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Walter van Beirendonck: The Joy of Six

The legendary designer and Head of Fashion at Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Art picks out six talented students for Dazed Digital to profile

Not satisfied with being been known for inspiring and politicising fashion for nearly thirty years, or curating numerous exhibitions and publications that have seeded discourse on popular culture, Walter van Beirendonck has also been heavily involved in the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Art course since the late 80s. As is sometimes the case with high profile figures attached to subsequently high profile university courses, Walter has much more than a remote connection to the Academy. He is far from a guest lecturer, and in 2007 became the head of the department.

Numerous forward thinking designers have studied under Walter at the Academy over the years including Bernhard Willhelm, Kris Van Assche, and Wim Neels. As we were interviewing him about his long-standing career for the September issue of Dazed & Confused, we decided to ask Walter to highlight a number of his current and recent students that you should definitely keep your eye on in the future. His selection of a few talented Antwerp students is Walter van Beirendonck's own version of the Antwerp 6 in 2010. From today, and for the next five days, Dazed Digital will profile the students, giving you an insight into their inspiration and ambitions, plus images from their latest collections.

Dazed Digital: What was it that inspired you to start designing?
Walter Van Bierendonck: The main reason was David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust period. I liked the fact that you could communicate different ideas through changing your image.

DD: You studied at the Royal Academy in Antwerp in the 80s with people like Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten and Dirk Bikkembergs. What was that like?
Walter Van Bierendonck: We didn't realise how exciting it was then. We did a lot of things together - studying, travelling, parties, concerts... After we graduated, we worked on shows in Belgium and went to London together. We knew being together helped us work, but we didn't know what it would become.

DD: And you all showed together at the London Fashion Fair in the mid-80s...
Walter Van Bierendonck: We did that show in 1988, mainly because we wanted to get out of Belgium, as we couldn't attract international press at that time. We just decided London was the best place to go, and it was also relatively cheap. Six of us travelled together to do that fair: Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Dirk Van Saene, Marina Yee and myself. It was there that the term the 'Antwerp Six' was coined.

DD: Your sexuality, and sexuality in general, is something you have worked through all of your collections. Why do you like discussing that through fashion?
Walter Van Bierendonck: It's not that I want to discuss it, but it is a part of me that is very important. In my first collection, I was interested in artist Allen Jones, and I think that came through in the use of fetishistic elements. It was not that I was actively involved in fetishism, more that it intrigued me.

DD: Do you feel it is important to allow people to consider sexuality on a broader scale?
Walter Van Bierendonck: I am so surprised that in 2010 people are still shocked by elements of sex and sexuality, as well as race and religion. These differences in people seem completely normal to me, and I am rather confused that it is not like that for everyone. I am trying to achieve an open vision and I want to show that there are many things socially possible today.

DD: Just a few years after gradating, you launched the infamous 90s label Wild & Lethal Trash. What was the idea behind that?
Walter Van Bierendonck: The jeans company Mustang approached me when street fashion first started to establish itself, and I went to see the company with my portfolio. They were amazed by the street fashion look that I showed them and gave me the opportunity to create a youth line inside the company. It started as a streetwear project and ended as a high-end designer line.

DD: What was its appeal?
Walter Van Bierendonck: I think it was the right feeling and the right product at the right moment. That period was about experimenting and looking towards the future in a bright way and it fitted really well into that generation. Eventually Wild & Lethal Trash became a victim of the 'Prada Sport period' - the end of the 90s when everything became dark again. Then the style was totally minimal, nylon and black, and the company behind W< wanted me to move in that direction. Eventually, I stepped out of the company and left everything behind me. It was a decision about whether to take the money or go for creativity.

DD: Do you feel like you have finally found your place?
Walter Van Bierendonck: Yes, but I always felt like there was a special place for me in fashion, I have never fitted in with the more traditional fashion world but I have always enjoyed that position, slightly as an outsider.

DD: The Walter VB collections have a strong political and social element to them, in your use of text and graphics. Where does the inspiration to do that stem from?
Walter Van Bierendonck: In the older collections, just after Wild & Lethal Trash, it really became about personal statements - I wanted to communicate what I was thinking about on a wider scale, outside of just clothing and youth culture. I really am 100 per cent involved in every collection. I do all the design, the selection of the music, the models and the styling for every fashion show. The collections are an extension of my ideals.

DD: Do you have continuing ideas that have run through your collections?
Walter Van Bierendonck: Each collection has something in particular about it, based on what I see happening in the world, but all my ingredients are similar. The ethnic inspiration, different types of tribes and rituals, are always there, as is changing the boundaries of men's fashion and gender: I like tension, and I try to provoke tension.

DD: Are you looking to create a new idea of what menswear can be?
Walter Van Bierendonck: It's not that I want to dress men up in womenswear - I am simply using elements that are normally seen on women on a man, I don't want to imitate a woman. For instance, in the latest collection we did red lips and red nails on the men. It was super-interesting to me that even though both of those ideas are very well-known on women, when placed on men it looked really masculine. That masculinity is important to me.

DD: You have designed with larger guys in mind, and have infamously included the gay 'Bear community' on the catwalk. What made you want to do that?
Walter Van Bierendonck: The first time was in 1995 as part of a show called Bears And Fairy Tales. At that time the Bear scene was small and not really known in Europe, and I had to bring in a lot of models from London. I found it interesting that I could show a totally different type of man, because at that time it was very common to use the thin physique - to some people, putting these big guys on the runway was really quite shocking.

DD: You have just shown your most recent collection in Paris, entitled Read My Skin. What was the inspiration behind it?
Walter Van Bierendonck: I'm fascinated by how today everyone has such mixed racial backgrounds. At the Antwerp Academy, where I teach, my pupils have parents who come from all over the world; they have mixed nationalities and mixed cultures. I feel there is a new world rising, one where everyone's nationalities will be so mixed that you end up with a new race. It is also a reaction to how people are judged by their skin colour, I used embroidery and fabric with holes so that you get to see the colour of the skin underneath.

DD: Do you think it is important to stay connected to the new generation?
Walter Van Bierendonck: Yes, I definitely think it is and that is something that I really appreciate; not getting grey together with my audience! Working with young people is important as a fashion designer - you are sharing information with the younger generation but also learning from them.

DD: As someone who has worked across so many platforms, produced such a large amount of work and had such influence on so many people, how do you think you will be remembered?
Walter Van Bierendonck: I think that everyone will agree, or at least I hope they will, that I really did try to do it in an unconventional way and come up with new propositions. I hope that I will be remembered for that and also that I changed some boundaries. That's really important for me because it's ultimately what I want to do as a fashion designer. If that aspect wasn't a part of this, I wouldn't even consider doing it.

Photography Scott Trindle
Styling Robbie Spencer
Hair Ed Moeland at Jed Root
Make up Inge Grognard at Jed Root
Photographic Assistants David Palmieri, Mark Simpson
Styling Assistant Elizabeth Fraser-Bell

Click on the images to read Dazed Digital's profile of the six Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Art students, as chosen by Walter van Beirendonck.