With campaign stars like A$AP Rocky, Larry Clark and Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan, the Belgian designer feels like he’s entering a new chapter
This year, Belgian designer Kris Van Assche celebrates a decade at the helm of Dior Homme. Even he can't quite believe it's been that long – “It’s gone really quickly!” he exclaims from his atelier at 3 Rue de Marignan, the afternoon before his SS18 show. Originally arriving at the house in 2000 with Hedi Slimane (who he assisted at Yves Saint Laurent), he left to start his own independent label in 2004. When Slimane exited three years later he returned, dividing his week between the two brands until 2015, when he decided to focus on Dior full time. “It became super exciting for me when I had to quit my own label. It really allowed for me to put much more of myself here,” he says. “I’ve kind of reinvented my role now, so it’s a whole new adventure.”
That new adventure hasn’t exactly been low profile, thanks to a list of headline-making campaign stars. As well as younger creative talents including A$AP Rocky, The xx’s Oliver Sim and Manchester By The Sea actor Lucas Hedges, there was Larry Clark, Boy George, and most recently Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, revealed only last week. While the casting perfectly brings together both the cult and current, what’s perhaps been most brilliant is the unexpected nature of the protagonists: even Van Assche thought it would “for sure be a no” from the 74-year-old Clark, best known for seminal 1995 film Kids, and photobooks like Tulsa and Teenage Lust. “I’ve been very lucky,” admits the designer happily. Clark even made a short film for the house, and despite their wildly different backgrounds, each campaign star has felt unshakably authentic as a figurehead; they've been chosen out of a genuine respect for their work as opposed an attempt to tap into a trend or hit up the latest social media influencer.
Recent collections have been similarly high voltage, blending dark but impeccable tailoring with a subcultural and street edge. There was last season’s ‘HarDior’ collection, which saw a hardcore techno raver influence that had hints of Belgium’s gabber music fans. Then there was the punkish, gothic SS17 collection, which featured bondage straps, skull motifs, and Frankenstein-like red stitching. The season before that, 80s New Wave and 90s skaters were a key reference point, and models wore their hair in emo fringes. To top it all off, their fingernails were painted with black polish. “I am interested in a synthesis of generations and filtering subcultures through my own lens to tell a new story,” Van Assche has said.
“It became super exciting for me when I had to quit my own label. It really allowed for me to put much more of myself here” – Kris Van Assche
His SS18 show yesterday, was another exploration of youth culture through the lens of Dior’s longstanding heritage, as models marched out onto a turf runway to a jarring mix which veered between outsider anthems like Radiohead’s “Creep”, REM’s “Losing My Religion” and Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”. Above them hung black streams of tinsel, which looked like the tape you'd find coiled in cassettes.
The collection was divided into two parts – first up was a desire to “re-think and re-work the DNA of the brand”: the black suit and the white shirt. “How can we re-make that and deconstruct it for the future?” was the question Van Assche posed. The answer was to approach the suit in what he called a “radical” new way: the first silhouettes were a menswear take on Christian Dior’s classic Bar silhouette for women while the backs of jackets were cut away to reveal bondage-like straps which bisected the t-shirts beneath. Some pieces saw sleeves chopped off entirely to become scarves wrapped around the neck, and trousers were blown up into raver-wide, JNCO-like proportions, or else replaced by super short shorts. In a direct tribute to the house, the address of the Rue de Marignan atelier appeared prominently, featuring on bags, tops, shirts, pins and more.
But there was also an ode to American adolescence – with varsity jackets and prints, a heavy sportswear theme, and what Van Assche said was a tribute to the all American prom night – when young men might put on their first suit. “For me it’s just youth culture, street culture,” he noted of the Stateside references – which have also been a famous source of inspiration for fellow Belgian, Raf Simons. “When I was 15 we all looked at America for that. Some of those memories come back… but now that street culture is everywhere, it's worldwide.” One phrase came splashed across multiple pieces: “LATE NIGHT SUMMER”. “I really wanted to evoke when you get to stay out the whole night for the first time,” he says. “The sky’s the limit – having beers, your first boyfriend or girlfriend, that idea of becoming aware that the way you dress is going to help you socialise and exist, really.”
Trainers were matched with every look – like when teenage boys kick off their school shoes as soon as the bell rings and put on their freshest pair of sneakers. There was also a collaboration with artist Francois Bard, whose work depicts 21st century scenes – men in caps, trainers and hoodies – in fine art oil paintings. Similar to Van Assche’s own work, his practice mixes the contemporary and street with elevated, precisely honed techniques. The designer even has some of Bard’s pieces at home. “I think he has a very traditional way of portraying something very modern, so I very much like his work,” he praises. Beneath it all was an exploration of the line between boyishness and manhood, those moments young men start to discover their style, begin to dress with intent: “The idea of these guys at college… how do they enter into this process of seduction or being more sexy? By cutting off their sleeves, making their own necklaces… but with little skulls because of course they’re still tough.”
While some designers might be getting restless after such a long time, Van Assche seems perfectly content. The rest of the industry, it should be noted, appears to be in a near-constant state of flux, with new moves announced regularly and one designer – Justin O’Shea, hired at Brioni – only lasting a single season in his new job. “It feels like I’m growing into a new chapter, it doesn’t really feel like I’ve been doing the same thing for 10 years,” Van Assche says. He cites the decision to shake up the campaign team and start working with David Sims as an example – “I’m reinventing it because I want to change it on a high. I don’t want to get into a comfort zone.” That's the risk of working in a big house, he admits: “You know the expectations, you know what will sell, what people will like. But in the end I really realised with my own label – I’m not having enough fun with this. So I had to clean everything out and I started having more fun here.” It's certainly paying off.
Head to the gallery above for more backstage images from the SS18 collection