The Past, The Present, The Walter Van Beirendonck - An Interview (Part 1)
Having been fans and retailers of Walter Van Beirendonck for many years and, due to our current Covid situation, not being able to meet and catch up in person, we decided to sit behind our computer screens, snuggle up as close as possible and ask him a couple of questions.
Hi Walter, how are you doing? We have known each other quite a while. If I recall correctly, our first meeting was along the highway on our way to the Première Vision Paris. Later on met at your iconic shop in Antwerp and thereafter came into contact through the purchasing of your collections, Aesthetic Terrorist and later Walter Van Beierendonck. About 20 years have passed and we have not missed retailing a single season.
Good, I am sure we have known each other for a long time. It seems likely that our first meeting was on the road to Première Vision, as we always took the car and never skipped a coffee-break under way. Much has happened since, both personally as in a business wise. The Aesthetic Terrorists collection was essential in connecting the old W< and current Walter Van Beierendonck collections. My break with W< was intense, as I had to start over and build up from scratch. For a long time I was prohibited legally to release commercial collections under the my own name, Walter van Beirendock. This is why I chose to launch the (anonymous) brand Aesthetic Terrorist, untimely, as the brand was abruptly ended due to the terror attacks of 9/11.
"Indeed, no one spoke of a pandemic when I created these designs. Yet the ambience, spiky shapes, materials, the collection’s name, all fit these surrealistic times perfectly."
Your collections and its creatures never fail to amaze us. They often posses a mixture of the fantastic and visionary As for instance this A/W 2020 collection, which was developed before any talk of a pandemic, seems to fit perfectly in our current Covid situation. How do you approach a new season and does your perspective develop during the process of creating a collection like this one?
Thank you for these kind words. Indeed, no one spoke of a pandemic when I created these designs. Yet the ambience, spiky shapes, materials, the collection’s name, all fit these surrealistic times perfectly. I work very spontaneously, but always try to remain in strong contact with the world and our society. For me, it is essential that my designs are in accordance with the moment and reflect a strong contemporary feeling. Looking back at older collections, it is almost strange that there is a timeless, or even current, sense in the collections created so long ago.
"We all have the right to beauty and freedom. In all areas, we have no choice but to demand freedom, demand beauty, with no limits."
Everyone of your collections is very different, in subject and execution. Is this a challenge you like to encounter? The current collection seems to revolve around liberation, liberation of your own restrictions and those of others. What inspired you to create this collection?
Every collection is a challenge, an exercise in pushing boundaries, those of fashion and my own. I find challenging myself very important, it gives me great satisfaction. The W:AR collection, W:A.R stands for Walter About Rights, is a reaction to the issues we all encounter in our present-day world. It concerns problems such as global warming, racism, intolerance, and also the fact that we all have the right to beauty and freedom. In all areas, we have no choice but to demand freedom, demand beauty, with no limits. This collection enabled me to clarify this, to myself and to others.
"I could have chosen for the money, and continued unscrupulously, but that was not an option for me."
Fashion is constant subject to changes. A large shift in fashion is towards sustainability and transparency of production. Since recently, you communicate all factories and studios involved in the production of your collections. How did this come about?
After my ‘amazing’ adventures with the W< label in the 90’s, just before 2000, I resolutely chose to re-start with a smaller structure with a transparent vision. The main reason for this was the enormous amount of stress I was under. I was living a hectic irregular life, constantly traveling and not able to create a good rhythm. I had far too much work on my plate trying to succeed in completing separate collection for men, women, junior, children, accessories etc. At the same time there was a lot of pressure from agents and management to meet highly commercial standards. After experiencing the physical and ethical consequences of this lifestyle, I decided I did not want to remain the face of W<, and thus took the drastic decision to dissolve my contract. I could have chosen for the money, and continued unscrupulously, but that was not an option for me.
So, in 2000, I chose for a small, transparent and fair structure, in which I am able to have direct personal contact with my employees, the mainly Belgian and Italian studios where my collections are produced, my loyal customers, the press. I want it to be independent, be able to create without any ‘backers’ or loans. This gives me the complete freedom to design my collections as I, myself, desire them to be, centered around creativity. Our approach enables us to realize the exact quantities as ordered by our customers, without any production being outsourced to the far-East or having to deal with over-production. To me this is a fair and sensible way of operating a business, it perfectly fits our current times.
"The speed and the urge for instant gratification have taken over. Nevertheless, I do truly love the direct contact I am currently able to have."
What have been the biggest changes in your field if you look back on the past 20+ years?
In my opinion, the biggest shift in fashion over the past 20 years is the means of communication. Internet and especially social media have brought about an enormous acceleration in fashion. For better or worse, we do not have to judge, but the ways in which we experience fashion is different. Being invited to presentations behind closed doors, trying to sneak into shows, waiting for the reviews in magazines, hoping photos turn out well, discovering the final product in the shops months later, it all did have something magical. The speed and the urge for instant gratification have taken over. Nevertheless, I do truly love the direct contact I am currently able to have with my shops, audience and fans through social media nowadays.
Just like sustainability and transparency, durability of products is also a significant topic. Human lifespan is dependent on DNA and one’s lifestyle. How does this work in fashion? Is there something you try to add to your designs to influence their durability?
As I have previously mentioned, my previous collections fortunately do not have an outdated feeling. I strongly experienced this while assembling my retrospective exhibition Dream The World Awake a few years ago. When everything came together, you could hardly make out the years in which the collections were created. It seemed like one large collection with a distinct Walter signature. This is something I am very proud of.
I am also very pleased that my designs are continuously being discovered by young people, happy my audience does not grow old with me. It is nice to see, that in recent years, there is an enormous amount of interest in vintage 90’s W< collections among present-day teenagers. This approach of buying from previous fashion collections, and combining it with new, contemporary designs, fits perfectly in the new ‘upcycle’ vision, which is more important than ever for our world and the world of fashion.
As we are preparing the second part of this interview you can check some of our past and present Walter van Beirendock collections: