Most of the meetings and talks I've had with headmaster Walter Van Beirendonck and other faculty members of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp Fashion Department over the past couple of years, have taken place in the teacher's lounge. Imagine an airy space with a giant wall-to-wall window, located mere metres away from the school's primary entrance and in full view of its main hall. A set-up which entails that conversations taking place inside are often interrupted by students hovering outside, gesturing gently towards one of their teachers for a quick word. Or vice versa: teachers excusing themselves mid-sentence because they spotted someone they swiftly wanted to check in with. The skill and spiritual weight of erstwhile students and insanely talented masters Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester or Kris Van Assche hangs in the air; they all walked by this glass divider (figuratively speaking, of course, since the original school was housed elsewhere). Demna Gvasalia, the tide-changing and inspiring creative director for Vetements and Balenciaga, seemingly just left, while 2017 alumnus Rushemy Botter was literally just here with his partner Lisi Herrebrugh, proudly showing off their BOTTER Hyères 2018 Jury Grand Prize. A slightly intimidating mood for a visitor like myself, but you get used to it quickly. Just like I had to get used to actual members of the Antwerp Six (Walter - who handles third Bachelor design - and Dirk Van Saene, Walter's long-time partner, who teaches design in the Master year) or other staff jumping up and hailing one of their pupils - even if they were ostensibly paying attention to what you were saying seconds before.
I am not quite sure if Walter would approve of me divulging the above information. That's actually not true, I know he's most definitely frowning reading this and I think he's even tapping his fingers, because I can hear the sound of his rings. But if anyone had endured a press attack of the magnitude the fiercely independent fashion designer has had to face the past couple of months, one that questioned their methods as a teacher, a headmaster and a human, they’d feel protective too. What for over thirty-five years -that's how long he's been a teacher here- has felt like a safe haven for young aspiring designers from all corners of the world to explore the depths of their creativity and learn from the Belgian scale-tippers, Walter wants to safeguard even more. Oversharing though it may seem, it felt important for me now, to go on record and attest to what I've seen happen many a time: mentees being mentored, students being guided and taught.
Over the years, in conversations with Walter, the topic of legacy has come up a lot. What does he want to leave behind? Walter knows and is working towards it relentlessly. For instance, in last year’s academy publication, he spoke sternly to Belgian politicians. He urged them to finally recognize the undeniable international draw the school possesses and the innovative forces it sends out into the world term after term and asked that they therefore substantially financially back and protect the unique identity of its programme. These past twelve months, he has been taking up those difficult meetings and having the hard conversations that most artists try to avoid their entire life, because four years from now, when his headmasterly chapter ends, Walter wants his school to be in the best shape it has ever been.
Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm far from unbiased when it comes to Walter Van Beirendonck. As a black kid surrounded by stifling white European Catholicism, the fearlessness he displayed by being Walter-and-only-Walter as I first caught a glimpse of him on TV, blew my mind wide open to never close again. For years and years I witnessed him using his voice for all of the causes, showing his boundary-pushing, but perfectly-tailored yet street-wise creations on models of every ethnicity and body shape. Long before the fashion-powers-that-be started to grasp that the brown, black and big wallet existed -and that a lot of them are getting filled to capacity, honey- he was one of the only people in high fashion that made it feel like we mattered. But what has been most inspiring for decades to come, was the way that he kept at it, getting knocked down, but always getting back up. Finding work-arounds and new lanes, forever going hard for what he believed in: his views, his collections, his supporters, his freedom, his causes, his students, his Antwerp Fashion Department and Dirk. When I got the chance to speak to him in the wake of the year that shook his school, I ran with it and we talked for two hours. Nothing was off-limits and nothing was asked to change in post.
KNOTORYUS: How are you currently looking back on the storm that engulfed the Antwerp Fashion Department? Have you been able to get some distance?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: The saddest, most impactful occurrence has been the loss of our student. That tragedy in itself was traumatic for the entire school community. I'm not afraid to admit that as teachers we had a hard time dealing with it ourselves because we simply hadn't encountered anything like it before. The students and faculty had to find a way to process what happened and for some people it will require more time than for others. Fortunately, we were immediately supported by one of the academy's psychologists, a crisis team and the directors. But what happened afterwards, with the anonymous accounts from disgruntled ex-students and certain media taking advantage of the situation in an attempt to discredit the school and myself, made the following weeks even more awful and energy-consuming and that's a shame. It felt like such a wrong time for it.
KNOTORYUS: Were you aware that some former students were carrying around these types of grievances?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: No, I wasn't actually. I’ve been teaching here since 1983 and it’s normal that as a teacher, as faculty, some of your decisions regarding people’s grades or work are afterwards viewed as negative, because they literally were. Each year some people pass and some don't. I think that’s to be expected of a school of this level and the motivation behind the grading is communicated very clearly. It was surprising to us and only became evident after those anonymous accounts revealed themselves via Facebook and we were told who they were: all ex-students who never finished their bachelor and were never part of my class. I don’t know them personally. But it takes you aback. Of course, I know that failing a grade affects you and you're always going to be disappointed, but we're a university. I would think that after a while, you pick yourself back up and try another course or maybe you sense that this just wasn't for you. But no, it was all mudslinging and accusations. And that’s what baffled me.
KNOTORYUS: I was thinking back to my college days and how I felt when I failed a year. You go into somewhat of a grieving process and it's true; you feel a bit insulted and for me it wasn't even a course that I loved. It was just something that for years had seemed I was destined to take on. Anyway, afterwards you go through several stages of sadness and anger, but then there comes a time when you realise: "this wasn't for me". Or, if you are sure that it was for you and that you have been wronged, you fight it head-on or take your own perceived brilliance somewhere else. I took the last option. But I can understand that someone who's dreamed of studying at THE Antwerp Fashion Department, gets accepted and then after a while still gets rejected by one of their heroes or by an institution they have projected a lot upon, it can feel like an even bigger blow. I'm surprised to hear, though, that none of them attended your class. The way the original article was framed made it sound like you had a hand in all of them failing and kicked them out the door wearing your dinosaur-sized 'Crossed Crocodiles Growl' boots.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: The accusations that we got via that article were either completely false or taken out of context. Regarding the work of the students: there is straightforward feedback that might sometimes come across as harsh, but it’s honest and never meant to put anyone down personally. We are however a strict institution with high demands and a level of quality. It’s not like some other schools where people who start out and pay their tuition are guaranteed to get a degree. Every year, we need to evaluate people and that's done by an entire team that discusses different angles and goes back and forth. I might have been present when one of the anonymous accusers was being evaluated by the jury, but it’s not like anyone is targeting specific people. Regarding those other BoF-allegations that arrived at my desk with a twenty-four hour response-deadline, I won't do anything else but deny them vehemently, because they’re not true. The faculty is not racist, we’re no mental abusers and we don’t take hard drugs. Those were the claims that arrived in the department's mailbox and they are all false. Period.
KNOTORYUS: Could you talk me through your approach here at school? Is it very different than the one from your direct predecessor Linda Loppa?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: Our way of working with the students is a continuation of how this department has always worked. The team and I always felt like it was the right choice. In the end, what I’ll fight for and think is a very unique situation here in Antwerp is that students come here for three to four years and are really granted the opportunity to work on their talent, personality and qualities as a designer. You can go deep and push your own boundaries and really figure out your own signature and strengths. That’s a solid foundation for a long career afterwards.
KNOTORYUS: From talking to all of the Masters who graduated -or are about to- these past three years, I know that research and motivation are very important to you and other teachers. They need to be able to give a reason for why they are making certain decisions. A number of them told me that was the way they learned to distinguish what was really theirs or what they drew from another source without a valid reason.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: We think it’s very important for them to be able to embrace their own world, but also to be able to define it. They should be able to think about and create a space for them to work and fantasize in for the rest of their career, a world that holds all of the things you’ve ever researched or were obsessing over. And then later you can pick and choose what goes into your work and open up different aspects of that world. If you set up your own universe, you can work from within it for the rest of your life.
KNOTORYUS: That's not an easy feat, because in order to do so successfully you need to search within yourself and be very honest and open. Look back on what has shaped you up to that moment. The good and the bad.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: That's the idea, yes.
KNOTORYUS: But that's a vulnerable space to find yourself in and no easy process to take on.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: We’ve noticed that when the talent is there, you can deal with that. And in the end, the education elevates your character in a way and magnifies your way of expressing yourself. What we try to do is give the students a way to tap into their capabilities, allowing them to express themselves better, thus making them better designers and more in touch with their own language. A very intense process indeed, for the faculty as well, since they work with these students one-on-one. In my case, I’m someone who will try to see inside someone’s head and guide them, starting from their own potential and the stories and talents they’ve got in them, so they can put it all out there. They end up doing things they may not have thought possible for themselves. It’s a very intense relationship and process between teacher and student, resulting in them exploring their own boundaries and pushing themselves forward.
KNOTORYUS: That's something almost every student I spoke to on the record over the years offered up themselves: the ones that make it out of that third year said they ended up gaining a lot of self-confidence, because they broke through what they doubted was possible.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: Yes, but like I said earlier: some are better equipped for this than others and sometimes during the jury process the teachers notice that it's just not working and we'll have to tell the student that we don’t think they can take the next step towards the second or third year.
KNOTORYUS: Students also told me the second year is especially hard. Why do you think it poses such a challenge?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I think every year presents its difficulties. The first year is about capturing the spirit, starting up, trying to strike a balance between creativity and making it a reality. You start discovering a lot of things. You need to sense what’s being asked of you here in Antwerp and you get a first feel of what your capabilities are. It’s an assessment year, with a lot of things coming at you, like presentations and such and you learn plenty of new skills and absorb a lot of information. In the second year, you’re expected to create a collection, meaning a body of work that is coherent, with a strong idea behind it, with enough interesting ingredients; like a colour palette, fabric choices, shapes… All of those parts need to come together by the end of that year. That’s why it’s pretty demanding, because most students have never done such a thing. It’s like facing a mountain and you need to make it all the way to the top. The third year, after you've come down, we make the mountain a bit higher and you'll have to start climbing again. You’re expected to come out even stronger, going even further in your designs and creating a more interesting picture and a stronger collection, making your own fabrics and prints… The bar is raised once again. But that’s a normal process, it's what they call learning and you do it during the climb. But we’re the rope for them to hold on to, they’ve got backup from the teachers. We provide suggestions and say: “Perhaps you can try this or that’s another possibility, try to discover things this way…” And like that, you climb up together.
KNOTORYUS: By the time the third year starts some of them probably think they've finally reached Mount Walter.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: But it's not me they have to conquer, it's the curriculum. What I do immediately after the second-year jury procedure, so before the students go into the summer holidays, is have a talk with the group that gets to move on to the next year. I get to know them a bit and ask them to keep a journal-slash-scrapbook-slash-book-of-drawings during their months off and to incorporate everything that they experience. When they return, on the first day of school, I receive their booklets and they always contain so much great information: about where they went, travelled to, pictures of their friends, exhibitions they visited. Apart from that, I also task them with researching a costume and a contemporary artist. That's how I immediately get an understanding of who my students are. Some of them take it further and discuss their personal relationships, their heartbreak or their family in these books. The assignment is an immediate invitation to open up, to me as well. That way, you’re headed somewhere even before you’ve seen a design or before anything is made. You know what kind of person you’re looking at, what their interests are, what they're fascinated by, what they’re doing. If you combine that with what they’ve been doing the past two years, things you see in a jury panel or during the end-of-year shows, it gives you quite a total image of a student. That’s my starter pack to begin creating a collection with them for that year.
KNOTORYUS: Last Summer I was in Athens and one day I was wearing this epic overpriced Antwerp Six-t-shirt that I bought at Colette and I'm sure none of you authorized. When I visited a local sneaker store, a young guy came up to me and said he dreamed of studying in Antwerp and have you as a teacher. I told him: "You better get serious about it then, because next year Walter's final 4-year-cycle is starting." He asked me what would be the best way to prepare and I remember you once told me or maybe it was Dirk: "The best way to prepare is take drawing classes." So that's what I told him. Was I correct in my unqualified advice?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I can confirm that drawing is very important because it still is the common language we use here. It allows you to express yourself. By learning how to draw and by doing a lot of observational and nude model drawing, you get in touch with the human body and it helps you to approach the body in a three-dimensional way. People think you should learn how to sew before you come here. No, you need to learn how to draw because it’ll be easier for you to convert your ideas.
KNOTORYUS: At the entrance exam, applicants show up with their portfolio?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: They’re expected to present a portfolio and over the course of two days, they need to draw. We sometimes notice that portfolios are not telling the truth, they can even be purchased. So, for two days, there’s observational drawing happening here, not fashion drawing. Then the applicants have a conversation with the students and teachers. Those three elements determine the admission.
KNOTORYUS: One final thing I’d like to touch on regarding the Antwerp Fashion Department. Your students have now experienced what it’s like to get bad press. Do you ever get used to facing a torrent of negative attention?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: If you have lived through it before, you know you can make it to the other side. But there is no getting used to it, especially when you feel it’s totally unwarranted. I can imagine a collection being less great and reading about that. I know I can process that and think: “Okay, better next time. Let’s go for it.” But this was such an excess of mud being slung my way. It made me think: "How can a serious platform be an outlet for people to just anonymously spew their bile?" It made me doubt the entire industry and then for some of the Belgian press to just copy/translate/paste the whole article... I switched newspapers, that's for sure.
KNOTORYUS: Did you get any support from within the fashion community?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I received tons of support from former students, interns, peers and from other schools as well. I let some of our colleagues know that the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp Fashion Department has decided to withdraw from BoF's 'Global Fashion School Rankings' and I got news that London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins will be doing the same. (Goes silent for a moment.) I don't know. I realise the world has changed completely from when I was coming up and we’ve adhered to this old-school teaching method, because we believe that if you’re trained in this way, you’ll be able to handle anything. And that’s why I never questioned that, really. I know that now you're expected to open up in a different way towards press, social media. I see how students are almost terrorised by everything happening in the world, the constant news stream and everything happening on social media and in their DM's.
KNOTORYUS: You say that you are old-school, but you are using your Instagram as a tool in a way that most people -young and old- only figure out after a while, if ever.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I think I use Instagram in a light way. It's a very fascinating medium and it keeps you in touch with the world. Sometimes I come across an artist or an interesting image referring to someplace else and then when you tap that you’re suddenly in an entirely new universe and find another fascinating person. I have a big Instagram-archive. All of the artists I’ve invited to work with me these past years I've found mostly on the app and some on Facebook. But another aspect we've got to figure out here at the academy is the direct approach of students. A couple of weeks ago one of our students posted a picture of a fitting on Instagram and the next day, Edward Enninful, British Vogue's editor in chief, sent him an e-mail to invite them to London for a shoot with Rihanna. What does that do to you? When you’re in the second year? We spoke to our student and he was completely confused. It's difficult to get back to being a regular student after that. It wasn't only about Edward or British Vogue of course, because I don't want to single them out, there were other publications and stylists who approached him. But it made me think: maybe we should protect our school-bubble even more. The staff and I will delve deeper into this the coming months and there will be more of a dialogue happening with the students. We’ve already had some good conversations and I think we must dare to go deeper.
KNOTORYUS: In a couple of days you will be welcoming Demna Gvasalia, creative director of Vetements and Balenciaga, and your former student, back to Antwerp as he is a member of the International Jury judging the graduating Master students of 2018. What have your conversations with him been like these past couple of years? Did you expect his level of success?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: No, you never expect a leap of this magnitude, however talented you might find your former students or interns. Of course you recognise their qualities, but when Raf Simons interned for me I could’ve never predicted he would end up at Dior and Calvin Klein. For Demna it's just the same. I really believed in his skill-set and that's why I landed him his very first job back in the day. I took him with me to Scapa Sports in 2006, when I was the brand's artistic director and he worked there for a few seasons. After that, he left for Paris and went to Maison Martin Margiela and then to Louis Vuitton and at the end of that period, he started Vetements.
KNOTORYUS: Which you have been known to be a bit critical of.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I of course kept an eye on Demna over the years, because I knew him and his talents and I was quite shocked when I saw the first Vetements collection. I went to the showroom and I didn’t know what I was seeing. I felt like they were all copies of Martin's work, I couldn’t fathom why. I wanted to talk to him, but he wasn't allowed to be in the showroom. I saw Peter Bertsch, his ex-boyfriend and a former student of mine and said: “I just don’t understand this.” Because it was so close to Martin’s legacy. But clearly the market didn't care, so why should he?
KNOTORYUS: Did you discuss this with Demna afterwards?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I strongly believe in Demna. The way he graduated from our school: he has every quality he needs. That's maybe why I was so disappointed at the time. I thought: “You’ve got the whole package but you’re really staking it all on someone else's legacy.” Of course, Vetements in the beginning was made up of a group of people so I don't know how much of a hand Demna had back then and how it all came to be. But he knows I’m quite critical of that period and he takes it all in stride. I have to add, I’m elated to see the steps he has taken and is taking at Balenciaga where he has shown once more that he does have a voice of his own. In any case, I really like Demna and I’ve got a lot of respect for what he has accomplished. He’s a very fitting jury member.
KNOTORYUS: Let's discuss your work on your own collections for a bit. You will be showing WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK SS19 in Paris in a couple of weeks.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: On June 20th at 4.30 p.m. to be exact. The collection is called "WILD IS THE WIND", a title I came up with some time ago, but that suddenly seemed even more appropriate, because the past couple of months I do feel I've been blown every which way. Another project I've been working on and I'm finally able to discuss is the costumes I'm designing for the opera "Die Zauberflöte/The Magic Flute" that will be premiering at the Staatsoper Berlin early 2019. I've been travelling to New York and Berlin these past couple of months to set it all up. I like unleashing my imagination on these types of projects. There's a very clear story, characters, an arch, the way the characters are set up.
KNOTORYUS: Who was the Walter Van Beirendonck-fan that approached you for this particular project and what was their pitch?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I’m working with the opera's director, Yuval Sharon, who's American. He contacted me to collaborate on this because he said he was looking for someone who could see ‘The Magic Flute’ through the eyes of a child. Someone with a very uninhibited and almost child-like approach. That’s how he ended up knocking at my door. (laughs) He had the concept to take on the entire opera as a puppet theatre, where the opera singers look and act like inanimate objects. With his input and our brainstorms in mind, I’ve started designing. I’ve done a lot of research over the last months; I collect a lot of material that I think might come in handy. They could be images or fabrics…
KNOTORYUS: Do you cut images out of books or do you make copies?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I have them printed and then I cut them all out. Have you ever seen one of my workbooks?
KNOTORYUS: I've seen excerpts in books about you.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: The last ones are really organised. For the opera, I had all of the characters lined up next to their personality-traits and a few images that might serve as inspiration. Then, I start drawing. Sometimes it’s very free form and turns out to be nothing much, other times I end up with two or three great drawings in one day. Because I've digested so much information and worked on it in such a particular way, it just pours out.
KNOTORYUS: That’s something you always do, right, create an entire universe in your head? I do that too, not in the same way of course, but when I'm producing projects or preparing for important interviews, I do all my research, listen a lot to what my subjects have had to say and then the weeks before -if the deadline allows for it- I start thinking about them and their world and figure out where the blanks are, what I want to add or question. I love mulling it over and over until it becomes clear; it's not a burden.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: No, it's fun!
KNOTORYUS: For some creatives the process between input and execution weighs heavily and I have to admit, the way I'm working now, I've only really figured out and started trusting that's what produces the best results for me the past five years or so.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: For me, it’s always been my normal process. I think translating things to my universe, in my head, is an important part of the conversion. It allows me to work with a lot of ingredients, without anything being too similar to or getting dominated by the original inspiration. In the end, it turns into my own language and my own expression.
KNOTORYUS: Speaking of giving the gift of your imagination, every time I post a picture that shows a glimpse of the items I bought from your IKEA-collaboration, I get DM's asking if I want to sell, or if I know someone who does, or if they are still in store. How was that project for you?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I think what made me happiest was making so many other people happy.
KNOTORYUS: I do think that the most generous gift an artist can give their long-time fans when taking on a project like that, is giving them signature work.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I agree, I wanted the designs to be immediately recognizable. To have people all over the world being happy and being able to purchase a piece of my collection, it felt so democratic. Other than that, I wasn’t too pleased with how the business end went down. It was also pretty full-on working with such a big firm. On the other hand, they do guarantee a high level of quality and your designs are produced as designed. In that regards, it was perfectly done.
KNOTORYUS: Do you still take on all of the negotiating yourself?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: Most of it, yes. I do have support and legal help of course, but it’s still hard. In fashion, agents or managers don't exist, which is really odd. Artists are supported by their gallery or manager, but independent fashion people need to do all of that themselves.
KNOTORYUS: Isn’t that why Martin Margiela had Jenny Meirens?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: Yes, but those relationships happen organically. I never had someone by my side who could take up that business role. For me, it’s more about: “Oh, I really want to do that.” And then that’s pretty much all that matters. Which is also how you make mistakes, you show your eagerness too quickly and it gets picked-up on early. In the case of IKEA, it was never clear if they were producing a hundred thousand pieces or five million. But as I said, most of the projects I take on, I do them because I like doing them. Of course I need to get paid, but it’s not like I’m in it to get super rich.
KNOTORYUS: Why hasn't there been a big WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK sneaker collaboration yet? Whenever you aren't wearing footwear you've designed yourself, you are wearing Reebok Instapump Fury's. I would love to see that happening for the sneakerheads of the world and my closet in particular.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I haven't been approached by adidas (Reebok is owned by adidas, ed. note) or Nike yet. Maybe I'm not enough of a hype, who knows?
KNOTORYUS: You are very popular with young, groundbreaking artists out there. We all know Young Thug loves you and when Taz Arnold posted a picture of you a little while ago, Venus X -one of the hottest and most aspirational DJ's out there- immediately commented with "Dad". The children out there don't talk about heroes anymore; they immediately assign you a parental status.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: It’s great knowing that you’re still relevant to a young audience. Most designers’ audiences age up a bit. But to get back to your question: although I don't want to do too many collaborations, designing a Reebok Pump doesn't sound like a bad idea. I’ve been wearing them since the 90s; my runway models wore them at the W< shows.
KNOTORYUS: A measure of being relevant or not can of course be gauged by whether you're being bought by the best stores out there. Which for me means Dover Street Market. Could you talk about your relationship with Rei Kawakubo and Adrian Joffe? How did you meet?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I don't really remember how we met, but Rei has been buying my work even before she opened the first Dover Street Market. She bought Aestheticterrorists, I don't think she bought W<. But then I also worked with her on LANDED/GELAND in 2001. I wanted to do an exhibition about two women, Gabrielle Chanel and Rei Kawakubo. (Sees editor's grimace) Intense, right, putting those two together! So, I visited Rei and Adrian was probably there because it's known that he's always by her side during meetings. Rei herself is very minimal in her communication style. She said to me: “No exhibition. We’re going to do shows.” So we put on five different COMME des GARÇONS-shows in Antwerp with one collection and I did the styling five times; picked the looks and the five locations. That was an incredible project, she trusted me to have my way with her collections. We’d take fitting pictures with styling, hair and make-up done and send it all over to Tokyo. She’d give us an okay or not, and then an entire team would come over each month to host the show someplace else each time. The fact that it even happened was incredible. Rei was there for the first show at the Atheneum. She even took a bow, which she never does, and this time all of the Belgian designers were sitting front row. I've always had a lot of respect for her and she shows that she respects me too. She’s always bought my pieces for her stores, but at first I used to be her t-shirt guy and she would only buy the t-shirts from my collections. But when the Dover Street Markets took off, they made the switch and started selling other pieces, noticed them doing well and it has grown ever since. Rei and I have always maintained a good relationship. Usually, she comes to my Paris showroom before leaving for Tokyo. She'll come over and look at the clothes and then she’s gone. Adrian is a very good catalyst in order to keep our relationship a bit more concrete. He's really diligent on communication and presentation, too.
KNOTORYUS: I love shopping at Dover Street Market. I don't look at architecture books for interior design inspiration; I get it while I'm at DSM. Each designer always creates their own universe for their allotted square metres.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: Each season Dover Street Market asks me for a display proposal and then we design a mock-up model and make drawings here in Antwerp. Either we build the installations or they produce them over there. They’ve got teams there that are constantly working on the visualisation of projects.
KNOTORYUS: That's all super high-end. But you also have been designing ZulupaPUWA, your affordable clothing-line for kids in collaboration with Belgian apparel chain JBC for thirteen years.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: Fourteen years, even. It's a very direct line of contact, because it's a Belgian family enterprise. Fashion and kids' clothing is constantly evolving and by keeping up a constant dialogue with Ann and Bart Claes and looking at the results, we can make adjustments. And because I'm open to that, the Claes family is still willing to try out new things.
KNOTORYUS: So you are also still being evaluated. Do you handle feedback well?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: It involves numbers and very tangible information. Sometimes you go: “I wasn't expecting that.” It’s constantly shifting, there are always new things popping up, new chains providing cheaper products, there’s a lot of competition out there.
KNOTORYUS: You have mentioned before that one dream you still have is designing costumes for a big blockbuster-movie. Do you think there's still time in your schedule?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I would love to work on a fantasy, science fiction or superhero film, yes.
KNOTORYUS: But working on those kinds of films would take three to four months or even longer. Or is that something you might do after your time at the Academy?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: I'm a good planner. Take for instance the opera project; I will have been working on that for almost a year and a half when the premiere happens. 'POWERMASK', the previous exhibition I did, was more than two years’ work. You spread it out and organise well and you can plan those things. With a film, I think the same applies.
KNOTORYUS: POWERMASK was so good. Unsettling at points, but really great.
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: Off of POWERMASK's strength, I've already been asked to do a new exhibition abroad in 2021.
KNOTORYUS: You’ve been working for a really long time, what advice can you give about longevity, staying the course and keeping the faith?
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK: Everything I do is because I deeply believe in it and because I feel it’s important enough to fight for. Whether it's the Antwerp Fashion Department or my collections... I had to give up certain things, stay in Belgium to teach, make financial and physical sacrifices. I’ve noticed, these past few weeks were very tasking and took a toll and I caught myself wondering: “Why am I doing this?” But it’s because I keep believing that what I'm doing makes a difference and I'm not saying that in a pretentious way. It’s a kind of artistic urge that needs to be released. There are times when it’s very hard mentally and when setbacks occur that are so discouraging. I'm not going to lie: it's a fight, each time, to get a collection done in time. Today for instance, I’m very happy that my zippers were delivered, but then my sock manufacturer said no. And when something goes down, students still need to be supported and mentored, deadlines don't move and clients will still be there, expecting socks. This week I was going off a bit because of another accessory-problem and there was a moment when Dirk walked in the room, looked around, let out a sigh and calmly shrugged: “All of that, over a collection and a scarf.” (laughs) He always has a way of talking me back down.
Interview by Dominique Nzeyimana
Images by Nicolas Karakatsanis & Leonardo Van Dijl for the Antwerp Fashion Department's "Our Master" publication, available at SHOW2018
For more info on SHOW2018, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp Fashion Department's end-of-year spectacle taking place June 1+2, go HERE