Like getting a warm embrace from Care-A-Lot’s ring leader Tenderheart—that’s how it feels to wear one of WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK’s fuzzy, friendly fashions. But beneath the ruched fabric lies a less than innocent instinct of voodoo rituals, bezoomy devotchkas, and sex club fetishes. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Let our safe word be “Technicolor.”
Before you end this session prematurely, it should be said that Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck is a barrelling hunk of affection; his voice inflected with introversion and his confidence (especially on the runway) tinged with joie de vivre. Coming to prominence as part of the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts’ famous sextet (see Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee. The unofficial seventh member being Martin Margiela), Walter attained notoriety early on with his lavish creations, political statements, and sexual innuendo.
Relating the story of SADO, his first ever collection—even before Bad Baby Boys in ’86 as well as “The name of my white Bull Terrier I adored!”—Walter clarifies the nod to Mapplethorpe’s erotica, S&M, horses, and Allen Jones, saying, “It didn’t mean I was active in S&M. But I did love the rules and rituals: the Master and Slave attitude and the submission.” It has since become a continuous thread through his collections. “Sex is an important part of what I’m doing!” Walter exclaims.
What else is important? “Fantasy and mysterious worlds. Every collection tells a story and has a clear name. The worlds I create have a clear reason and logic and are the results of a spontaneous process that comes straight from my guts and heart. That’s why I would love to work on costumes for fantasy movies.” Guillermo del Toro, please take note. Though Hollywood hasn’t come a-knocking, Walter did design U2′s stage costumes for their ’97 tour, culminating in the band’s special Simpsons guest appearance, in full Groening-ized Van Beirendonck regalia.
For someone whose mascot is an animated self-portrait complete with hanging schlong, it’s a surprise Walter is “not so crazy about cartoons,” and that he’d rather explore videos and imagery of the tribes in Papua New Guinea or Tahitian totems and shrunken heads.
“Fashion is a kind of fetishism…”
The website for Van Beirendonck’s previous label W.&L.T. includes radio-dial navigation and a made-up cartoon character—Puk Puk from the planet Dork—who urges us to “Kiss the future.” Then again, even Puk Puk is Walter’s adaptation of a Papua New Guinean myth. He admits his predilection for “The amazing storytelling of David Lynch. His weirdness, his characters, and strange plots. Blue Velvet, I found fabulous. And looking forward to Twin Peaks every week was a treat.” As soon as admitting his dark Lynchian fondness, he chuckles “I also love stories with a happy ending. Probably sounds surprising, but I do love feel-good movies like Pretty Woman. Julia Roberts is my favorite actress.” This teetering balance between terrific and terrible keeps us on tip-toes. Just like a sub with his dom.
Besides Lynch, Walter attributes another David as prime inspiration: Bowie. I mention the full moon at one point, and Walter winks, “Wild is the wind.” At the ripe age of 12, Walter knew—thanks to the “Starman”—that he wanted to be different from his classmates. 43 years later, and Walter is still distinct from his peers; thanks, Mr. Bowie. “I’m probably an outsider in fashion,” reflects Walter. “But I do like that position. And I do hate fashion as much as I like it,” but we’ll get to that later.
Unlike the distinguished houses of Chanel, Gucci, Versace, and even Balmain—all catering to a slightly more mature customer—Walter is proud that his “audience is not growing grey” with him. “I’m also proud that my creative approach to my collections is still relevant after 30 years of creating,” he adds. “I love the energy of youth… Over the years, I built up an extremely recognizable signature that attracts different generations and ages. I think, due to my honest way of working, clear vision, ethics, and respect for different types of humans, my fans see and understand that I’m real. Not a maison mainly concerned with marketing and money.”
Extremely hands-on, the man has amassed volumes of scrapbooks through the years, each with collated magazine clippings, photos, swatches, articles, designs, and head-to-toe sketches of every look in every collection. With everything done personally (and emotionally, he smiles), the Walter Van Beirendonck magic becomes integral, tickling one’s whimsy through fang-bearing tribal sweaters, hologram hoodies, caricatured coats, felt penis appliqué, and ruffled condom-like silhouettes.
“I’m extremely perfectionist,” he begins. “I want to have everything under control, but in a good way—not obsessive.” Working with a small, very involved team (famously including Raf Simons at one point), the designer intimately interacts with those around him, from stockists to anyone at all who visits his stores and studios. This bear is more teddy than grizzly: an approchable—never abominable—showman.
This microscopic approach to details, hems, and finishes is something he has consequently instilled in his Antwerp Royal Academy alma mater, where he has been teaching since the 80s and was recently appointed director of the fashion department.
“I’m probably an outsider in fashion… but I do like that position.”
Living in future tense, Walter was one of the few creatives quick to embrace the internet, digital innovation, and cyberphilia, often programming technologic elements into his clothes. Of the information inundation of our current age, the bearded prophet offers, “The world is totally reachable and it opens up the vision and way of thinking of the young generations. Sometimes, I miss discovering new things I hadn’t seen before. That’s why I’m hoping that we discover new alien worlds soon, with new species, races, tribes, and amazing nature. Traveling to these new worlds is my ultimate dream.” We can only wish it exists: Planet Beirendonck, where everyone wears organic quirk and likes to cuddle. Except, we hope we don’t have to make love via tentacly hair-braids.
But for now, he’s stuck with the rest of us in this wonderful, glamorous, despicable industry. When I liken fashion to fetish, Walter declares his ultimatum, “Fashion is a kind of fetishism and also communication. Fetishism and the urge to beautify a body is a constant thing, but also changes through the years, although the core and reason stay the same: buying and wearing nice clothes feels good and it lets us feel better and self-secure, which is good and important.”
Self-image is yet another powerful noun (sometimes adjective) in the Van Beirendonck verbiage. His affinity for a bodily variety ranging from beefy, hairy, and bulky to twinky, tweeny, and lanky comes to mind. Remember, too, that show where models walked blindly off the edge of the runway onto a plump mattress. Black models in eerie pale pink rubbery skin, masked and gloved. Bondage-donning characters, some lean, but most large. There’s room for everyone in this orgy of creativity.
“What did change a lot over these past 30 years is communication. Consumers are much more informed than ever before, which is creating a totally different dynamic and energy. We are at a turning point. I do believe in the power of creativity because it is the only thing, in the end, that will push fashion forward. Fashion is selling a dream. But consumers are—more and more—searching for their own personal, made-to-measure, customized dream. That’s why a creative approach in fashion is so important.”
He hints that we might unlock the secret to this new fashion dream in one of his latest fascinations: “The cosplay movement, a new kind of fetishism. Could be a fashion approach for the future!” Walter beams. Back to his love-hate relationship with this industry, Walter concludes, “What I don’t like is that a big part of this fashion world is money-driven, without respect or concern for ethics. That’s exactly the contact I avoid, which makes me a happy and honest outsider,” and we’d gladly stay there with him, wrapped in his big snuggly arms—uh, the arms of his cardigans, that is.
More subtle than McQueen’s hells angels and prolific demons or Riccardo Tisci’s gothic Givenchy vision, Walter Van Beirendonck hides just enough diabolism under the day-glo of latex opera sleeves. No glove, no love. Remember kids, technicolor first!
Story by Giano D. Dionisio
Images courtesy of MoMu Fashoin Museum Antwerp
Hi, Walter! How are you? What’s your latest obsession?
Hi! My last obsession is VooDoo. During summertime, I saw a fabulous exposition in Fondation Cartier in Paris; there were 100 fantastic voodoo-sculptures in that exposition, all with a fantastic esthetic and look. I enjoyed it a lot, and it made me do a lot of research about Tahitian and African Voodoo which finally was reflected in the winter-collection Lust Never Sleeps.
You’ve always had a strong connection to the youth and other “childish” traits. Could you expound on this fascination, and explain how you value the younger generations?
…I do love colors, all colors from my youth on. In my work, they are really important to express my atmosphere, emotions, and ideas. I’m not so crazy about cartoons. I prefer to do research and watch videos and images from Papua New Guinea—tribes than watching cartoons or seeing comics.
To you, what is the most important part of a story?
Plot is important, but also the characters. I do like fascinating, multi-layered characters.
Somehow, you’ve stayed away from a mainstream clamor that other high fashion labels have, yet still maintain a commercial success and cult status that such labels aspire for and fashion enthusiasts acknowledge. What’s your secret? Why do you think people are so magnetized to your work/vision?
No idea. As I said before, I do work very spontanious and I do all my designing myself. While sketching my looks, I decide everything from head ’til toe, and every collection was and is a very personal/emotional process. Over the years, I build up an extremely recognizable signature, and I feel that different generations and ages are really attracted to this. I work with a tiny team, and have direct contact with all my shops selling my clothes as I’m always there when they come to buy in my Paris showroom and I’m rather approachable. I think that due to my honest way of working and clear vision and ethics towards the world, and respect to different types of humans, my fans see and understand that I’m real, not a maison mainly concerned about marketing and money.
30 years into this, how does one stay creative?
By believing in what I’m doing and because I do like to communicate through fashion and my projects.
What do you think about this “information overload” age we live in? Is the youth’s neverending quest for what’s new, what’s next, what’s more a good or bad thing?
I do enjoy it. The world is totally reachable, and it opens up the vision and way of thinking of the young generations. What I do miss sometimes is to discover new things I did not see before. That’s why I’m hoping that we soon will discover new alien worlds with new species, races, tribes and amazing nature. Traveling to these new worlds is my ultimate dream.
The epitome of your work ethic can probably be seen in your volumes of scrapbooks. What are you currently working on? What are some of the images that have made it in?
Right now I’m fascinated by a beautifull vintage white crispy 1900 formal shirt ….and Hungarian folk-rituals…a freshness and brightness I hope to translate into the new summer-collection.
Could you further describe that creative process, from gathering ideas, research material, images, and words til execution?
It is an unstoppable cyclus. While finishing a collection, I’m already thinking about the new one. I do search all the time for new things on the net, in exhibitions, books, musea, things that stimulate my fantasy and vision. All this research and ingredients are finally translated in my head into my Walter-language. Then I start to sketch my collections exactly as they will be presented a few months later.