Bearded, Bald, And Belgian
Walter Van Beirendonck Designs Marvelously Weird Clothes
Walter Van Beirendonck Designs
INTERVIEW BY ELIN UNNES
Marvelously Weird Clothes
PORTRAIT BY FREDERIK BEYENS
As part of the Antwerp Six, designer Walter Van Beirendonck stood out as the color-happy alternative to understated co-members Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten. Today Walt is the super-gay god-daddy to Bernhard Willhelm and all those kids at Saint Martins who make clothes with spots and angles and flaps.
Walt’s 2009 winter collection is chock-full of swirls, smiles, vibrant colors, piping, cocks, and balls. Like everything else by and about him, it exudes a distinct seriousness about having a good time. We caught up with Walter recently to find out all his deepest, darkest beard secrets (he’s got a dude in France), his role in outing sexy bear culture, and the importance of art, religion, muscles, and S&M in the creation of fashion.
Walter Van Beirendonck: A Bernhard Willhelm sweatshirt that’s very old and embroidered, 501 jeans, and sneakers from Ice Cream. They’re pink and green.
It’s a nice twist on your usual palette.
Recently I’ve been way into mixtures. Very light blue with very bright green. Or pink together with bright blue. In fact, any pastel combined with brighter colors. I’m less into primary colors at the moment. I’m all about pastels.
Did something traumatic happen? Why the shift?
Fundamentally, my work is always about colors, and what I like changes with every season and my mood. I like to move forward.
So do bright colors mean a bright mood and dark colors a darker disposition?
No, no, no. It doesn’t work like that. These colors are stronger than what my clients expect and what I usually work with. Not that this matters, really. But let’s just say that one season I’d like to work a little bit more… colored down.
Do you mean “somber”?
Exactly! But I’d make that type of decision, and then I’d go to the fabric fair and see strong colors and beautiful prints, and decide on the spot to put the colors back in again.
You recently curated an exhibit of surrealist art. Do you like older art movements more than things happening today?
I actually do like some of the more traditional artists, even Picasso. But contemporary art is what I’m passionate about. I’m a big fan of Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley.
What’s your favorite McCarthy piece?
I like Spaghetti Man and Tomato Head. They’re incredible sculptures. On the one hand they’re so funny, but on the other hand they’re so sexually loaded.
You modern artists can be a pretty dirty bunch—why is that?
Because sex is such an important part of life! It’s an important part of ourselves. In my work it’s also the side that makes it a little bit darker and more aggressive. It’s what balances my work.
Is it your intention to shock people?
No, never. But I know that it will happen anyway. I don’t sit down at my desk and think, “Let’s shock people!” But I might sit down at my desk and think, “Let’s move some boundaries.”
Do you have an example of when it happened without you instigating it?
The burka that I made.
The burka is a personal favorite of mine!
That turned out to be a very shocking piece to certain people. For me it was a way of commenting on how our society is currently reacting to Islam and other religions. My solution was, “I’ll take it out of its context. I’ll make it a fashion item, and then no one will say anything about it anymore!” If it’s a fashion item it is impossible for people to say, “You cannot wear that,” or “You cannot do that.” It wouldn’t be a religious symbol anymore. It would just be clothes. I think I managed to make an acceptable, contemporary burka for people to go out and dance and enjoy themselves in.
Are you religious?
I think the reason I’m fascinated by religion is because of the rituals. I do research on tribes that dress up for rituals, and those that wear masks for rituals. I like rituals.
Like S&M maybe?
Which is also a ritual.
Do you see a connection between religion and sex?
Yes. If you look at how rituals play out, there’s the body and the power—both of those elements are usually present. Most rituals include sexuality, even if it’s not a dominant factor. But one important thing to mention here is that, even though I like these things, it doesn’t mean I’m at home carrying out my own Papuan rituals all the time. I’m not actively participating in sadomasochistic rituals. But these things fascinate me, and I like to learn about them.
I’ve been hearing good things about Dries Van Noten’s garden. Do you garden?
[laughs] No. I have a garden, and my friend does a little bit of gardening in it. But you know, we don’t live that far from Dries. He and Ann [Demeulemeester] and I, we all live in the same area, a little bit outside Antwerp. Ann gardens a lot. It’s good for calming down.
And for building muscles.
I actually made some blow-up jackets recently—you put them on and you can literally blow up your own muscles. You don’t have to do all that heavy work. You just start blowing and you get a big, impressive body.
Is that because you’re into buff guys?
I like different physiques, but mainly I think there should be a freedom for people to decide for themselves what they prefer to look like. In my last collection I mainly used models, but in my upcoming collection I’m doing an open call for muscle bears.
Another of my personal favorites.
About ten years ago, when I first started using big bearded men on the catwalk, everyone was going, “What’s that? What is he doing?” So I see this as evolution—I’m taking things forward. Now look at the cover of Love magazine, with that girl Beth Ditto on it. That’s a change in the perception of beauty in the fashion industry.
Do you have a strict definition of who qualifies as a bear?
It’s not just “bears,” actually. There are a lot of different types. If you’re in the scene, there are the grizzlies—the dark ones—and the cubs—the young ones. There are also otters. But it’s also a very positive scene. It’s not about drugs. It’s not about aggression. It’s not only about sex. There are cuddly sides to it that I like—stuff like reunions, where everyone’s just eating and drinking and talking. It’s a nice vibe.
But you prefer bears?
First of all, for me, there’s the sexual attraction. Which I cannot deny! And secondly, when I first came in contact with the scene, a very long time ago, I didn’t even know it existed. I was just looking for new body types and people to use on the catwalk. Then I discovered there was an actual bear scene, which I later used very explicitly in the Wonderland-collection show in Paris. When I did the casting I went and visited the different scenes, in London and in Paris, and I found my models in those clubs.
How did these people react to being asked to model?
The guys liked it. Sometimes it’s nice to be on the catwalk, you know? But there was a sense of shock in the scene, like I was bringing this secret out to the public.
So it was still a bit underground?
At that time it still was, yes. Like the XXL club night in London, for example. Fifteen years ago there were 50 people there. Now, every Wednesday and Saturday, there are 500 to 1,000 people in attendance. It’s become very fashionable. And then there are the beards. It started out as something for hard rockers, and now all the pop artists have beards too.
Who shapes up your beard?
I go to a hairdresser in Paris who specializes in beards. I don’t dare go anywhere else, because beards are kind of a tricky thing.
Is there a celebrity you would like to dress?
You know, the actor Robin Williams is buying a lot from me. He bought my burka.
Robin Williams owns a man-burka?
It’s amazing. I’m not sure what he’s wearing it to. He’s a loyal client at my shop in San Francisco.
I hear he’s one of the hairiest men alive. Maybe he could be in your next catwalk show.
A lot of Americans are applying, actually, but I can’t bring them over.
I’m sure they’d come on their own, though.
It would be an organizational nightmare. But out of the hundreds I’m looking at, I think I’ll only be able to pick a few—maybe 20 or so—because the clothes still have to fit. It’s not so easy, actually, to try and move boundaries and use real people in your shows. But that’s why we chose fashion, eh? To suffer.
“2357 the Sequel” will open in Paris in September. Walter Van Beirendonck: The Most Controversial of the Antwerp Designers, a book chronicling Walter’s career, is available in Belgium on Uitgeverij Houtekiet.