I remember the first time I got to meet Paul Boudens. It was during one of the most surreal days of my life. I found myself in the teachers' lounge of the Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, summoned by Walter Van Beirendonck who just moments before had passed my laptop to Dirk Van Saene, wanting him to see something on my screen. The reason for me being in this particular room was because Walter had asked me if I could write all the words that were going to fill the Academy's yearly magazine.
While I was furiously praying that none of those 'I don't know how it got there, must be from streaming tv-shows'-pop-ups would rear their NSFW-heads, when two members of the Antwerp Six were staring at my screen, Paul Boudens -who had been designing the magazine since its inception- was running a tiny bit late. Although I hadn't said anything -why on earth would I, obviously I cleared my entire schedule when I got called, so I could have sat there all week- Walter suddenly looked at me quite sternly and said: "Paul will be here in a moment lest something serious happened. He is never late." I nodded and duly noted the tone that was set for me to treat Mr. Boudens with the respect he deserved. Mere moments later, Paul arrived, immediately firing off three zingers that made everyone crack up, filling the room -that contained a couple of other Antwerp legends- with a different energy. Now, the team was complete.
At the end of the meeting, where I mostly listened and after everyone but Walter and Paul had cleared the room, Walter said: "Paul, do you know how I know Dominique?
"No", said Paul.
"I designed her wedding dress." Paul Boudens looked like he was expecting a lot of answers, but this one wasn't particularly among them. Once outside, he passed me while I was paying for my parking spot and looked me up and down in a way that felt like: "I still have no clue how you got into that room, but you better deliver." And then he smiled. I thought it was fair. But I also had been writing stories, getting into people's business (interviewing), editing and my work had been printed in national publications since I was six (a poem that shaded the weatherman being my first feat). So I was excited more than anything. To work with this group of luminaries and have my work laid-out by this man who, granted, looked like he sincerely hoped I wasn't going to waste his time?
This was exactly what I had been preparing for.
And of course Walter hadn’t need to worry (even though this probably was all in my head), because I was always going to treat Paul Boudens with the right amount of veneration. I have been a fan for decades and I have the shelf filled with "graphic design by Paul Boudens"-books to prove it. See, Paul Boudens is nothing short of a typographical genius and everybody knows it. He is as inextricably linked to Antwerp fashion as the city itself. From his early beginnings as a print designer for Walter Van Beirendonck in 1989, he has gone on to create graphic universes for Yohji Yamamoto, Dries Van Noten, Jurgi Persoons, Haider Ackermann, Olivier Theyskens, Rosas, MoMu and many more, gaining worldwide recognition for his layered and hand-crafted visual style. He is also co-founder of A Magazine and the first overview of his legacy was published in the award-winning monograph PAUL BOUDENS WORKS VOLUME I.
So, fast forward our collaboration on two subsequent magazines, a small-ish one -from my part at least- on an upcoming monograph and, most importantly, a brand new KNOTORYUS logo that he designed for us, and it's time for a sit-down and an extensive chat.
KNOTORYUS: Thank you for designing our new logo! We were so honoured when you said yes and relieved as well since our wish list only had one person on it. Well, to be completely honest, in the extremely early stages, we had an American on our list as well, but he was never our number one. And Christina Hardy of Nowness & An0ther-fame, who helped us a lot with the new KNOTORYUS.com, made us chuck that one out the window. We never looked back. What made you say yes to our request?
PAUL BOUDENS: If something interests me, I will do it. No matter what. Also, I was flattered to bits when you asked me. I like your style and your style of writing so I thought we would be a good match. I can’t work for assholes; that never works out. Believe me, I tried!
KNOTORYUS: We didn't give you any instructions, except for our name being all caps and that we wanted a logo in black and white. And then we sent you a sort of vibes-board consisting of a lot of things that we consider to be part of our DNA. When you started designing, what were some of the challenges?
PAUL BOUDENS: Well, first of all, Duran Duran’s ‘Notorious’ was constantly playing in my head. No-No-Noto-rious! Aaaaarghhh, drove me mad! And then, as you know I struggled a bit at first because my initial concept turned out to be already out there in some form. Bummer! I’m not claiming to be reinventing the wheel, but at least I'm trying to create something that will roll as well. When an initial idea is shot down due to circumstances, in my case the dreaded black hole follows. It doesn't happen too often, but I hate it when it does. I threw myself back into it with vigour and came out fighting. Took longer than I imagined, but in the end, I’m more satisfied with the design we ended up with.
KNOTORYUS: I've been obsessed with your work since even before I knew it was yours. I was a teenager when I first saw it, which was because you were working for Walter Van Beirendonck. How did you connect with him?
PAUL BOUDENS: Well, before we get into that we have to go back a bit. First of all, when I was younger I never wanted to do what I'm doing now. It was set in stone: "Paul, you are going to be a fashion designer." I don’t know where I got the idea. The only thing I could "design" was a long dress made from a single handkerchief for my Barbie dolls. Which meant they just ended up with a giant knot at the back of the neck. I also once saw a documentary on Yves Saint Laurent, I think. Little did I know that a degree in fashion wasn’t exactly easy to get. So in 1983, I went to Antwerp, did my entrance exam at the Academy and didn’t pass. (laughs) Now, I can joke about it. Back then I was like: “Fuck! I’m not going back to Germany!” I had already arranged student housing and everything…
KNOTORYUS: Wait, you were living in Germany?
PAUL BOUDENS: I was born in exotic Vilvoorde, near Brussels. My parents - who will be married for 60 years next year, bless them - are originally from Kortrijk, but they had bought a house in Evere. So that's where I lived until I was seven. Then we moved to Germany. I don’t know if you remember this: the “Boeffers”?
KNOTORYUS: It's been decades since I heard that word, such a typical Belgian term describing professional military people.
PAUL BOUDENS: Yes, we had the special black license plates with white lettering and because of that you’d get all kinds of things thrown at you. We also had a Volvo station wagon, us kids were like: “Sure, very cool, dad.” It was a model that had a seat all the way back in the trunk that for some odd reason had been put in backwards. So I spent all of my youth riding backwards with other cars' headlights shining in my face and people laughing at me sitting there with the luggage and the dog.
KNOTORYUS: (Laughs) That'll mess with you.
PAUL BOUDENS: No kidding. That's why after living in Germany for over a decade and having my mind set on studying Fashion in Antwerp, I didn't want to go back. My parents had told me they would pay for four years of college. All-inclusive. I had a super nice student room and a budget. Now all I needed was an actual major. I had no clue, so I asked some people I used to go to school with what they were going to study and, like them, I enrolled myself in "Applied Communication Sciences". A trash course and I failed because I didn't learn anything. Plus, I had fallen in love so there wasn't much time for studying anyway. I had a somewhat expanded group of friends by then, and one of them was a translator. I’m quite good with and sensitive to languages, I can’t read a restaurant menu without getting out a red marker. (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: I think it's an asset working with you. It's like you have an extra set of eyes looking out for your best interest. But, it also helps that you are really good with language and have a sense of humour and nuance, because I don't want to get phrasing suggestions from any graphic designer out there.
PAUL BOUDENS: I’m pretty maniacal about it. I read along. Mostly people appreciate my input; sometimes I get an annoyed reply, but whatever. So, I tried Translator/Interpreter as a major, failed, tried something else, quit halfway through the year and started working as a waiter. By then three of the four years that my parents were paying for were gone. In the meantime, at home, I had been tinkering around creatively, with Letraset, those adhesive letters. Remember those? You had to rub them off the plastic. I was also making cards and plastering cassette covers with Tipp-Ex. One day, I had made a birthday card for a friend who was throwing a party. I suppose it said “Happy birthday”, and it was made from black and white copies and adhesive letters in Helvetica Condens – I’ll never forget it. I stuck it onto cardboard with glue spray, and it sat atop his mantelpiece. And who turned out to also be at that party? Anne Kurris, one of the best graphic designers in Belgium at the time. She asked who had designed that birthday card at the party and I replied: “Uh, I did”. She said: “Oh, you should really do graphic design”. She told me she was teaching at Sint-Lucas Antwerp and that I’d just have to take an entrance exam. Which I did. I still get these school nightmares, do you?
KNOTORYUS: Absolutely. Failing exams and then waking up and being terrified to tell your mom. I still get such relief from never having to be in the classic school system as a student ever again.
PAUL BOUDENS: Well, those dreams don't go away as you get older, I can confirm. I got in and we had layout classes, which quickly turned out to be my thing, but because of some of the dumb general courses and maybe also because I'm not the best live model draughtsman I failed again. My teachers said: "Paul, you have to come back and re-do your year.” My parents said: "Not with our money, your four years are up." Which was fair, since I had basically been living it up like I was the Kim Kardashian of the eighties, but I still thought: “Shit, just when I found what I actually want to be doing for the rest of my life”. So long story somewhat shorter, during my graphic design studies, BAM Magazine had been launched (1988, BAM was short for 'Belgische Avantgarde Mode', the magazine was headed by Anne Kurris and its 'stylist' was none other than a young Walter Van Beirendonck, ed. note) and I started working on that during the weekends. The way we’d make magazines back then was sticking text to sheets using wax. A medieval set-up, the fact that it looked that good was a miracle.
KNOTORYUS: Was this when you started working for Walter Van Beirendonck?
PAUL BOUDENS: In that period, the Antwerp Six were obviously active and a few of them were growing exponentially. Anne Kurris was working for both Walter and Dries Van Noten. So at a certain point, Dries was becoming big business. I was in my third year by then, and she said that she’d have to make a choice between Dries and Walter, and that Dries was more her thing. So, she asked if I could take over her work for Walter in the weekends, doing t-shirt prints. Why not? So without meaning to, I got back into fashion, with a detour.
KNOTORYUS: Before that moment, were you following the Antwerp Six?
PAUL BOUDENS: Uhhh....
PAUL BOUDENS: Well, there was a runway show on the Antwerp docks, I saw that. In 1984 I saw a Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons show in the Ancienne Belgique. Make-up by Inge Grognard. Funny that I ended up working with and for them.
PAUL BOUDENS: With music by Thierry Demey. So I was into it, but I wasn’t a diehard fan. That’s still the case and it's what’s absurd about my life. Anyway, I went over to Walter, who was just doing his “Fashion Is Dead!” SS '90 collection and the invitation was a newspaper. Anne had finished one half of it and asked if I could do the rest. The first thing I had to do was make a perfume ad for Sado, Walter's dog.
KNOTORYUS: R.I.P. Sado. I remember that invitation so vividly because I think it made the news or the actual paper or something like that. It was quite scandalous for our catholic town. My mom who I know loved sticking it to the nuns and priests in fun ways had let me buy Walter's comic book 'King Kong Kooks' the moment it came out and she was chuckling at the idea that Walter named his dog Sado.
PAUL BOUDENS: When him and I worked on this fake advertisement, he would make these sketches and normally what Walter draws, Walter gets. But, and here you can see the audacity of the young, when he handed the sketch to me and said: “Okay?”, I quipped: “Can I change it?” To which he replied: "As long as it's better." And I went: “I got it!” and we’ve been working together ever since. Walter is just the bees knees, right?
KNOTORYUS: I attribute a lot of my wins in life to the guiding and fearless star of Walter, even before meeting him or working with him, so yes, I think he's the absolute most.
PAUL BOUDENS: He’s never gotten too big for his britches. He’s also very generous. Of course he has his moments, but who doesn’t? I like him. Obviously. Otherwise we wouldn’t be working together for almost thirty years. So, I graduated in ’91 and could actually start a job at Walter’s right away as a freelancer. I won’t calculate how much that made an hour because if you counted the hours it was peanuts. But you just wanted to do it, it was so much fun. I kept doing my evening shift at the restaurant - yes, I was still waiting tables, which was also fun - I had a much bigger social life than now. (laughs). I worked during the day and in the evening, every day of the week. When Walter founded W<, Wild & Lethal Trash, and that started booming, I was there for it all, in his new studio building which actually housed his old student room. Wim Neels was working there; Jurgi Persoons worked there for a while, Olivier Rizzo too…Everyone passed through Walter's doors, actually. It was a blast. Everything we made looked futuristic but we were doing it all by hand. We really put the copy machine to work, but at least you could experiment with that. And then those became technical prints and were sent off to Italy after which they returned as clothing. It was incredible.
KNOTORYUS: How did that work? Would Walter draw everything first and then hand it to you?
PAUL BOUDENS: Walter always has a full drawn-out concept in mind, but I would just try to make it look better. That was my job. After some time, I knew what he liked and didn’t like, so we wouldn’t lose any time. Sometimes he would make a drawing that would be very detailed, sometimes just a sketch. And then Madeleine Wermenbol joined, who mostly works digitally, and the prints became computer prints, for W< mainly. She was better at making prints than I was and I did more of the typography and other things. Those days when W< was booming were crazy. Three thousand people crammed in one space to see a show… Meanwhile, I had started attracting other clients besides Walter and we made a deal that I could work on those assignments in his office, but after a while that started to lose its balance a bit. The W< hype had gone a little and Mustang started doing weird things. I was working as an independent, but the others were full-time employees and Walter ended up having to fire almost everyone, which was heartbreaking of course.
KNOTORYUS: The details of that story might be more suitable for a Walter-interview, if they even need to be rehashed. The only thing I like to ask is: how did you experience that time being his good friend?
PAUL BOUDENS: I don’t know if we are that close. I mean, I don’t go on holidays with him and Dirk. Honestly, my close friends are not in the fashion business. Which is healthy, I think. Madeleine Wermenbol is one of my good friends, but I only see her twice a year.
KNOTORYUS: You’ve gone on holidays with Inge Grognard, haven’t you?
PAUL BOUDENS: Oh, yes, Inge, of course! (laughs) How could I forget?
KNOTORYUS: Saved you there, “I don’t have friends in fashion.”
PAUL BOUDENS: Inge is indeed a close friend of mine, but I’ve had to fight for her friendship. I used to be terrified of her and her husband, fashion photographer Ronald Stoops. It took fifteen years before they started taking me seriously.
KNOTORYUS: Could you name some of the other clients that were vying for your services during that time?
PAUL BOUDENS: Let me think: Wim Neels, Jurgi Persoons, AF Vandevorst, Dries Van Noten, Olivier Theyskens... But I think the crowning glory of the late nineties was the project "Mode 2001 Landed - Geland".
KNOTORYUS: Oh my god, best artistic take-over ever. Unprecedented, never repeated.
PAUL BOUDENS: Oh good, you saw it. Yes, that took about two years of preparation. The city of Antwerp had asked Walter to create a large-scale – which is never a problem with Walter – fashion/art city take-over. Walter takes his sketchbook, and it’s all done really quickly. That’s how he is. So I got named as art director, being the faithful right hand. There were five exhibitions, one of them being 'MUTILATE' and another was 'TWO WOMEN' on Rei Kawakubo and Coco Chanel. The Chanel exhibition was beautiful, it was curated by Dirk Van Saene. And then Rei came to Antwerp and staged five runway shows on different locations like the Antwerp zoo. The concept would always be a bit different: different location, different make-up, different hair, different music, just always the same collection.
KNOTORYUS: And this was also when N°ABC-Magazine was conceived which later became A Magazine.
PAUL BOUDENS: The wild plans Walter comes up with! You have to love him. He wanted a TV channel and a fashion magazine. The magazine was called ‘RAM’ and the TV channel was called ‘RAT’. I said: “Walter, I don’t think those names are very sexy.” But it had a red letter A in both words. You could say Walter is the inventor of the Antwerp City logo, that entire house style was strongly inspired by LANDED/GELAND. If this were America, we would’ve had it made. But, this is still Belgium, if you know what I mean. Anyway, the project was fantastic. Of course, this is what 'A Magazine' originated from. That first issue is a classic, if I do say so myself. But at the end of that period, 9/11 happened and the fun ended.
KNOTORYUS: Because what impacts your clients, impacts you.
PAUL BOUDENS: Well, I don’t just do fashion, I’ve got one foot in culture too: another niche. (laughs) But let's discuss 'N°A(BCDE) Magazine' first. 'N°B' was conceived with Bernhard Willhelm and it was the one that turned the concept and content on its head. Dirk’s was more of a fashion magazine and Bernhard made his much more personal and less about fashion. ‘C’ was Hussein Chalayan and Olivier Theyskens was ‘D’. Then the Dutch publisher went bankrupt. Over in The Netherlands, you can start again the next week. It's a different ballgame. You can even use the same name. The thing is, after that no one got paid. No big deal, I thought the concept was cool and the fun thing was that all of the magazine's special contributors would have to come over to me. In three days’ time we’d have to bang everything out and most fashion designers are very hard workers, they work all night when they’re interested plus they love that it's not about designing clothes for a change. We always worked in my kitchen and atelier, so I’d get to know these people better. Normally the 'E' issue would've been made with Martin Margiela and we had already started working on it. For me, that was fantastic. Being able to see that Martin Margiela, who is somewhat of a demi-god in Flanders, is also just human. Working with him was a very nice experience, he was really up for it. It was still MARTIN MARGIELA, of course. (laughs) Sadly, the original spirit of the magazine started to evaporate and in the end I was starting to feel like a visitor at something I helped conceive. So we decided to part ways.
KNOTORYUS: But clearly, you love collaborating, when you were designing our logo and you sent us the first proposal, you were like: "Guys, please give honest feedback, this isn't just the Paul-show."
PAUL BOUDENS: Learned that the hard way: there is nothing better than collaborating on something. I like having my freedom and I want to get it right, but help me help you. Just don’t be standing behind me, looking over my shoulder while I’m doing it.
KNOTORYUS: Have you ever gotten used to things going in cycles and no client or project lasting forever?
PAUL BOUDENS: I think I'm in a transitory phase right now. On the one hand I see copies of my work emerge left and right and on the other hand I really want to stimulate a rejuvenation of my client base.
KNOTORYUS: As an independent in the creative field, you never feel secure, but if you can keep working on things, and keep getting inspired, then you build a body of work and a reputation.
PAUL BOUDENS: Agreed, although last year things went slightly left in terms of reputation. Not in terms of assignments, there were even too many of them. 2016 was the year when you and I first worked together. I didn’t yell at you, but I yelled at everyone else. I had taken on too much and was in a mind-set of: “I’m doing my job, aren’t I? Well, then they can handle this bit of noise.” But I overdid it and one of my clients skipped me for a job. When I asked them for a reason, they said: "Honestly, Paul, your stress is our stress.” A slap in the face but I needed it, I think.
KNOTORYUS: How did you decide to fix it? It's not easy to take responsibility, but it's a very important part of everyone's professional learning curve.
PAUL BOUDENS: Well first of all, I decided to be a bit kinder towards people. (laughs) But, I can be a bit of a drama queen, so I sent an email to said client and went: "Since we will no longer be working together, I would like to invite you to dinner to say goodbye in style." It was a fantastic night, filled with banter and laughter and we got it all out and I think we're all good now. We’re also still working together, albeit on a more irregular basis.
KNOTORYUS: See, accountability. It's just such a good lesson. "I was a jerk for a bit, I am very sorry and will do better. Can we move on?"
PAUL BOUDENS: Granted, to some people I will never stop being a jerk, but those are not the ones I'm working with.
KNOTORYUS: Honestly I tried, but it's just too much to go through your full body of work during this interview, but I am always up for helping you write your autobiography. I'll just name a couple of things you published these past couple of years: the Graanmarkt 13 cookbooks, your work for Kaaitheater, P.A.R.T.S., SALO and Wim Vandekeybus, the Yohji Yamamoto monograph published by Rizzoli that is being resold for ridiculous prices, those GORGEOUS and gigantic Gert Voorjans books. And just a couple of weeks ago, you were on stage with Walter Van Beirendonck at the already critically acclaimed POWERMASK exhibition he curated at Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, presenting the accompanying book you designed. And then, the next book you collaborated on that will drop is "UN/CUT" by internationally famed hair stylist Pascal Van Loenhout. Tell me how this came about?
PAUL BOUDENS: Clearly I work too much. (laughs) When I was working on the 'Stephen Jones & The Accent of Fashion book' for MoMu, I remember seeing Pascal’s name popping up on my screen, since he was the one who coiffed all the wigs for the heads. They were white wigs but unfortunately they turned strawberry blonde due to bad lighting and had to be colour corrected at the printer’s. Years later, I met a Polish guy and we fell deeply, madly in love. I am a human being, after all. People forget that sometimes, I have the impression. He turned out to be the best friend of Pascal’s girlfriend, Justyna. Fun fact: she slapped me in the face the very first time I met her! Well, I deserved it I guess because I made an unnecessary rude remark about another friend of hers. She’s a fierce one! Strangely enough, we ‘hit’ it off ever since. Sadly, her friend - my lover - left Belgium, leaving me in a state of shock, and I grew closer to Justyna and Pascal in the aftermath. Pascal had made a book before which I knew and liked, and I kept hearing stories of the difficulties they had finishing the next one. The thought crossed my mind to offer my services, but because they were already working with someone else, I never did. Along the way, the project ran into trouble, I don’t know the details and they’re none of my business anyway. This year, for the Antwerp Fashion Academy catalogue, we worked with Bruno Devos from Stockmans who turned out to be the chosen publisher for Pascal’s book project. I got approached by both of them asking me to take over the design, which I happily did, but it was a bit of a ‘cadeau empoisoné’. Even though the material was excellent, I had to make a couple of decisions to make it more timeless: zooming in on the faces, turning everything into black and white, add a touch of my favourite colour Pantone 485. I asked you to interview Pascal and provide the text because you are smart, fast and – like I said before – I like your style, it’s very real. And I’m not blowing smoke up your ass, Dominique. When something is bad, I say it, when it’s good, I'll tell you too.
KNOTORYUS: Well, I adore working with you and I think it also seriously upped my game. I know I'm a good interviewer and editor, I've proven that before, but working with people like you, Walter and Dirk Van Saene, you guys have seen it all, I really took it up a notch. I would be devastated if you or any of the lovely people I got to meet at the Antwerp Fashion Department these past two years thought I was half-stepping it. And also, I think people trusting you with delicate parts of their life's story is something sacred. For me, it just never gets old, but again, thank you for asking me. So the obligatory final question: what is next?
PAUL BOUDENS: Listen, POWERMASK was just published, UN/CUT will be in stores soon and I'm working on a couple of things that I can't talk about just yet. I’m also going to take some downtime.
KNOTORYUS: What about a follow-up to your sold out anthology "PAUL BOUDENS - WORKS - VOL I"?
PAUL BOUDENS: Yes, that needs to happen. And I think I’ll call it VOL III. Just to annoy everyone. (laughs)
(Paul Boudens portrait on top of article by Tim Lebacq)