As an original member of the Antwerp Six, and fervent champion of the Belgian avant-garde aesthetic, Walter Van Beirendonck has inspired generations of fashion students to flock to Antwerp – the small city with a big reputation. Not only a creative inspiration, he has also taught at the Academy.
A series of exhibitons across the city celebrate the Academy’s 350th birthday this month, while the illustratious Fashion Department itself turns 50. As a figurehead for the original movement, Van Beirendonck lent his vision as curator for a celebratory retrospective at the MoMu Fashion Museum.
Here, Van Beirondonck reflects on the Academy’s influence, Antwerp Six reunions, and his influence now on the future of Belgian design.
Dazed Digital: For this year's Antwerp graduate fashion show you reunited the Antwerp Six. Have you all been in touch throughout the years?
Walter Van Beirendonck: We have, definitely, because most of us are living here in Antwerp. Everybody is working on their own project or collection, but we see each other from time to time. For the graduation we come together for the jury; that's rather unique to be all together in the one room.
The Academy was totally unknown then, so even when you said “I'm studying in Antwerp”, nobody knew about the department.
DD: You put Antwerp on the fashion map; how do you feel that city has changed from your time as a student to now?
Walter Van Beirendonck: The world has changed, fashion has changed and the city has changed. The Academy was totally unknown then, so even when you said “I'm studying in Antwerp”, nobody knew about the department. The exposure that the Antwerp Six and Martin Margiela gave to the fashion department, attracted a whole new generation of students, who came from all over the world. And I think that the evolution in the city - now you can call it a fashion city - has a lot to do with what happened in the school. It's all connected, to what happened around 1985.
DD: You all have a distinct style; what did you have in common?
Walter Van Beirendonck: We were friends at school, studied at the same time and were fascinated by a lot of the same things. We traveled together, went to Paris, to parties, dressing up... It was a very dynamic moment and I think that there was a lot of ambition to really make it. To get out of Antwerp and to get out of Belgium.
We went through a very long process, school for four years and then four or five years of making collections in Belgium, so we were preparing ourselves for almost ten years. I think then we had the opportunity to create a very distinctive, recognisable signature. Everybody had the time to evolve in their own personal way.
It was a very dynamic moment and I think that there was a lot of ambition to really make it. To get out of Antwerp and to get out of Belgium.
DD: You've been teaching at the Academy, and influencing generations of designers. For example, at Dior you have Kris Van Assche, who went to the school, and Raf Simons, who started as your intern. How does it feel for you to see how they have progressed?
Walter Van Beirendonck: It's really nice to see because they are very precious to me. I started to teach in 1985, so most of the later generations were students of mine. I saw them at school, I trained them and then I saw them starting up careers and doing incredible things. It feels really good that I had the opportunity to stimulate them and let them become individuals.
DD: Besides designers, you have had Academy artists such as Peter De Potter and Willy Vanderperre, who collaborate with fashion. Do you encourage interdisciplinary work at the Academy?
Walter Van Beirendonck: Definitely, as some graduates go in different ways. Make up artist Peter Philips and stylist Olivier Rizzo became very well known in their field, while Peter De Potter more so in the art world. We don’t create relations between disciplines, but it’s a natural evolution. Everybody evolves the way that they feel the most comfortable with.
DD: How did you feel when you were asked to curate this project?
Walter Van Beirendonck: Until now we never had an exhibition about the school. There were no archives, and nothing recorded about the school and the way we were working. We had to start from nothing and that took a lot of energy. We held reunions with the teachers and went through the list of graduates, highlighted the people we wanted to show in the exhibition and started from there. Two thirds of the exhibition is archive pieces, what these people made when they were graduating. Some of them date back 30 years..
DD: How do you imagine the Fashion Department will develop in other 50 years?
Walter Van Beirendonck: I hope we can maintain this way of working because what we have here in Antwerp is a rather precious. Creatives can come and work for four years solely on their own individual fashion identity. Due to our small structure and very personal working methods we can create that kind of environment. I hope that we can keep that in the future, because it's a rather fragile thing in this world.