The cult Belgian photographer on his exclusive 50-page portfolio for Dazed, how he met Raf and why ‘emotion is everything’
Antwerp is a city of contrasts: sacred and profane, gothic and modern, youthful and decaying. At times these dualities are in harmony, and at others they’re in brutal collision. The uncompromising photographs of Willy Vanderperre revel in these contrasts. “I try to challenge myself, push myself out of my comfort zone,” he says. Growing up as a Smiths-obsessed teenager, Vanderperre followed in the footsteps of the Antwerp Six, studying fashion at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts before making the leap to photography. His earliest days were spent collaborating with friends and fellow graduates like Raf Simons, make-up artist Peter Philips and stylist Olivier Rizzo; since then he has established a 15-year body of work that spans campaigns for Christian Dior, Prada, Givenchy and Dior Homme, striking editorials and a burgeoning career as a filmmaker (for Dior Homme and the bands Amenra and These New Puritans). Whether shooting against a stark studio background or lighting his subjects with a painterly quality akin to the Flemish masters he loved growing up, the net effect of his oeuvre is that of a poetic, melancholic beauty. Even in its stillness, his work carries a potent, emotionally charged resonance.
For our spring/summer issue, Vanderperre worked in collaboration with three stylists – Panos Yiapanis, Katy England and Robbie Spencer – to create a darkly romantic, disquietingly beautiful portfolio of his favourite models, muses and artists. Split into three acts, it’s both a love letter to Belgian culture and a celebration of outsider fashion. “I always love youth,” he says. “Sometimes they are more adventurous, rebellious, other times they rebel against that by becoming almost boring, but they are always inspirational.”
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in the southwest of Flanders, in a border town. The street I grew up in was this weird 150-metre strip of butchers, florists and bakeries that would be invaded over the weekend by French people. Growing up, the borders were still in use, so on the weekends the city was tough. There was a lot of violence, theft and drugs. The southwest of Flanders is also very rooted in Catholicism, so Catholic guilt was spooned in at an early age. I remember when I was nine on a school trip we went to see tombs and dungeons with forget-me wells. It left a lasting impact on me.
What music were you listening to as a teenager?
In my teens, Depeche Mode and The Smiths had a huge impact on me. The electronic sound of Depeche Mode was incredible. Next to that was Madonna, and there was also that one Anne Clark album, Joined Up Writing (1984), that almost became a religion. I remember being really depressed listening to it. The Smiths I loved for their provincialism – they made you feel you were understood, that you belonged and that not growing up in a big city wasn't a thing to ashamed of. By the time I was 17, (mid-80s electro scene) new beat was there, and that changed my life. It was Belgian, revolutionary and provincial, all at the same time. The heavy bass and the club that went with it, Boccaccio (in east Flanders), was everything to me. I remember clearly the first time I saw a laser beam there. I was blown away. From that moment on, electronic dance music and its lifestyle became very important in my life.
What were the first images or experiences of fashion that impacted on you when you were young?
Gaultier's men in skirts, Dave Gahan wearing a black Perfecto (leather jacket) on white jeans. And then, when attending the Academy, the white Martin Margiela show (SS90) – the terrain vague show on the outskirts of Paris. It was a more a happening than a fashion show. Everything you thought fashion was about was erased and deconstructed. It came together with Nirvana.
What was the scene like in Antwerp in the 90s? Was it about belonging to a tribe?
The first years I lived in Antwerp were before grunge happened. We were all dressed up to express our style. It was exciting. Then there was grunge and Martin Margiela and the world changed. It was amazing – the landscape of fashion, street style and music changed overnight. It was the last real revolution of taste and fashion on such a massive scale and impact.
Which artists have had the greatest impact on you?
If I stay on Belgian turf, I must say Jan Fabre, who made The Power of Theatrical Madness (1984), a four-hour play with an amazing soundtrack by Wim Mertens. I remember reading about the scandal it caused when it came out, when I was very young. It is still modern and still relevant. I am working on a project about it, almost like exorcising a demon. Outside of Belgium, Robert Mapplethorpe had a huge impact on me when I first discovered his art. And of course all of the Flemish painters, Dutch School masters and Caravaggio had a big impact on me.
You started off studying fashion at the Royal Academy at a time when its alumni the Antwerp Six were making a big impact on the fashion world. Was that part of the attraction of the school?
In a way, yes. They had an almost rock-star status. The school at that time was legendary. When I saw the yearly open day at the school, I was hooked. The fashion department was in a completely ravished, derelict state, to the point of being dangerous. The hallway was poorly lit with huge plaster statues. It was doomy, dark, threatening, exciting.
“The Royal Academy at that time was legendary. When I saw the yearly open day, I was hooked. The fashion department was in a completely ravished, derelict state, to the point of being dangerous. The hallway was poorly lit with huge plaster statues. It was doomy, dark, threatening, exciting”
When did you decide to make the switch to photography?
During my first year studying fashion, I felt that the time needed to express myself to a piece of clothing was too long. From sketch to the actual piece took a long time. I wanted a more direct expression. I was busier making collages of found images and taking pictures to create moodboards than with actual design. When I started to realise that, it all fell into place. It was like the most logical and clear thing in the world.
A key collaborator is Raf Simons. How did you first meet and start working together? How has that shaped the direction of your career?
I met Raf on the terrace of the Wutzli Putzli, one of the hangout spots in Antwerp, in the shadow of the cathedral. I walked by and saw some friends were sitting there. We said hello and they introduced me to Raf. I sat with them for brief moment not speaking to anyone. Later I heard that that intrigued Raf a lot. A couple of days later I bumped into Raf again and we starting talking. We share a lot of the same obsessions and references. We connected and became friends. I started documenting his shows. It was sometimes a video, other times an image or a series – it was all very organic. We have been working together ever since. It’s a collaboration I deeply cherish.
What are you striving for in your images? Authenticity? Emotional truth?
Both words are accurate. Emotion is everything.
“Emotion is everything”
When I look at your images, ‘dark romance’ is one description I keep coming back to. How would you define your aesthetic territory today?
I try not to be pinned to one aesthetic, but underneath it all is indeed a base of dark romanticism.
Are you surprised that you have become part of the establishment from such lo-fi beginnings? Or do you still feel like an outsider?
What is establishment and the notion of being established? It is weird to be labelled. The term is questionable and in the eye of the beholder.
How did you approach this project for Dazed? What did you want to say with it?
When Dazed invited me to shoot their main well for this issue, I invited Katy England to Antwerp, my hometown. Alongside the models, I also wanted to shoot artists and actors from Belgium, a pick of people that inspire me. This is the first generation of Flemish actors to reach outside of the Flemish borders. There is a new generation of filmmakers with a distinctive language.
You have worked with some models for a long period of time, such as Clement Chabernaud and, in the portfolio, Mariacarla Boscono and Jamie Bochert. What fascinates you about these models? What do you look for in a character or subject?
I tend to like shooting the same people. It creates a bond, a familarity, a connection. You reach deeper into their inner being, and they become friends. They are more than models – they have touched me. It is their personality, their attitude; they are free spirits, heartfelt, honest and true. Muses in the purest sense of the word.
Jamie Bochert team credits
hair Anthony Turner at Art Partner; make-up Val Garland at Streeters; nails Sofie Van Bouwel for Chanel; models Jamie Bochert at Oui; photographic assistants Romain Dubus, Chad Gevaert, Dieter Blonde; styling assistants Kerry Panaggio, Lydia Simpson; hair assistant David Harborow; digital operator Henri Coutant at Dtouch; production Floriane Desperier at 40ktober
Mariacarla Boscono team credits
hair Syd Hayes at Premier Hair & Makeup using L’Oreal Paris Studio Lint TXT Supersizing Spray; make-up Lynsey Alexander at Streeters using L’Oreal Paris; nails Anatole Rainey at Premier Hair & Makeup using Dior Vernis; model Mariacarla Boscono at Viva; photographic assistants Romain Dubus, Douglas Irvine; styling assistants Ai Kamoshita, Viola Galassi, Isabella Kavanagh, Linnéa Isabella; hair assistant Hannah-Joy Bull; make-up assistant Cassie Pollard; seamstress Michelle Warner; digital operator Henri Coutant at Dtouch; production Floriane Desperier at 4Oktober
Belgian New Wave team credits
hair Duffy for Vidal Sassoon at Streeters; make-up Peter Philips at Art + Commerce; nails Laura Noben; models Veerle Baetens, Matteo Simoni, Bent Simons, Viktor Van Pelt, Line Pillet, Anemone Valcke, Gilles Van Hecke, Delfine Balfort, Felix Hermans at Ulla Models, Stef Aerts, Jinte Deprez, Maarten Devoldere; photographic assistants Romain Dubus, Chad Gevaert; styling assistants Gabriel Lahanque, Katy Fox; hair assistant Luce Tasca; make-up assistants Monique Van Mooter, Sofie Van Bowel; digital operator Henri Coutant at Dtouch; production Floriane Desperier at 4Oktober