Walter Van Beirendonck: Fashion’s Freedom Warrior

by Tim Blanks, September 5, 2014                                    


Dover Street Market
Courtesy of Dover Street Market

Spend any time in any Dover Street Market in the next few weeks and you’re sure to come across a futuristic totem pole, wrapped in 21st-century tribal gear, topped by a huge feathered headdress bearing the slogan “Stop Racism.” It’s a characteristically provocative signpost for the latest collection from Walter Van Beirendonck, newly installed at DSM under the auspices of Rei Kawakubo herself. The playfulness of the candy-striped totem, the seriousness of the message…it’s a classic WVB combination, and it’s way past time that the world got to see it in its full glory, because until now, Van Beirendonck has been, by and large, a fanboy’s fave. Yet he’s been in business for three decades already. As he says, “It’s not like I’m a young designer starting up,” despite which, there’s an energy, a brashness, an unholy enthusiasm in his work that would put someone half his age to shame. And, best of all, Van Beirendonck is not afraid to make his work say something.

So I got it wrong. The feathered headdresses are inspired by Papua New Guinea, not by Native American Indians.
Yes. But the day after the show, I received a very weird mail from a Native American Indian thanking me for supporting them, referring to everything that had happened with Chanel in Dallas. But I honestly was not aware of that—it wasn’t a reaction to Chanel’s show. I was really inspired by the banners in street protests, but I didn’t want to do actual banners because they would have to be carried. Then, when I was researching, I found these incredible headdresses from Papua New Guinea, which offered an area where we could put a message. So I talked to Stephen [Jones, hatmaker extraordinaire], and he made these pieces on which we sprayed “Stop Racism” in different languages.

It’s such a strong, political collection for you to enter the American market with.
I was selling before in America, but I feel now there is much more interest. People are starting to react to my statements. It’s nice that Dover Street Market is supporting me. It was Rei herself who came to the showroom to buy the collection and talk about an installation. It’s happening in New York, London, and Tokyo.

Interesting that you’ve chosen New York for the headdress with “Stop Racism” in Arabic.

Sometimes these things are happening for a reason. But really, it’s about the headdress height. The tallest one has “Stop Racism” in English, and that’s in Tokyo because it has the tallest space. New York is second tallest. But in the end, I was happy that London has Russian, America has Arabic, and Tokyo has English. It’s by coincidence, but it worked out well.

Indigital Images

No such thing as coincidence…but I know that it rankled you that America never got you. Is this vindication for you? What do you think changed?
There is now a feeling of respect from press and buyers, which was not there before. It’s been really obvious over the last five or six seasons. One way or another, they really discovered what I was doing, and maybe one way or another I became a little less loud, more mature, with the decision to go in a more structured way, with more worked-out pieces. I don’t feel my way of working really changed. But I think the fashion world changed a bit. I feel that customers are really searching for a “surprise” product, they’re really trying to find excitement.

Most of the time, greater acceptance comes from greater accessibility, but I don’t think it’s like that at all with you. The last couple of collections are just as confrontational as anything you’ve ever done.

What I find out from getting older is that I can do things better. The challenge to do certain things, certain experiments, now comes easier. That’s a nice feeling.

Do you also think that now the customer appreciates something with emotional content, political content? In your new collection, for instance, I didn’t know that “crossed crocodiles” are an African emblem for unity in diversity, and that message couldn’t be more necessary—and more under threat—than right now.
That’s this excitement I’m talking about. The emotion in these garments is what people are looking for. I feel it’s an incredibly tense moment in the world. The military helmets in the collection were a little bit of a prediction of what we’re going through. That’s why I’m so happy that the DSM installation is really showing the helmets, as well as the feathers, alongside the clothes. Because, aside from a little bit in magazines, that message is gone when the show ends. So I’m happy that the whole collection is available in the shops.

Courtesy Photo

Let’s talk about those helmets. They were candy-colored…
Pink and yellow and light blue. Stephen made them in felt, and he put a little bow on the chin. I think it was inspired by Audrey Hepburn.

That goes beyond irony into satire.
In my fantasy world, I see this as soldiers fighting for a kind of freedom. The helmets are not really referring to an army. It’s more about a freedom warrior, people demonstrating in the street. I always loved the idea of people standing up for diversity, for their right to be different. All the small details, the small messages—it’s nice to work on a collection like this. Of course that bow isn’t necessary, but in my world, it’s important to have that small touch which gives a totally different twist at a certain moment.

And twisting is what you do best. You take the most male emblems—a tailored suit, a soldier’s helmet—and deconstruct or subvert them. Is the idea of subverting masculinity something that’s quite precious to you?

I really enjoy that. It’s a bit like my gender experiments. If you overview all my collections, there’s always been this ambiguity, this masculine irony. For me, it’s interesting to try to figure out how far I can go, what I can push forward. Men’s fashion needs that kind of push.


Dover Street Market New York & London
Trading Museum in Tokyo
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