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A Conversation With Ann Demeulemeester

The acclaimed Belgian designer on fashion, music and life.

Belgian-born designer Ann Demeulemeesterstudied fashion design at the now-famous Fashion Academy in Antwerp from 1978 to 1981, and was a member of the so-called "Antwerp Six", with contemporaries including Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela. Demeulemeester is married to photographer Patrick Robyn. She still lives in Antwerp, in Belgium's only Le Corbusier house, and has a flagship store there. She is influenced by artists including Jim Dine, Patti Smith and Jackson Pollock.

DD: Why did you choose to be a fashion designer, when you could have done almost anything?
AD: I became a fashion designer by accident. I loved to make portrait drawings when I was a teenager and from that came the interest in what people were wearing and why they were wearing it. Also as a fashion designer you can communicate with a lot of people. So although I was not a fashionista I decided just to try it my way and went to the Antwerp Academy in 1977.
DD: How do you communiciate with people through fashion?
AD: It's like a musician who communicates through his music or an artist who communicates through his artworks or a writer through his books. I make clothes, and you create and give something. It's most beautiful thing about my work. I have reached people who I would never have known without my work.
DD: There are so many Belgian designers nowadays. How do you characterize Belgian fashion style?
AW: I can't, I'm an individualist and to me all designers are different (and they should be).
DD: Do you have any strong patriotism for Belgium?
I'm not chauvinistic at all. I feel more European than Belgian. However I do think that my Flemish roots have an impact on my character and culture.
DD: Ever since your first collection, you've used almost all black and white. Before Ann Demeulemeester, black was the colour of Comme des Garcons or Yohji Yamamoto. Why don't you use other colours?
AW: Black to me is the colour of the poets but I need white too, like a black and white photo. When I create, I create new shapes and cuts. Later I make them in black or white, and that way I'm not distracted by colour. Once the piece is ready, I don't add needless decoration. I prefer to keep it pure. Still, there is a whole range of black and white. Also, black can evoke very different emotions depending on the material.
DD: What kind of feelings and emotions does "black" bring to you?
AW: Mostly poetic, but I can use it also as a strong, eternal, beautiful and classic colour. Or even to add strength. It can range from romantic to aggressive, a whole gamut of emotions.
DD: Do you like to take photographs?
AW: Not really, but I sometimes take photos of myself, my body or feet to control shapes I designed.
DD: For you, should clothes be wearable, or should clothes express something?
AW: Both. One can not exist without the other.
DD: I think your collection influences both other designers' collections and street fashion. Is there a difference between those two for you?
AW: We all walk in the street! When I can influence, it means that my work lives. I see it as a compliment
DD: When did you start designing a menswear collection?
AW: 1996.
DD: What was the inspiration for your A/W 08 menswear collection?
AW: The song "Knockin' on Heavens Door" by Bob Dylan was in my mind and influenced the spirit of the collection. I was struck by its power and its simplicity. As an anti-war song it had something we need now. People are afraid of the situation in the world today, and that shows in various ways, even the way they dress. Fear kills all beauty, all creativity and all positive vibes that we need to live and to work. Therefore positive vibes are what I wanted to offer, with the power of the flowers taken from my own garden.
DD: Do you think that fashion can change the world?
AW: It's the duty of all artists to fight with the weapons they have. Every voice counts and I feel it as a responsibility.
DD: So all the hydrangeas were from your garden?
Yes. I dried them for different periods to achieve different colours. I took photos of them and printed them on fabrics.
DD: Are you inspired by music often?
AW: Yes, because its like a transmission of energy. Art, film, poems or books have the same effect on me. When I see or hear something really good, it pushes me to give the best of myself.
DD: What does "beauty" and "freedom" for you?
AW: Beauty of mind creates freedom. Freedom of mind creates beauty.
DD: How did you establish a personal style so fast?
AW: I just followed my heart without any compromise.
DD: I heard that Patti Smith wears only vintage and Ann Demeulemeester. How did you build such strong relationship?
AW: She's my best friend, my soul mate, an artist I admire, and a strong individual. We met because we were meant to - it was written in the stars. Close souls find each other in life.
DD: The word "rock" has different meanings. How would you describe it?
AW: Anti-conservative. Energy. A guitar can be a weapon, and clothes too.
DD: What's your favourite music?
AW: Tom Verlaine. Lou Reed. Nick Cave. Nico. PJ Harvey. Gavin Bryars. Lots more.
DD: What do you think is the difference between men and women, and between menswear and womenswear?
AW: All human beings have masculine and feminine elements. The tension between the two is the essence of life. It's a mystery that always will inspire me. In practice, I work for completely different bodies. Men are so real with their clothes, they don't play roles like woman do and that's why they are so inspiring to me. However, the most important thing is to be intriguing to each other in life.
DD: The lack of sexuality in your collections reminds me of the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. For me, Yohji Yamamoto conceals sexual impulses, and this is what old-fashioned Japanese people did. What do you think about this?
AW: I do think that Yohji created a new form of sexual beauty. However, your description of sexuality is completely conservative. Is only Barbie or a macho man sexy to you? For me, they don't excite me! Emotion and sexuality are really close. I try to work with sexuality as I feel it, in an honest way, and not with rules that were imposed on us many years ago. I could fall in love with the men in my show, and the women in my show could be their wives. They contrast and complete each other. Don't forget the rule: the most sensual thing is always what you hide. Don't confuse vulgarity with sexuality.
DD: Are there any projects that you want to do in the near future besides fashion?
AW: Yes, a lot. The future is open. That's one of my rules: I go day by day. We will see what the future brings. Our duty in life is trying to be happy.
DD: What is happiness for you? What is sadness?
AW: I'm happy if I am with the ones I love, if I can love them, if I create and give, if I'm in nature and if I receive and give positive vibes. The only sadness I cannot solve is death.