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af vandevorst selfridges installation b akerlund
A.F.Vandevorst x B. ÅkerlundPhotography Ekaterina Belinskaya

The design duo behind AF Vandevorst on going their own way for 20 years

Following the label’s anniversary earlier this year, An Vandevorst and Filip Arickx revived the set of their debut show for a new installation at Selfridges

Three decades ago, An Vandevorst and Filip Arickx spotted each other on their first day at Antwerp’s world-renowned Royal Academy of Fine Arts: a meeting that would lead to one of fashion’s most distinctive personal and professional collaborations. Hot on the tails of their design heroes the Antwerp Six – the motley crew of Belgian designers who made waves in the late 80s – the pair emerged in 1998 with a bang, establishing their label AF Vandevorst with a pioneering debut show.

Inspired in equal parts by Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys and choreographer Pina Bausch, the duo took over the glass-ceilinged courtyard of a school in the Marais and arranged models across 32 vintage hospital beds – recalling, in Vandevorst’s words, “the behaviour of a woman lying on her bed and the integration of that environment into her wardrobe”. Sheets, pillows, blankets, pleats and wrinkles were rendered both clinical and sinister, stamped with their (now signature) red cross, a motif derived from Beuys. It also sparked the duo’s obsession with uniform and its double-edged connotations of safety and tyranny – a tension that filters down to even their more everyday, wearable pieces.

To celebrate reaching the milestone of 20 years, AF Vandevorst debuted a retrospective collection during Paris couture week, alongside the launch of a limited edition book – complete with a hand-embroidered red cross on the cover, of course. A few months on, its latest venture is a one-week residency at Selfridges, running from today until the May 6, with book signings, an installation that references their legendary debut show, and the launch of a ten-piece capsule collection in collaboration with super-stylist B Åkerlund inspired by selected pieces from their favourite collections.

For many designers, delving into a 20-year archive and selecting their favourite pieces to reinterpret would be an overwhelming prospect. But at a time when many houses are looking back at their previous accomplishments to beat a new path forward (see also: Prada and Versace), AF Vandevorst’s archive meshes so seamlessly with today that not a single piece feels dated – a testament to their clarity of vision and willingness to tell a decades-long story at their own pace.

We caught up with Vandevorst and Arickx ahead of their residency to discuss performance, the Belgian design community and where they’re headed next.

A lot of your archive pieces still look modern today, was it always your goal to create timeless works of design?

AF Vandevorst: We design everything from the heart, our creative process is very emotional. We consider every piece an element of the AF Vandevorst story and every collection like a chapter of our book. In that way you could say, if you like the book, you will also like each chapter! Of course, there are parts in each chapter that are stronger and others that are more soft and less dominant, to keep the balance. During the 40 seasons we only kept the most relevant pieces to us. Apparently, we made the right choice as they are still relevant today. They survived time, and somehow became timeless.

You’re known for shows that function more as theatre than a conventional runway. What do you think that format add to the viewer or customer’s experience of the clothes?

AF Vandevorst: As narrative is so important in designing our clothes, we apply it to everything we do: from the show, to the showroom, to the store. The story behind it as important as the product that comes out of it. Each presentation gives soul to a collection and we find it essential to pass this beauty on to our audience. We also like to challenge and surprise ourselves by showing our work in an unconventional way, so the book felt like a logic translation and continuation of this and our work, through two-dimensional images.

“Our story is very visible in our collections, as it’s so personal. Our work and life are very intertwined, so it feels natural to share it with our audience” – AF Vandevorst 

You’re very clear with your points of inspiration. Do you think it’s important as designers to be transparent about what inspires you?

AF Vandevorst: Every designer should decide this for him or herself. Our story is very visible in our collections, as it’s so personal. Our work and life are very intertwined, so it feels natural to share it with our audience.

The book also features quotes from other Antwerp designers, how has the Belgian fashion community shaped your career? 

AF Vandevorst: Although we are all very different, we do have a lot of respect for each other. Perhaps there’s a certain Northern approach, or it’s the mix of realism and surrealism that connects all of us. This defines Belgian fashion for the outside world. Belgian designers such as Dries (Van Noten), Walter (Van Beirendonck) and Ann (Demeulemeester) definitely paved the way. It was partially because of them we decided to study at the Antwerp Fashion Academy, a school that pulls that creativity out of you, and gives you the opportunity to develop your own personality, to discover who you really are.

Why does it feel important for you to remain independent as a business? How do you balance concept and commerce?

AF Vandevorst: We do have a business partner but they respect our creativity and let us be who we are, which is an important and reassuring way to work. Commerce is a necessity as it makes it possible to continue the story and to create concepts – and so the balance is secured. 

You’re obviously master storytellers – what’s the next chapter for you? 

AF Vandevorst: To co-produce. We love to collaborate with other disciplines to enrich our world, and to be able to tell more and other stories and to share them with people we admire.

Where do you see AF Vandevorst in 20 years time?

AF Vandevorst: We’re not the kind of people that think way ahead. We like to live in the present and to explore the landscape as it appears. We love and hate the pace of working last-minute, but in a way we always end up there – we like to enjoy and explore every minute and challenge ourselves until the very last breath.