Audiences at Walter Van Beirendonck’s SS90 show received a free newspaper – the Walter Worldwide News – with a front page that blared: ‘Fashion is dead! Who killed Fashion? Rape or sex murder?’ Inside, it addressed the Belgian’s own alienation as a designer (one piece was titled ‘Who is this mysterious creature called Walter?’) through a series of fake articles including an interview with his dog Sado. A true outsider statement, it was the first of many ironic comments on the fashion system by Van Beirendonck, an original member of the Antwerp Six. His collections, called things like Sex Clown and Lust Never Sleeps, react to the political and social issues of the times with warped fantasies that, at a glance, appear to be taken from cyberspace or S&M dungeons.
Today, the 57-year-old is in Paris with London designer Craig Green, one of a new wave of creatives shaking up British menswear – and a former intern for Van Beirendonck. Green’s “clumsy and chunky” DIY aesthetic has seen him elevate planks of wood found on street corners and hand-painted cardboard sculptures into high fashion. Although embraced by the fashion world, his debut collection kicked off a media frenzy that saw furious newspaper headlines like ‘What a plank!’ – proving that in today’s world, hype has never had such sour connotations. But Van Beirendonck and Green are happy to embrace the role of outsiders. After all, where’s the fun in fashion if you’re not confronting the norm?
Walter Van Beirendonck: Do you remember when we met? You came to the interview in a bow tie! I was touched that you really dressed up.
Craig Green: Oh God. (laughs)
WVB: And you were really sweaty because it was a really hot day!
CG: I was so nervous! I remember travelling to Paris with my mum and I had a giant wooden box with all my work in it. I made her wait at a café around the corner!
What was it like when you finally made it to Antwerp?
CG: There was a real family feeling. Do you remember when we had Christmas dinner at your house, Walter? We spent hours watching cassette videos of your old shows, then we would sneak upstairs and try on all the archive pieces from the 90s and take lots of pictures.
WVB: And I would just see them popping up on Facebook!
CG: ‘Stop dressing up!’ I remember one show that was super long and there were stilt walkers, ballroom dances and people in gas masks. It was in a stadium, right?
WVB: Yes, we had about 3,000 people! It went on for an hour. At the end, everyone from backstage came out, including the models and Stephen Jones. We were all dancing on the catwalk and I was lifted up into the air!
CG: Things like that don’t happen any more.
Is that sad for you?
WVB: No, I’m not nostalgic. The world is so different now and it’s changing all the time...
CG: The most surreal thing was when we went to XXL in Vauxhall. I remember thinking, ‘This is so weird. I’m an intern and I’m having a drink with Walter Van Beirendonck at XXL!’
WVB: Yeah, I don’t usually go that far with interns. I mean, we kept it…
CG: Very professional.
WVB: Yes, of course! (both laugh)
Walter, your work has always generated strong reactions, but for you, Craig, sparking such controversy with your very first show must have been strange.
CG: It made a lot of people angry. I was so shocked – I just thought people would either like it or not. A lot of furious people said, ‘You shouldn’t be allowed to do this.’ I even received hate mail. Two days after the show I was quite depressed and thought, ‘God, my work is a joke. It’s literally the national joke of the week in all of these trashy newspapers.’ Then I came to realise that it’s a positive thing to split opinions. You need to challenge and push things, otherwise there’s nothing new for people to see.
CG: I also think it’s important for a show to be a show, and it should be a sort of fantasy…
WVB: And push the boundaries! I think it’s incredible how people can react to things that you present on a catwalk.
CG: It’s as if nothing has ever happened on the catwalk until that one moment! It’s like, why did everybody suddenly focus on that? There have been so many extreme things happening in the last 30 years. It’s very strange. It’s like the wrong person is seeing it at the right time.
WVB: But I also think there’s something in the air at the moment. People are reacting very strongly to certain things on the catwalk. I think it has a lot to do with a certain attitude in the world.
CG: That’s definitely it – and the economy. One paper even called my first show ‘Vivienne Waste-wood’!
WVB: Back in the 90s, I made several statements about problems like Aids. It was a really hard time to take in. I saw so many people dying around me and there were just no solutions. It was a very tough thing. It was really killing people. It became a theme I approached several times. So, that’s again something. I don’t want to overwhelm people with messages…
CG: Dark and deep….
WVB: Yes, exactly. Do you want some more problems with that? (laughs)
“For me, it’s about what emotion I want to show. What do I want to make people feel? It’s not like, ‘Okay, what are we going to do to get in the Daily Mail? How are we going to make people hate us this time?’ (laughs)” – Craig Green
CG: Look how horrible this is!
WVB: Then there was the Sex Clown collection (SS08), which for me was purely a statement about doing something very artistic, and also a bit of a ‘fuck you’ because it was not going right at that moment and I didn’t want to give up. I just wanted to go on, and I said, ‘If I’m not selling enough, I’m going to do the most extreme thing I have in my head.’ That collection put me back on the rails, so sometimes very extreme statements can help you. It’s not like you sit at a table when you’re designing and think, ‘What will I do to shock?’ You’re thinking about what’s strong and right for you to do.
CG: For me, it’s about what emotion I want to show. What do I want to make people feel? It’s not like, ‘Okay, what are we going to do to get in the Daily Mail? How are we going to make people hate us this time?’ (laughs)
WVB: At the same time there are people outside of the fashion world asking, ‘What are they doing? Why is it necessary?’ There is a certain responsibility to keep that balance. For example, with the helmets in my most recent collection (AW14), I didn’t refer to any specific army around the world, but certain people saw it as being a Nazi reference, which was not my intention.
CG: That didn’t even enter my mind when I saw them.
WVB: There is this real feeling of narrow-mindedness at the moment and that has a lot to do with what’s going on in the world. You see people’s reactions to homosexuality and it’s scary. It’s really scary! It’s about tolerance. People aren’t tolerant. It’s getting worse and worse, especially in Uganda.
So, do you both feel you have a certain responsibility as a designer to voice your support?
WVB: Definitely. It’s important for any creative person. I’m very disappointed that there wasn’t more of a reaction from those involved in the Sochi Olympics.
CG: People like to stand by…
WVB: I can’t talk for you Craig, but sometimes I feel a bit stupid because I always want to use my voice to communicate, but I really think the issues raised by my collections are stronger than myself. That’s just how I am.
CG: In terms of fashion, I feel like there’s no mystery any more. Everything feels so accessible and that’s a shame.
WVB: I remember I was one of the first designers to have a website and to make a CD-Rom. It was very modern at the time! (laughs) You had to wait months before you saw your collection in a magazine. It was much more about mystery and –
CG: Discovery. Actually, I was talking to someone about subcultures the other day. I feel like there won’t ever be any true subcultures again. There aren’t people finding each other any more.
WVB: There’s no reason to react to something. For me, I was there during the new romantic period and it was an incredibly strong moment for fashion, for going out and for dressing up. I think we miss that feeling a bit.
CG: Yeah, today everyone is into everything. There are no codes.
What were you like back then, Walter?
WVB: I was exactly the same. Well, maybe my hair was a little longer and I was wearing platforms!
What were some of your strongest looks?
WVB: Ah, definitely the Ziggy Stardust looks from Bowie – 9cm platforms with lots of skin! (laughs)
CG: But you also did the Walt Alphabet (an A–Z recited over Van Beirendonck’s AW94 show)! It was like, ‘D is for disco geisha! A is for alien anarchy!’
WVB: What I really enjoyed was giving everything a special twist.
CG: Ha! ‘Disco geisha!’ I also remember in my first year of Central Saint Martins, seeing Walter’s Sex Clown collection. I was like, what is this? The penis hat was on the cover of Dazed. I just remember being shocked that you could use papier-mâché in a collection.
“I have this big fantasy that I can easily get into the heads of these people and guide them from that way out. It’s not that I tell them what to do, but it’s important for me to keep their identities and what they stand for” – Walter Van Beirendonck
Walter, a big part of your time is also spent teaching at the Antwerp academy. Why is that so important for you?
WVB: I have this big fantasy that I can easily get into the heads of these people and guide them from that way out. It’s not that I tell them what to do, but it’s important for me to keep their identities and what they stand for. It takes a lot of energy. I’ve been doing it since ’85! You get a lot back in return, especially when you see people like Raf (Simons, another former intern) arriving at Dior all these years later.
CG: I’m shocked because I always thought teachers had it easy. I did a day of tutorials once, and I couldn’t speak any more. All I wanted to do was sit in a dark room!
And what do you see in Craig’s work?
WVB: I think he’s brave. He’s making these statements and I’m happy because I probably also pushed him to not be afraid.
WVB: I see it with several people that have interned with me. They dared to speak up and use their voices as fashion designers. Things are so different today, but I think it’s really important to pin down your signature. I mean, we had so much time because nobody was watching us. It took us almost ten years to get out of Belgium! (laughs)
CG: Exactly, Walter’s never compromised and I think it’s really commendable to hold on to that for so long. Especially when there are so many temptations and the devil around.
WVB: Sell your soul!