Walter Van Beirendonck Keeps Pushing Men’s Wear’s Boundaries

January 21, 2021
Walter Van Beirendonck Men’s Fall 2019. Giovanni Giannoni and Dominique Maitre.

The Belgian fashion maverick is marking 25 years of fashion shows in the French capital.

“I enjoy that — to push forward the boundaries of men’s fashion.”

So says Walter Van Beirendonck, who is marking 25 years of fashion shows in Paris that have been among the first to incorporate rubber fetish wear, face masks, political slogans — and burly, bearded models.

Dialing in via Skype, he’s dressed in a bright green sweater and behind him is a shelf crammed with colorful figurines, out of which one can make out Mr. Potato Head and an M&M character. Anything with two eyes that looks out at him at a yard sale or charity shop window might join his collection, and he says these creatures help him develop ideas and characters for his playful, colorful and occasionally subversive fashion universe.

The Belgian designer, one of the original Antwerp Six, is late with his fall 2021 collection, so for his time slot on Wednesday during Paris Fashion Week, he spliced together footage from his past shows as a placeholder, only then realizing the milestone he had reached. He is on a short list of independent designers to have marked a quarter century of Paris shows, which also includes Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Kenzo and Comme des Garçons, according to the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. (Dries Van Noten, Raf Simons and Christophe Lemaire joined the following year.)

Van Beirendonck’s new collection, titled “Future Proof,” is to be unveiled on Jan. 28 with photos and video clips amid a backstage atmosphere “from a show that never happened,” he said.

With interest in the 1990s riding high, Van Beirendonck has seen members of Gen Z snapping up his designs from that era, when his Mustang-backed W&LT (Wild & Lethal Trash) label produced them in good quantities. “These young people are looking for expressive clothes to wear,” he shrugged.

This inspired him to bring back some of his iconic logos and characters, including his beloved Puk-Puk, a grinning alien from the planet Dork, and his dog Sado, which he’s remixed into new combinations, also adding a crocodile whose mouth won’t close due to the outstretched arms of the anatomically correct Walter stick figure.

Van Beirendonck was reluctant to talk about the dust-up last fall when online observers spied similarities between Louis Vuitton’s men’s spring 2021 collection and Van Beirendonck’s fall 2016 show. (Vuitton said there was no link.)

While the likeness was painful for him to process, Van Beirendonck admits in hindsight that the accusation probably prompted many hype beasts to research his extraordinary career. “Even those kind of dramas are creating visibility,” he allowed.

He said his 35 wholesale accounts, dotted around the globe, remain extremely loyal, and order quantities are slowly creeping up.

He continues to head up the fashion department at the Royal Academy in Antwerp, and fill men’s wear with color, whimsy and daring. Here, he talks about the power of runway shows, David Bowie, and why men’s wear keeps him fascinated:

Even fashion pros have been complaining about runway shows in recent years. Do you still believe in them?

Walter Van Beirendonck: Everybody’s missing the real thing. It’s a place where something magical is happening, things are coming together and it’s an atmosphere where you’ll see for the first time something new — and then how you do It is something very important. So I still believe in, in fashion shows. I am rather convinced that this crisis and this rethinking will have an effect on the fashion shows, but probably for the good.

Why do you stick so steadfastly to men’s wear, and not tried to make your label a “lifestyle” brand?

I like to work around the male body, around the mentality of men, despite the fact that that’s also changing over the years. But for me, it’s more interesting to push forward these boundaries, to play and to try and to experiment and to see how far you can go. And that for me is more interesting than to concentrate on women, where you have so-called complete freedom to do whatever you want. I wanted that restriction to keep me more alert.

You tackled gender issues back in 2000, showed diverse body types, and have often taken on political causes in your collection. Why?

It’s part of my way of communicating because for me, fashion is really communication, and why I choose to be a fashion designer. I always tell the story about David Bowie, who taught me that through looks and garments you can really transmit very strong messages. I was so so blown away by his looks back in the Seventies, for me it was my starting point for fashion design. And sometimes it’s more political — or about certain stories and other topics. But there is always something happening between me and the collection and the final consumer. I really try to bring out messages.

Are there limits to how far men’s wear can be stretched?

For me, it’s important to see how far it can go, but I don’t want to end up with a caricature or with something that is completely out of mind, just to shock. So it’s also trying to keep a good balance between something on the catwalk, but also something which is salable and wearable.

Is there an overriding trend or idea that you’d like to stake a claim on?

Color! From the very beginning I used colour, even when the Nineties were completely black I kept on doing colour. So it’s colour, using unexpected materials for men, reinventing the suit, starting to cut it up, rework it, using patterns and prints. It’s rather obvious that a lot of things I kept doing became rather common over the years.

Do you think there could be another Antwerp Six?

I don’t think so. It was such a special moment. And then look back to it, and it was such a spontaneous thing that happened, I think it’s only possible once in 100 years.

By Miles Socha

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