Walter Van Beirendonck - Conversation taken from TTA4 - AW 2012
Interview Paul Kominek & John Roberts
Photography Laetitia Bica
Belgian fashion designer Walter Van Beirendonck has been known since the early Eighties for his memorable and often challenging take on the construction of clothing. His work combines pop culture and historical references with bright colors and patterns to create strange and beautiful pieces. Here he describes for us his favorite places to visit in the physical world, his methods of traveling virtually, and his thoughts on extra-terrestrial life.
You went to London in the Eighties to show your work as part of the now legendary Antwerp Six. Could you tell us a bit about that trip to London as you remember it?
We were all really desperate to get out of Belgium. A friend of ours, Gerrit Bruloot, knew about The British Designer Show in London and suggested that we go there to show our collections. We were sitting together, discussing the possibility, and as we were really good friends then (and we are now), we said, “Why not?” We had nothing to lose, and were really bored of doing presentations, shows, and contests in Belgium. So we rented six booths and one van, and drove to London. Of course as unknown designers, they gave us booths at the end of the fair between the bridal collections and alternative collections. But after sending out our models dressed in our collections and handing flyers to the “hip” buyers and press people in the designer section, we attracted an assistant to an important PR-agent, Marysia Woronycka. She was blown away by our collections and presentations – not one catch but six at once! She became our first PR agent. For the English press our names were unpronounceable so that's why they called us The Antwerp Six.
Your work often includes tribal elements, masks, patterns, etc. How important is it for you to visit the actual places where those elements originate?
I would love to visit those places, to travel the world and discover all of the rituals and fantastic body decorations on the spot, but unfortunately the fashion-system doesn't allow for long travels, as I am always far too busy to take such a period of time off. I am addicted to buying books, seeing exhibitions and “traveling” on the web though. All of the information is mainly gathered this way. It doesn't mean that I never travel; I've visited Australia, the U.S.A., Japan and Europe. One day I'd like to travel to Papua New Guinea, as some of my favorite tribes are from there. I'd also like to go to India, as I love their colors and jewelry, as well as to Africa, as I'm a big fan of African sculptures and happen to collect masks from the Bozo people of Mali.
Can you recall a specific piece of clothing you've designed that was inspired by a natural setting you've visited or by a culture you've experienced firsthand?
I also collect toys, so when I was visiting Japan I found fantastic shops and bought some super toys there. I have all of them displayed in my workspace and their colors, spirit and look are a permanent inspiration for me. I'm also a big fan of Budapest, Hungary. For a long time I would go there yearly between Christmas and New Year's Eve. I adore the folk dress there, which I also collect, as well as Hungarian carpets and porcelain, which are also a big inspiration for me.
How did you come to discover and develop a passion for Budapest? Do you remember the first time you went there?
I went to Budapest for the first time in the Nineties. I love the city, most of all in wintertime. I just admire walking around in the city at that time of the year, going to the markets for example. That's where I acquired some of these folk costumes, folk paintings, and Hungarian ceramics. Also, I love to go to the famous baths, and I adore the great local food.
We've heard that Ann Demeulemeester, for example, is opposed to traveling due to her fear of flying. Have you ever experienced any anxieties that have prevented you from going somewhere?
That could be. I've heard that too. I'm not a big fan of flying but it would never prevent me from traveling. Next week I'm going to Puglia, in Italy, and staying in an amazing convento packed with ethnic art, books, a great swimming pool, and fabulous food. It will be a short but hopefully fantastic stay. It is really the perfect place to be inspired and take a break. 2013 will be a big travel year for me. My exhibition “Dream the World Awake” will travel to Melbourne, opening in July of that year, and during April I will travel throughout the U.S.A., visiting L.A., Chicago, New York and Dallas for several projects. The Dallas Contemporary will host an exposition about my work as a fashion designer. I've never been to Texas but am looking forward to discovering it. And somewhere in 2013 there will also be a trip to Japan.
How do you go about acquiring the masks from Mali that you collect?
I was introduced to these masks by Alistair McAlpine, owner of the convento in Puglia that I'll be visiting soon. He has a fantastic collection of these colorful pieces from the Bozo. In fact they are part of marionettes, they use them to tell stories and perform small plays. There are all different types of them – animals, particularly horses, and also goddesses. I've been collecting them since I was introduced to them ten years ago and by now I have a small collection, with marionettes I found and bought in Paris and Brussels.
You've referenced alien beings and the supernatural in your work. Can you describe your personal fantasy of extraterrestrial life?
I do like to believe that there is something out there, and I am attached to the idea of some kind of afterlife. It simply can't be possible that the earth and humankind are the only life forms in this huge, black space. It would be great to see and discover these “other worlds,” but in the meantime there is still plenty to do here and I need to find time to travel to Papua New Guinea.