ON BEING ANN DEMEULEMEESTER…
I make a point of not re-blogging other blogs and always creating my own content as best I can. In this case, the article fell on my lap via a friend. It is so in line with Pan & The Dream that I strongly felt compelled to repost some of the most poignant paragraphs from this June 2008 article by Eugene Rabkin.
This is prompted by last week’s news that Ann Demeulemeester has announced her retirement from her eponymous label. Her timelessness, romanticism and intelligence will be sorely missed…
'She wants no part of the celebrity culture and isn’t interested in trends. Her work draws inspiration from Marcel Duchamp, Bob Dylan and Oscar Wilde. Maybe that’s why clothes designed by Ann Demeulemeester don’t ever seem to go out of style.’
By Eugene Rabkin - originally published in Haaretz, on June 7th 2008.
Ann Demeulemeester, one of the few successful independent fashion designers today, hates talking about celebrities. “Even if I see them in my clothes, I would never tell anyone,” she says. This does not mean that celebrities don’t wear her meticulously crafted garments. “I want to wish a Happy Birthday to my dear friend, Ann Demeulemeester,” says Patti Smith during her annual concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. “Who?” a drunken man next to me asks. “She’s a fashion designer,” I reply. The man stares at me blankly. “Never mind,” I turn around. And that’s just the way I like to think of Demeulemeester, my unsung hero – the further away from the public, the closer to me.
Like Patti Smith, Demeulemeester is an incorrigible romantic. In a world where self-deprecating irony has triumphed and people are mortally afraid of being serious, she is as intrepid and earnest in her words as she is in her work. She loves music, from which she draws so much inspiration that fashion critics often label her dark clothes as punk or rock and roll.
“It’s always limiting to put a label on someone’s work,” says Demeulemeester in a low, but confident voice, her English punctured by the French voila! “The most important thing about my work is communicating emotion through my garments. Sure, music helps accentuate certain feelings. The risk is that the music can take attention away from the clothes. I never had the idea of making a ‘punk collection.’ Punk was a big part of my culture when I was 18, just like certain poets and artists are a part of my culture. It’s an exchange of energy, but I get it from many sources, not just rock. I love classical music, too.”
These days Demeulemeester listens to PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. She makes the soundtracks for all her shows in a music studio herself.
In an industry as transient as fashion, where clothes and people rapidly go out of style, Demeulemeester has remained steadfast. She has built a successful career based on permanence, disregarding trends and eschewing advertising. Her sartorial vocabulary – cropped tailored jackets, slim black trousers, biker boots, and asymmetric cardigans – is as fresh today as it was 20 years ago. Even though you will never see a logo on her garments, Demeulemeester’s clothes are unmistakably hers, a continuation of her personality. She wears her own designs every day.
Demeulemeester has been designing for over 20 years, and her work has a clearly marked trajectory. “I stay faithful to my own style,” she says. “It’s interesting to have strong individual voices in fashion. I do not switch every season from this to that – I would be betraying my own label.” Although Demeulemeester adores a blank canvas (an artist’s ground zero), she isn’t one herself. “I aim to construct an individual style from one collection to the next. Each collection tells a different story. Yet, the Ann Demeulemeester style is clear. Whatever we want to express, we do so within our own aesthetic. This enables our clients to gradually construct their wardrobe. You can wear something from 10 years ago with something from today, and it will work, because the soul is the same.”
Thanks to such integrity, Demeulemeester attracts an avid and loyal following. I encountered her work for the first time in 1999. At Barneys, I bought a black loosely knit wool sweater. It looked and felt like an elegant spider web. This was followed by a pair of white pants painted muted silver. Wearing both, I felt like a chic version of Trent Reznor. Better yet, I felt myself. I thought I found a friend who spoke to me through her clothes. To Demeulemeester, that is the best compliment: “My clients buy my clothes not because they are trendy, but because they understand them. This communication through clothes is beautiful. It’s what I started in fashion for.”
Moody and romantic
We are sitting in a small room in back of Demeulemeester’s Antwerp shop. The room is painted white, with a white table in the middle and a rack of clothes in the back. The one big window opens up onto a little courtyard framed by a vine-covered red brick wall. Demeulemeester is dressed in a white asymmetrical T-shirt, a black cropped vest, and black pants. She is petite, but her energy is relentless. Her expressive face shows slight signs of aging, which she loves. Growing old is human, and therefore beautiful. (Pointing to a photograph of Leonard Cohen on the wall, she says dreamily, “What a handsome man.”) Her hands are those of an artisan, uncared for and alive. (She still does a lot of things herself, like the half-scissor necklaces for the current men’s collection, for which she bought a bunch of old scissors, took them apart, and dipped them in paint.)
Demeulemeester detests the idea that femininity is automatically equated with prissiness. She makes women’s footwear wider, so it’s comfortable. “Are we modern, or are we old-fashioned? We are still fixated on the idea that women have tiny feet. Things don’t have to be that way. I can make a perfectly elegant pump, but it will be comfortable.”
Lighting up her Kent cigarette, Demeulemeester talks of passion, emotion, and of the visceral impact of art. Oscar Wilde once declared, “One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.” Demeulemeester fully subscribes to this notion. Indomitable in her philosophy of creating from the heart, she fashions her own world, tailored of moody, romantic clothing, rendered in black and white, and as close to art as fashion can get.
On why she works primarily with black and white…
"Originally, I had worked a lot on the shape and the cut of the garments, and when I am making a new shape, I don’t want to be distracted by color. Black or white allows me to see the garment in its purest shape. It’s like sculpting – the sculptor does not work with color, he sculpts in plaster. I always make the first version of a garment in black and white. If in the process of making a garment I come to a finishing point, then I don’t feel like I need to add anything, because the garment is exactly to my liking. And this would often happen before thinking of color. It still happens, but I also feel it’s nice to add color too. Since the image of Ann Demeulemeester is clear, we can now experiment more with color and print. Color is also a feeling, and I don’t feel the way I did 10 years ago. Sometimes I feel like concentrating on the purity of the design, or I feel like I need some romanticism, something light and beautiful in its naivete. I look at color in another way – it’s not just a print for a dress. There are emotions in the colors. We make the prints ourselves, and they fit within a certain story.”
Like any romantic, Demeulemeester is wooed by human imperfection – her jackets are asymmetric, the hems of her T-shirts uneven, shirt seams twisted. “I don’t want my clothes to be perfect, because human beings are not perfect. I want to put a soul in a garment. You can meet somebody in one of my jackets and it can look a bit wrong, but also human and beautiful. Cutting nonchalance into a garment is delicate work. If it’s too obvious, it looks fake. Balancing the garment is a painstaking task, because you have to keep in mind how the clothes move.”
Such attention to detail infuses Demeulemeester’s garments with a sense of sweeping elegance rarely found elsewhere. The clothes are soft and confident at the same time, neither off-putting nor inviting, but intriguing.
Demeulemeester does not feel comfortable making grandiose plans. She would like to do a perfume, if she finds the right partner. “I need to do it my way, because I am not interested in just making anything with my name on it,” she says. “You know those perfume commercials where it’s always the same girl running to the same tree – I don’t want that.”
For Demeulemeester, “What remains is the future,” as one of her T-shirts reads. “I always say the future is open, and having the impression that anything can happen makes everything exciting. Freedom is the biggest luxury, so I try to make decisions as I go. Hopefully I can still invent a lot of things.”
Eugene Rabkin teaches critical writing at Parsons The New School For Design in New York.