The Unparalleled Conviction and Integrity of Ann Demeulemeester
The Unparalleled Conviction and Integrity of Ann Demeulemeester
- Words Gunner Park
- Date June 6, 2017
When discussing a great artist, we mainly think about the integrity of their oeuvre; the confidence, clarity, and personality of their work. We examine how they rework their influences and styles into a unique creation. Ann Demeulemeester excels in all of these traits and then some. The Antwerp-based designer is revered for casting aside trends in pursuit of creating new aesthetic guidelines. Similar to other elusive designers like Carol Christian Poell, her decision to remain slightly aloof from the volatile world of fashion allows her to appear much more contemplative and, in turn, give her work more resonance. After more than two decades in and out of the industry, Demeulemeester has fabricated a line that is indisputably her own.
Demeulemeester’s work can be seen as the interpretation of a very personal and ambiguous story, one that is not immediately traceable but can be felt through every article of her clothing. A wide array of unique silhouettes and cuts are done up in an often moody, monochromatic black and white color palette that perpetuates a strong poetic kinship. Her clothes can seem deceptively simple at first glance, but their effortless design signifies an underlying complexity. Demeulemeester’s tailoring is somewhat infamous for being the finest, if not the most radical, in the industry. A typical wardrobe consists of a slouchy black jacket, a pair of asymmetrical high-waisted trousers and overtly aggressive military combat boots. Each garment exudes a somewhat punk attitude, while still maintaining a cohesive ensemble. Demeulemeester’s need to remain true to her own vision and independent of trends displays her capacity to deviate from the popular market.
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As a member of the famed Antwerp Six, Demeulemeester was born on December 29th, 1959 in the Flemish countryside of Waregem, Belgium. She initially had no interest in fashion, a disposition that quickly changed once she attended her local art school for three years. The young artist developed an affinity for portraiture, discovering a newfound interest in the people surrounding her. Her immediate thoughts when examining a figure were naturally, “What are they wearing?” Demeulemeester had never been interested in fashion. She never bought a single magazine nor was aware of the popular trends that swept Northern Europe, but was still inexplicably struck by what people were wearing and why.
In 1978, Demeulemeester enrolled in the now famous Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium where she was joined by several other students who would go on to have their own notable careers in fashion, including Dirk Bikkembergs, Walter Van Beirendonck, Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Dirk van Saene and Marine Yee. At the time, two things were apparent in pop culture: avant-garde styles were a mainstay in contemporary fashion and punk rock was at its apex. The young collective of designers (sans Margiela who had already graduated) was eager to display their own interpretations of the avant-garde designs popularized by Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.
After graduating in 1981, Demeulemeester found almost instant success after winning the inaugural Golden Spindle award in 1982 for upcoming young Belgian designers. The award, which was actually created by the Belgian government to strength the country’s declining textile industry, was an important first stepping stone. By 1985, Demeulemeester had moved on to become a freelance designer and eventually created her first clothing line, BVBA 32, with her newly-wed husband and photographer, Patrick Robyn.
If you look at a black and white picture, everything you need to explain—a silhouette, a contrast, a mood—is there. It's the essence.
The following year, the Antwerp crew (minus Yee) rented a van and traveled to London to present their first Autumn/Winter collections. The six designers were eager to present their own take on a rebellious, avant-garde mode and quickly garnered praise from London’s bohemian art scene. Despite their contrasting styles and talents, they were inevitably lumped together by the British press and dubbed the “Antwerp Six.” In a rare sight of sharp wit, Demeulemeester hypothesized that it was simply because they couldn’t pronounce any of their names. Despite their aesthetics differing tremendously, the collective's attendance at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts instilled a similar rigor and attention to detail that would attribute to the group’s massive success.
Following her presentation in London, Demeulemeester collaborated with her husband to release her debut collection entitled, “Light,” in 1987. Her designs resembled the paired-down structure and traditionally cut tailoring of Kawakubo and Yamamoto. However, her cutting-edge approach for fit superseded avant-garde fashion as she strived to highlight the appeal of innovative, but wearable garments. Demeulemeester unveiled a black sunray pleated skirt with crossover brace straps, presented with a crisp white T-shirt and stark gabardine coat. At such an early stage in her career, she had already shown a concern for proportion, constructing skirts and dresses with adjustable waistlines that could be worn high or low, giving a different sense of balance to the overall outfit.
The manner in which Demeulemeester designs her garments demonstrates her ultimate pragmatism. Demeulemeester always fits her designs on herself and two friends, each representing a different body type. In her own words: “You need to do this, or you are making haute couture, which will be perfect, of course, but only for one woman. My clothes are worn by many different women, each with a different body. It’s my job to find a solution that will fit them all.” Demeulemeester continuously refines the versatility of her garments to create real clothing for real people.
You know, [the Antwerp Six] are very different people. We don't like the same things. We were always fighting, having arguments, but there was this alchemy, I suppose. We were all people who took our studies and our jobs very seriously. It was not like playing, it was serious right from the beginning.
In 1992, Demeulemeester presented her first official collection in a Parisian art gallery with a makeshift runway and somber models. Rather than care about the poise of the show, her primary concern was the intimate relationships between the models and the clothing. Her signature long coats and dress were punctuated by deconstructed, gothic styles. Shrouded white dresses with overlong cuffs and black relent were fitted against crepe sheaths, their differing textures giving a sense of shade and light to each outfit. Journalist Cathy Horyn, writing for the Washington Post, called the collection the "reflective destructive side of fashion."
By 1994, Demeulemeester began streamlining her brand, creating more elongated silhouettes with cutting-edge techniques and materials. More noticeably, her punk influences became more prevalent in her work alongside her heavy use of Japanese tropes coming out of the Urahara scene in Japan. The resulting products were garments that continued to stay true to Demeulemeester’s use of innovative materials such as painter’s canvas, parachute nylon, polished leather and distressed suede.
While Demeulemeester had always leaned heavily on menswear for her androgynous designs, her vision for a true menswear collection was finally realized in 1996. After streamlining the brand, her clothing began to sit on the fine line between womenswear and menswear. She began using more versatile tailoring and silhouettes that allowed for her pieces to be worn across the gender spectrum. Demeulemeester's philosophy centered around the idea that men and women should go hand-in-hand in every walk of life. To demonstrate this idea, Demeulemeester presented both her men’s and women’s and womenswear collection collections at the same time. Her ready-to-wear women’s show in Paris later became renowned for being one of the first to show both collections simultaneously.
Demeulemeester's clothing resonates on a deeper level than purely aesthetic. For those tuned into its frequency, it resonates emotionally. It represents an entire world comprising a seemingly endless collective of culture and art. This depth manifests in collections informed by art rather than trends. For S/S 06, Demeulemeester released her own interpretation of a Jackson Pollock painting with draped and tailored silhouettes that were covered in an abstract, paint-splattered print. In 2004, Demeulemeester also held several exhibitions in venues such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Flanders Fashion Institute in Antwerp. Her passion for music is also duly represented in her collections with runway soundtracks from a small assortment of her favorite musicians including Nick Cave, Television, Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground and, her muse, Patti Smith. In fact, Smith’s tendency to blur gender lines has directly influenced Demeulemeester’s heavy use of gender-neutral designs.
The young Belgian designer first familiarized herself with Patti Smith when she was 16-years-old, listening to Smith’s debut album Horses. The combination of Smith’s uncompromising androgyny and punk attitude served as Demeulemeester’s core influence in building her collection from an androgynous perspective. This long-term infatuation with Smith led her to put models on the catwalk in outfits resembling the cover of Horses for her S/S 97 collection. Models with masculine-looking white shirts, roomy jackets and ties casually hung over their shoulder marched down the runway to "Because the Night." Demeulemeester eventually tracked Smith down in Detroit where the two artists began a longstanding friendship. Both women shared the same philosophy. Their work was an access point for those who wanted in: the poets, the paupers, the punks, men and women, elegant and grimy alike.
By the late 1990s, some critics claimed that Demeulemeester seemed out of sync with trends prevalent at the turn of the century. Her similar draping, asymmetrically hanging and often monochromatic clothing was releasing year-after-year without much deviation. And yet, Demeulemeester continued to remain true to her own vision, casting aside any commentary and even opening her first stand-alone boutique in Antwerp in 1999. Demeulemeester always claimed that she was just making clothing for herself, “What I like to wear, I do myself. I don’t know how that sounds, but it’s the truth.”
Demeulemeester left the parent company she founded, BVBA 32, in 2013 when she realized that her brand had successfully built an identity that could thrive well after she was gone. She was sick of the fashion cycle and famously quit by sending out a handwritten PDF letter to her company. She addressed them, “Dear friends,” showing one last sign of integrity and respect to her brand before exiting. Demeulemeester later appointed Sebastien Meunier as the brand's new artistic director, having designed the men’s collection in-house since 2010. Meunier had also worked under another famous alumnus of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Martin Margiela, before bringing his expertise in fit and craftsmanship to the Ann Demeulemeester label.
With fashion’s love affair with romanticism, Ann Demeulemeester’s work is suitably dreamy. Her work will always be remembered for embodying a connection that runs deeper than clothing. Demuelemeester’s conviction and integrity as a designer is unparalleled. She was never one to be swayed by trends but instead preferred cultivating a look that told an intimate story on a grand scale. And for that reason, her name will forever echo in the annals of fashion history.
It's wonderful if you can walk on this very fine line and study what you can do for both sexes, to take them away from the roles that history makes them play. Obviously there are masculine and feminine elements with both. Also, it has so much more life if you show on both men and women. To me, it's not about clothes but about people. It's much more real, more normal, if they can work together.