally feminine and masculine shapes and silhouettes toward something new and undefined.

For a young designer, then, there was suddenly space — both existentially and physically — to take risks. It was both the recklessness and, paradoxically, repressiveness of those years that made Van Beirendonck’s generation want to act out, made them want to choose ecstasy over safety. Who knew what tomorrow would bring? There was also, incidentally, real financial support by way of a program launched in the early ’80s by Belgium’s minister of economics, who was hoping to find a way to reinvigorate the country’s once-thriving linen industry. A campaign called Fashion: It’s Belgian was established, along with a competition called the Golden Spindle, both with the goal of promoting Belgian fashion designers. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the Antwerp Six won the Golden Spindle within the first decade of its creation.

This was also the period in which Van Beirendonck fell in love. He and Van Saene, a designer and artist, had become romantically involved at school, and, as Van Beirendonck says, “we never split up again.” They married last year, and Van Saene now works in a studio next to Van Beirendonck’s. Together they have formed one of those rare artistic partnerships in which they are each present to witness the other. “He knows my strengths and my weaknesses,” Van Beirendonck says. “He is the one I can talk with about my ideas, and he reacts in a very open and very clear way.”

Courtesy of Walter Van Beirendonck/Photography by Jean-Baptiste MondinoFrom the Paradise Pleasure Productions collection, for Wild & Lethal Trash, fall 1995.
From the Paradise Pleasure Productions collection, for Wild & Lethal Trash, fall 1995.

But if the ’80s was a time of rebellion, it was, in part, a rebellion against death, brought on by AIDS. “It was a tough and severe period,” Van Beirendonck tells me, “when several people around me got sick and died. So did so many of the artists and creative people who we looked up to.” And yet, even at the height of fear, even when there was little hope of a cure, even when the shame and metaphor of the virus had become intertwined with gay culture, Van Beirendonck remained joyful about sex. His work from those years, such as 1995’s fall collection, Paradise Pleasure Productions, recognises and celebrates various subcultures and codes of gay sex: There are latex suits dripping with flaccid phalluses and bondage masks made to look like cheap blowup dolls. They have been leitmotifs ever since — the fall 2012 collection, Lust Never Sleeps, featured more bondage masks, made from a tan leather and tweed, evocative of a British dandy — half respectable, half subversive.

The frankness of these collections makes them mesmerising now, but when they were first shown, when many governments were actively trying to stigmatise gay sex, drawing a line between it and the disease, they would have been shocking. Their bravery is in their lack of apology. And yet Van Beirendonck doesn’t consider himself a provocateur; his intention has never been to shock, only to present. And he persists: The fall 2018 collection, Worlds of Sun and Moon, had pink, yellow and black ponchos, silk bomber jackets and jumpsuits, all punctuated with glory holes. “I know that certain things I am doing could be shocking for certain people,” he said in a 2011 interview with ShowStudio. “But they are definitely not for me.”

This dedication to depict, unflinchingly, a certain subculture and to explore the toll AIDS had taken on his community reached its apotheosis in his 1996 spring collection, Killer / Astral Travel / 4D-Hi-D. Held in the Lido nightclub in Paris, the show presented an intergalactic world filled with neon-coloured clothes, moon boots and enormous space-age topiary-like wigs, along with a narrative about a young girl named Heidi who befriends a space goat. The show’s Heidi character was a direct reference to the work of the American artists Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, both of whom Van Beirendonck cites as major influences in confronting the violence and oppression of childhood (Kelley’s work was more abject, even plaintive; McCarthy’s remains more aggressive and sexually threatening). In 1992, the two collaborated on a video work called “Heidi,” inspired by the Swiss writer Johanna Spyri’s 1881 novel about an orphan sent to live in the woods with her grandfather. Kelley and McCarthy were attracted to the allegory of Heidi’s story: an innocent girl living with an old man she wants to please. But in Van Beirendonck’s interpretation, projected onto a screen at the show, Heidi’s sweet little mountain goat is transmogrified into a devil, who represents AIDS. He called their encounter a fatal attraction: the story of something that looks benign suddenly transforming into something deadly.

Courtesy of Walter Van Beirendonck/Ronald StoopsA look from Van Beirendonck’s first Wild & Lethal Trash collection, for spring 1993.
A look from Van Beirendonck’s first Wild & Lethal Trash collection, for spring 1993.
Courtesy of Walter Van Beirendonck/Ronald StoopsVan Beirendonck wearing a fall 1994 Walter Van Beirendonck sweater.
Van Beirendonck wearing a fall 1994 Walter Van Beirendonck sweater.

In 1992, van Beirendonck began working with Mustang, a German denim brand. He was given big budgets to mount elaborate shows under the label W.& L.T. (an acronym for “Wild & Lethal Trash”) — huge, theatrical productions — that attracted an enormous amount of attention and press. But the ’90s also heralded the arrival of minimalism, and Van Beirendonck didn’t — and couldn’t — conform to its restrained, colourless aesthetic and cool affectlessness. He parted ways with Mustang in 1999, and he has remained independent ever since, free from the confines of a co-ownership with a fashion conglomerate like LVMH or Kering. This independence explains in large part why Van Beirendonck is lesser known than his peers and even some of his students.

Another factor is his dedication to Antwerp, which he has never truly left. Van Beirendonck joined the faculty at the Royal Academy in 1985 and took over the fashion department in 2007. (Van Saene joined the faculty in 2009.) The Antwerp Six’s legacy is everywhere; the school now has an international student body, and its graduates helm some of the most influential European fashion houses (Veronique Branquinho and Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasaliaare both alumni). Van Beirendonck has a reputation as a purist, for treating his students’ collections as works of art — and for trying to protect them from the industry’s obsession with profits. Last year, though, a student’s suicide raised questions about the academy’s rigor and isolationist tendencies. “The suicide of our student was an incredibly sad incident,” Van Beirendonck says. “We care a lot about our students and we work with them all the time — we know them rather personally and form a strong bond. Since it happened, we’ve rethought certain exercises and tasks to lower the pressure.”

Courtesy of Walter Van BeirendonckFrom the Wonder collection, for Walter Van Beirendonck, spring 2010.
From the Wonder collection, for Walter Van Beirendonck, spring 2010.

But if Van Beirendonck’s work can be challenging to actually find — he sells to around 45 buyers worldwide, including the online retailer Farfetch, which recently reissued designs from his 2,000-piece archive — his admirers, though small in number, are devout. The New York-based artist Nayland Blake is one such customer, who says that as a 300-pound, six-foot-two self-described bear, wearing a Van Beirendonck poncho decorated with evil eyes and butt plugs is a “monstrously joyful” experience. “So much of our life is spent in pursuit of a kind of conformity,” he says, “and to be willing to put on a show for each other is, to me, a really exciting prospect.”

Monstrous joy may not have been what Van Beirendonck had in mind when he began his line. He has increasingly begun emphasising his considerable skill as a technical designer, forcing a consideration of the couture-level skeleton that has always lurked beneath his clothing’s brash exterior: the fine tailoring, the intricate beading, the manipulation of traditionally fine fabrics like brocade, Harris tweed and organza. He claims that he’s never been especially adventurous in love or life. But he has also never minded being adopted by the club kids, the ravers, the fetishists and the freaks — all the people who occupy the fringes, who want to look different because looking different makes them finally feel seen. Van Beirendonck’s creations can make him seem like a more glamorous, outsize, wilder person than he really is, but his fashion never denies who he is, which is what fashion ultimately does to so many. It denies our bodies, it denies our hunger, it denies our weird and varied beauty. Van Beirendonck may be one of very few designers left who is radically true to himself. “In the beginning, when I worked on my collections, it allowed me to escape from all this darkness, and I was also trying to give some brightness to the world,” he says. “That’s exactly what we have now, a dark world, and we want to at least have some hope.”