Walter van Bierendonck: Fashion's Belgian Bad Boy [Exclusive]

“[We] wanted to conquer the fashion world, from a city and country without any fashion history,” says Walter Van Beirendonck. It’s astounding to think that the Antwerp Six (fashion designer alumni from the Royal Arts Academy in Antwerp, which included Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Marina Yee, and Dirk Bikkermbergs) created fashion in Belgium, but it’s even more astounding not to believe it – every memory scan to a sartorial history before Van Beirendonck and his contemporaries draws a blank.

But it’s unsurprising that Walter, with his commandeering physical appearance, and his equally, if not more, commandeering designs, would be at the epicenter of not only creating fashion, but re-defining it. There’s a slew of designers who inject fun into their collections, and an even smaller bunch that blend the line between fashion and art. Van Beirendonck falls into the latter. His FW 15 collection captured every eye with shirts that donned the socio-political messages ‘Warning Explicit Beauty’ and ‘Stop Terrorizing Our World.’ For his most recent collection, titled ‘ELECTRIC EYE,’ the Belgian sent out an incredible line that exemplified exactly who he is as an artist and as a designer, meshing classic suits with unexpected quilts of patterns, colors, and emblems of beauty. Milk’s Ana Velasco talked to the designer about the first clothing piece he designed, the evolution of menswear, and who ELECTRIC EYE is inspired by.

Your work uses a lot of pastels and bright colors, which haven’t traditionally been associated with menswear. What do you think the modern man looks like now and how do you think that fashion has changed to fulfill his needs?

Fashion is changing continually, that’s what makes it so interesting. In the 70’s I grew up with lots of color. That was an eye-opener for me, as was the menswear of glam-rock, like David Bowie. Today we are again in a period where gender is questioned, and again in a period where color is a strong element in men’s fashion. The recent ten years or so has seen an evolution in menswear that is very strong, and much more interesting than what is happening in women’s fashion in recent years.

If you had to live in a world without color or without music, which one would it be and why?

Without color and music I would be very unhappy, and I would not be able to live in such a dreadful world.

From ‘Electric Eye’ SS16

How does it feel to be a part of the Antwerp Six? Are you still in touch with your contemporaries?

Yes of course, we see each other from time to time. It was a fantastic, powerful period. Totally spontaneous and unexpected. We were just a bunch of friends, very ambitious friends, who wanted to conquer the fashion world from a city and country without any fashion history.

What was it like to go to school with Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester? What is the craziest story you have with each other?

I was in the class with Martin Margiela, class number seven. All together we organized fantastic dress up parties. And we travelled the world, discovered Japan and New York together. We had such a fantastic synergy, which was what launched our careers.

Your work blends fashion and politics. Do you think it’s important to use a platform that isn’t usually associated with socio-political issues to spread awareness of global injustices?

I see fashion as communication, and the six month pace, gives me the possibility to react on the actuality. Creative people with a voice and an audience should spread awareness. I keep on believing in a better world, and every bit that helps is worth trying. 

“I was in the class with Martin Margiela, class number seven. All together we organized fantastic dress up parties.”

From ‘Electric Eye’ SS16

The titles of your collections are really poetic and at times semi-hyperbolic. What is the meaning behind them and how do you choose what to title each collection?

The titles from my collections are always very important. From the first ones, like ‘Bad Baby Boys’ and ‘Let’s Tell a Fairy Tale’, they cover the story of the collection that I like to tell. They’re almost used as slogans or statements. And they pop up rather spontaneously during the creation process. For example, ‘Electric Eye,’ the name from my most recent summer collection, comes from the Bowie song ‘Moonage Daydream.’ It’s slang for camera, and I use it to refer to the overwhelming power and strength of the unstoppable stream of images we are bombarded with day in and day out.

You’ve blended fashion and art in a way that not every fashion house has done – engaging in projects like NIRVANA and LOVE&LOSS. What is the pursuit behind these projects and how is the driving force different than when creating clothes?

I do love art a lot, and most of my art projects were made on request of museum galleries or artists. But I position myself in the first place as a fashion designer.

“Without color and music I would be very unhappy, and I would not be able to live in such a dreadful world.”

From ‘Electric Eye’ SS16

If you could define the brand Walter Van Beirendonck with a movie, which one would it be and why?

Blue Velvet, or Lost Highway, both from David Lynch

What is the first outfit/clothing piece you ever designed?

A skirt, which I did in my first year at Antwerp Academy. 

You designed costumes for U2. Who would be the next ideal musician/band to do a similar collaboration with and why?

It was fantastic to work for U2 and with Bono. ‘The Pop Mart Tour’ was the perfect setting and concept for my creations. If I could work with anyone one day it would have to be Bowie, he’s my hero.

Do you have any upcoming special projects?

A collaboration with Ikea, but there are many new projects to come. Yet they are still secret!

Can you tell us about the general driving force behind your designs? You tend to blend art, surrealism, and circus motifs throughout your collections.

Freedom and pushing my own boundaries is what keeps me going. The world is my inspiration, and every season I try to tell a new story, inspired by topics I am fascinated by at that moment.

What is a hidden talent most people don’t know you have?

Balance and beauty are extremely important in all that I am doing.

Portrait photographs by Ronald Stoops.

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