The dA-Zed of Walter Van Beirendonck

To celebrate Walter Van Beirendonck day, we bring you an alphabetised love letter to the awe-inspiring Belgian designer

Walter Van Beirendonck 'Sexclown' SS08
Walter Van Beirendonck 'Sexclown' SS08 Photography by David Bailey in 2007, taken from Walter Van Beirendonck's 'Dream the World Awake', published by Lannoo Publishers in 2013

To celebrate the Outsiders issue of Dazed, we invite you into the subversive and hyper-real world of Walter Van Beirendonck. From an exclusive head to head interview with his former intern Craig Green, to never before seen archive images, this is our love letter to the visionary Belgian designer 

Watching a Walter Van Beirendonck show is a wild attack on the senses, in the best possible way. After three decades at the helm of Belgian fashion, the 57-year-old menswear designer continues to shock and surprise – channelling diverse elements of art, music, politics, technology, pop culture and science fiction into radical collections of post-modern genius. He has dressed men in high-tech, holographic synthetics, spangled latex bodysuits, two-pronged heels and penis-shaped papier-mâché hats, while addressing critical social issues. Here, we celebrate his unique and unforgettable talent in 26 letters.

A IS FOR ALIEN INVASION

A fascination with supernatural life forms, shamanism and science fiction novels has fuelled many of Van Beirendonck’s otherworldly collections. From the mythical Rapa Nui sculptures on Easter Island (said to be delivered by spaceships) that inspired his SS06 offering, to the Hi Sci Fi line from SS99, in which he produced a short video about two aliens who landed on earth with built-in prostheses. More recently during his AW12 show, he riffed on shaman’s capes, raffia dolls and initiation masks, adding an outsider context to the upper echelons of high fashion. 

B IS FOR BIG UP THE BEARS

Bears. Not the childhood teddy, but rather their big furry human counterpart – were the calling card for Van Beirendonck’s SS10 outing, Wonde ®. Street cast models strutted out in their Wonderbea® logo tees, candy-coloured cargo trousers, spangly ponchos and neon sneakers, before ultimately baring it all in custom-created Walter Van Beirendonck Y-fronts. 

WVB-10

C IS FOR CRAIG GREEN

Whether he is tutoring at Antwerp’s Royal College of Fine Art or mentoring work experience placements at his own label, Van Beirendonck has nurtured – and continues to nurture – some of fashion’s finest young talents. Case in point: Craig Green, the London-based menswear star and former intern of the esteemed designer. See what happens when the two reunited for Dazed to talk subversion, alien anarchy and more… 

Craig Green and Walter Van Beirendonck
Craig Green and Walter Van Beirendonck wear felt helmets by Walter Van Beirendonck; handpainted sculpture piece by Craig Green Photography by Sarah Piantadosi

D IS FOR DREAM THE WORLD AWAKE

Having created and challenged fashion for over three decades it seemed inevitable that Van Beirendonck’s prolific creations should be celebrated in a retrospective exhibition. Dream the World Awake, opened at the Antwerp Fashion Museum in 2011 and featured a 60-metre-long ‘Walter Wonderwall’ collage of objects, images, videos and slogans alongside his original workbooks, radical runway looks and even objects from his personal toy collection. The show also included a high-tech video collaboration with influential photographer Nick Knight and uber stylist Simon Foxton. 

E IS FOR EXPLICIT

Walter Van Beirendonck isn’t one to shy away from sex. Whether it’s glittery phallus-embellished shoes, bright cock-shaped hats or supersized slogan prints, the designer uses fashion as means of addressing important and often sensitive issues on the subject, such as fetishism, racism, S&M, (see letter X) and HIV prevention. 

Walter Van Beirendonck AW14
Walter Van Beirendonck AW14 Shot by Lea Colombo

F IS FOR FETISH FOR BEAUTY

Line-dancing models, green rubber reptile gloves, gauze masks, rhine-stone covered catsuits, cowboy hats by Stephen Jones and Marilyn Manson-inspired makeup. You have to see it to believe it. Presenting Van Beirendonck’s SS98 collection, A Fetish For Beauty:

G IS FOR GENDER BENDING

The exploration of socially imposed gender stereotypes is a reoccurring theme in Van Beirendonck’s work. Through twisting and contorting conventions – dressing men in delicate heels, lace-up corsets or printed skirts – he urges us to question what is traditionally masculine or feminine. “It is fascinating to play these sorts of games, to find out where the boundaries lie, but I create without ever wondering whether I'm designing for men or for women. This has nothing to do with transvestism; it's just that I see the sexes as equivalent,” said the designer on the topic. 

W.&L.T. 'Paradise Pleasure Productions' AW95
W.&L.T. 'Paradise Pleasure Productions' AW95 Photography by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Styled by Kuki De Salvertes, taken from Walter Van Beirendonck's 'Dream the World Awake', published by Lannoo Publishers in 2013

H IS FOR HOT TICKET

Bold and unusual, Van Beirendonck’s seasonal show invites are as covetable as his ready-to-wear collections. High notes include the monochrome jigsaw puzzle ticket that he created with long-time art collaborator Paul Boudens for AW99 and the SS90 ‘Worldwide Walter’ newspaper invite, printed with the sensationalist headline ‘Fashion is Dead’. Not forgetting the whimsical painting that contemporary artist Scooter LaForge dreamt up for his SS14 Home Sweet Home show. Think African Bozo masks, a robed teddy bear, exotic flowers and Van Beirendonck’s flamingo-pink house in Antwerp. 

Walter Van Beirendonck 'Walter Worldwide News'
Walter Van Beirendonck 'Walter Worldwide News', 'Fashion is Dead!' Newspaper Invitation for Presentation SS90 Collection Photography by Ronald Stoops, taken from 'Belgian Fashion Design', edited by Luc Derycke and Sandra Van De Veire, published by Ludion in 1999

I IS FOR INGE GROGNARD

In a similar vein to Van Beirendonck, Belgian make-up artist Inge Grognard consistently strives to subvert the stereotypical notions of beauty with her unconventional use of colour, shape and texture. She reflected on her boundary-pushing brushstrokes for the designer and other members of The Antwep Six in an exclusive interview with Dazed.

Walter Van Beirendonck 'Hand on Heart' AW11
Walter Van Beirendonck 'Hand on Heart' AW11 Make-up by Inge Grognard. Courtesy of Ronald Stoops

J IS FOR JAKOB/JACKOB FAT 

The powerful performance piece Jakob/Jackob Fat (1999) by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm was the starting point behind Van Bierendonck’s AW01 Dissections collection. The work sees a man turn himself into a sculpture, manipulating the proportions of his body by putting on more and more clothing. Van Beirendonck and Wurm have since collaborated on several projects including the recent Performative Sculptures, a surreal series of sculptural outfits created in bright, Crayola coloured-tulle.

 

K IS FOR KING KONG KOOKS

He comes in cartoon form too! In 1989, Van Beirendonck produced a limited-edition comic entitled King Kong Kooks, to accompany his spring collection of the same name. The limited edition ‘zine follows the heroic adventures of the designer with illustrations by Belgian artist Jan Bosschaert.

 

Walter Van Beirendonck King Kong Kooks Comic 1989
Walter Van Beirendonck King Kong Kooks Comic 1989 All images courtesy of Walter Van Beirendonck

L IS FOR LOVER

Every artist needs his muse and Van Beirendonck found it in Dirk Van Saene, his lover of almost four decades. The pair met as students while studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and additionally both went on to become a key part of The Antwerp Six. Though Van Saene’s understated design style is dramatically different to that of his partner, the duo joined forces in 1998, setting up a shop in the heart of Antwerp called Walter. 

M IS FOR MEGA HATS

Van Beirendonck’s striking, statement-making clothes require headpieces of equal measure – and that’s exactly where Stephen Jones’s magical millinery creations come into play. Over the past three decades, the duo has dreamt up a multitude of cutting-edge creations ranging from gigantic felt top hats, to phallic headpieces and vibrant, tribal-inspired masks fashioned from wood and wool. 

Walter Van Beirendonck 'Sexclown' SS08
Walter Van Beirendonck 'Sexclown' SS08, Dazed and Confused 2007 Photography by Matt Irwin, Styling by Nicola Formechetti, taken from Dazed and Confused 2007

N IS FOR NEW ROMANTIC

What’s on Van Bierendonck’s iPod? Probably a slew of New Romantic artists – the designer often references the flamboyant and eccentric era of the ‘80s as one of his favourite periods in music. “We [The Antwerp Six] would dress up and go to events in London. We saw Leigh Bowery and the Club for Heroes and we went to see the Body Maps shows in London. It was that period when everyone had a distinctive style and taste,” he says.

O IS FOR OPERA

Van Beirendonck applied his avant-garde eye to ballet in 2012, designing the costumes for the Paris Opera. With a view to blurring gender boundaries, he switched up dancing traditions and dressed men in heeled block pumps and insisted that all female dancers went topless on stage. But, this wasn’t his first dalliance with dance. Prior to this Van Beirendonck had collaborated with the Royal Ballet of Flanders on the modern production, Not Strictly Rubens.

P IS FOR PUK PUK

If you take a closer look at any of the innovative pieces circa the W&LT era, it’s highly likely that you will come across a small blue alien motif. This is Puk Puk (meaning crocodile in Papua New Guinean) from the planet Dork. The mascot was created by Van Beirendonck to address highly sensitive topics such as safe sex through fashion. 

W&LT Puk Puk Animation
Puk Puk animation from W.&L.T Interactive CD-Roms accompanying AW95 and SS96 Collections in collaboration with Media-Lab Taken from Walter Van Beirendonck's 'Dream the World Awake', published by Lannoo Publishers, 2013

Q IS FOR QUIRKY BRILLIANCE

Brilliant and bonkers in equal measure, we’ve handpicked a selection of Van Beirendonck’s most courageous catwalk looks: 

W.&L.T. 'Paradise Pleasure Productions' AW95
W.&L.T. 'Paradise Pleasure Productions' AW95 Photography by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Styled by Kuki De Salvertes, taken from Walter Van Beirendonck's 'Dream the World Awake', published by Lannoo Publishers in 2013
Walter Van Beirendonck 'Hardbeat' AW89
Walter Van Beirendonck 'Hardbeat' AW89 Photography by Ronald Stoops, taken from Walter Van Beirendonck's 'Dream the World Awake', published by Lannoo Publishers in 2013
W.&L.T. 'Believe' SS98
W.&L.T. 'Believe' SS98 Photography by Ronald Stoops, taken from Walter Van Beirendonck's 'Dream the World Awake', published by Lannoo Publishers in 2013
W.&L.T. 'Believe' SS98
W.&L.T. 'Believe' SS98 Photography by Ronald Stoops, taken from Walter Van Beirendonck's 'Dream the World Awake', published by Lannoo Publishers in 2013

S IS FOR SLOGANS

Communicating a message is an integral part of the Walter Van Beirendonk aesthetic. Whether it’s fragments of lyrics or snippets of sensationalist media headlines, his commentary on society, politics, mass consumerism, culture, beauty and sexuality – are often printed in bold, visually arresting colours on knitwear and tailoring for dramatic effect. “I believe that fashion designers should try to change boundaries and make statements: says the designer. 'Slogans and messages (sometimes even secret messages) have been all over my work from the beginning.” 

Walter Van Beirendonck 'Shut Your Eyes to See' AW13
Walter Van Beirendonck 'Shut Your Eyes to See' AW13 Photography by Ronald Stoops, taken from Walter Van Beirendonck's 'Dream the World Awake', published by Lannoo Publishers in 2013

T IS FOR THE ANTWERP SIX

Three years after graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Van Beirendonck started his eponymous line and became an integral part of Belgium’s radical fashion scene. In search of exposure and opportunity, he and five other former Academy students – Dirk Bikemberrgs, Ann Demuelemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk van Saene and Marina Yee – travelled to London in 1987 to individually show a collection as part of the British Designer Show in London. With their distinct aesthetic and conceptual ideas, the British press promptly branded the designers as The Antwerp Six. 

U IS FOR U2

In 1997, Van Beirendonck was tapped to design the costumes for U2’s globetrotting PopMart tour. True to form, he refused to conform to their usual leather trouser and printed tee get-up and instead created superhero looks for each band member, inspired by Action Man figures. Lead singer Bono became Bonoman with lobster-red rubber foam legs, while guitarist, The Edge, became Electric Cowboy with an enhanced muscular chest T-shirt and Fu Manchu moustache.

V IS FOR VALUABLE ASSET

In addition to designing for his namesake line, Van Beirendonck has taught at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp since 1985, before becoming the director of the university’s fashion department in 2007. His influence on the Belgian fashion scene is incomparable, having mentored and nurtured some of the industries brightest young talents, including Veronique Branquinho, Bruno Pieters and Bernhard Willhelm.

W IS FOR W & LT (Wild and Lethal Trash)

From 1993 to 1999, Van Beirendonck worked under the label W. & LT, or Wild and Lethal Trash – a long-standing collaboration with the German denim label, Mustang. During this time, he produced some of his most experimental and futuristic works, with the aim of connecting with a younger, tech-savvy audience. Shows were staged in vast metal warehouses that pulsated with bass-heavy beats and flashing lights, while the clothes championed a contemporary sci-fi vibe. Glow-in-the-dark fabrics, scented strawberry prints and inflatable plastic jackets were headline acts. 

X IS FOR XXX!

Subversive themes of sadomasochism and fetishism have dominated much of Van Beirendonck’s most controversial work. Be it the latex headwear with muzzle-adornments that featured in his 1984 Sado collection or the bright rubber bodysuits complete with lacquered fingernails that caused a stir at his AW11 show. His fascination can be traced back to one of his earliest inspirations, Robert Mapplethorpe – an influential photographer who documented the booming S&M scene in ‘70s New York via graphic black and white images. 

Walter Van Beirendonck 'Lust Never Sleeps' AW12
Walter Van Beirendonck 'Lust Never Sleeps' AW12 Courtesy of Ronald Stoops

Y IS FOR Y THE HELL NOT?

From alienation to safe sex, indigenous tribes to politically charged slogans and spirituality; Van Beirondonck is renowned for the diverse and experimental exploration of themes throughout his work. Consider each collection as a melting pot of social themes, attitudes, pop culture, art, music and a dash of irreverence for good measure. Here, he invites us into his Antwerp studio and offers a rare insight into his unconventional design process. 

Z IS FOR ZIGGY STARDUST 

You have British rock pioneer, David Bowie, to thank for Van Beirendonck’s career in fashion. In fact, it was on seeing Bowie take to the stage as his gender-bending and glamourous alter ego ‘Ziggy Stardust’, that the Belgian designer pinpoints as the catalyst. “At that moment, I realised that image and clothes were a form of communication,” he preciously told Dazed. “Ultimately, Bowie was the reason that I got interested in fashion. I loved the codes he was playing around with and was fascinated by the messages he was communicating through his looks, interviews, live-performances and records.” Van Beirendonck’s obsession was cemented with the launch of his AW13 collection in Paris, which comprised of glitzy, ‘70s-inspired skinny cut suits and that were made for modern-day Bowies. 

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