Kris Van Assche: A Different Breed of Belgian Designer
Kris Van Assche: A Different Breed of Belgian Designer
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date September 8, 2017
The idea of a Belgian designer, for better or worse, brings to mind a very specific sect of fashion. Whether it is Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester or even Raf Simons, we have come to expect a sort of industry-bucking, genre-defining style. Integral to the anti-fashion movement prominent in the late eighties and nineties, graduates of Antwerp’s Royal Academy have become renowned for discarding classic design tropes, favoring subversion, deconstruction, and romanticism. Kris Van Assche, though, does not fit that mold.
Men’s artistic director of Dior Homme for the past 10 years, and creative director for his currently on-hiatus eponymous line KRISVANASSCHE, the Belgian has displayed a fierce commitment to classic menswear in a way few of his predecessors have. Closer in design ethos to Kim Jones than Haider Ackermann, Van Assche, season after season, presents a slow evolution of modern menswear—a calculated synthesis of sportswear and tailoring. Ultimately grounded in suiting, his vision is the product of a childhood fascination with fashion, a fervent passion for prominent eighties and nineties youth subculture, and above all a fierce tutelage under the undisputed progenitor of the modern male wardrobe: Hedi Slimane.
Born May 12, 1976, in the small town of Londerzeel in rural Belgium, Van Assche was widely removed from fashion. Although close in proximity to Antwerp—then quickly ramping up as a bastion of fashion education—Van Assche’s first exposure to fashion was through his grandmother. An accomplished aesthete herself, his grandmother made her own clothes, and eventually started to make them for a pre-teen Van Assche as well. By the age of 16, Van Assche began frequenting seedy Belgium nightclubs, where he was introduced to two major influences—New Wave and skate culture. “The highest ‘wave’ of New Wave was over, but we were still listening to that music in those dark little clubs. I very much enjoyed the romanticism of the black hair, the black sweaters, black trousers, boots and black nail polish,” he said in a profile for Something About. It was around the same time he ran into what he describes as “the cool kids”—essentially post punks with earrings, wide leg jeans, and skateboards. Although the two groups didn’t get along in the slightest, Van Assche found the dichotomy fascinating.
The contradictions present between the two sub-cultures serve as one of Van Assche’s earliest, if not most prominent, focal points. Fascinated with codes—whether they are Wall Street or raver—Van Assche attempts to splice opposing cultures in almost imperceptible ways in order to create something ostensibly fresh, yet upon further inspection both nostalgic and contradictory.
Spending more and more time in the city, Van Assche discovered the impact his fellow Belgians were having on fashion, and applied for the Royal Academy in 1994. Only 18, he was one of the the youngest students ever accepted—even more impressive considering that, out of hundreds of applicants, only sixty-five are admitted. When he graduated in 1998, he was one of only seven students left. Despite the elite status of graduates, he was at a loss. Unsure of what to do, he applied to work literally everywhere. “I had studied womenswear as a student, and I was very worried about not finding a job after school…I sent out hundreds of CVs,” he said in a *Surface * interview. Initially uninterested in menswear, he was surprised to be offered a four-month internship at Yves Saint Laurent working under artistic director Hedi Slimane on the recently revived Rive Gauche Homme line. Mostly as an excuse to move to Paris, he accepted. “I was like, ‘Okay, this will give me a chance to find a real job.’ Obviously, it turned out very differently. I really ended up doing menswear by accident.” Unbeknownst to Van Assche, he would, under Slimane, help redefine modern menswear.
Following his appointment at YSL in 1996, Hedi Slimane was building a highly specific dress code. Offering a radically different take on the suit, Slimane’s short tenure, culminating with the Fall/Winter 2000 “Black Tie” collection, was in retrospect the advent of the now predominant “skinny” look. While Slimane was offered the role as YSL creative director in 2000, creative differences prompted Slimane to leave the house. Instead, Slimane would move to Dior, where he was tasked with launching a dedicated men’s division, Dior Homme.
Although Van Assche was initially offered a four-month internship, he quickly was promoted to first assistant, and when Slimane left for Dior, Van Assche followed suit. Under the tutelage of Slimane, Van Assche was crucial in developing the definition of a modern men’s high-fashion line. From a radically slimmed down version of suiting to drainpipe trousers and the industry-defining 17cm denim, Dior Homme was an unprecedented success, and set a new standard for menswear. Still, after six years, Kris Van Assche grew frustrated. Asked about his time under the notoriously difficult Slimane, Van Assche’s response is telling. “I always say I was a fashion student for four years and a professional assistant for six. It was 10 years of tough education. That’s all I have to say about it.”
In 2004, Kris Van Assche launched his eponymous label KRISVANASSCHE. Easily the most anticipated debut of the Fall/Winter 2005 season, his first collection was heavily grounded in tailoring, with a strong focus on grays, blacks and blues, with subtle sportswear references throughout. Drastically different from the ultra-slim suiting at Dior, Van Assche’s suits were much more classical in proportion, with looser jackets, fitted waistcoats, and trousers on the verge of baggy. The collection—like much of his work at his eponymous line—caught critics off guard. Many expected the Antwerp alum to go in a drastically different direction. His collection, essentially an attempt to mix tailoring and sportswear to appeal to a younger clientele, was not drastically different from what many other designers were attempting. While his former boss was dominating menswear with overt rock and military references, Van Assche’s light nods towards New Wave and skate culture went mostly unnoticed.
Over the next few seasons, Van Assche’s highly involved collections were very much hit or miss. Critics felt his work was often tripped up by lofty concepts, which detracted from the street appeal of the clothing. Themes ranged from Arabian warriors to Spanish bull fighters. Flowers were—and still are—prominent. He was often considered romantic, presenting voluminous silk shirts. Tight waistcoasts—which were always niche in their popularity—became an infamous signature. While his aesthetic found fans and gradually grew, even introducing a short-lived womenswear line, he never managed to match the success of his former teacher. Still, KRISVANASSCHE became a prominent player in a then nascent menswear industry.
In 2007, Hedi Slimane decided not to renew his contract. Although there were supposedly discussions of Dior financing an eponymous label, Slimane was adamantly opposed to the possibility of losing control over his name, and the deal failed to materialize. Suddenly the most coveted high-end men’s fashion line was without a designer. Naturally, all eyes turned to Van Assche—the former assistant who helped Slimane build an entire menswear division out of thin air. When the offer to helm Dior Homme came in, Van Assche was initially hesitant. “Usually, when you take over a brand, the house is dying or dead or really unpopular, which was not the case at Dior Homme,” he said to Surface.. “It was even tougher because I was already doing my own label…my close friends all suggested I shouldn’t take the job. They would all say: ‘Settle with your label, it’s doing fine. This is going to be a nightmare.’”
Still, already familiar with the maison staff, and presented with what he considered an opportunity of a lifetime, Van Assche could not refuse. With lingering frustrations towards Slimane—whom he felt was creatively stifling—the new appointment would be a chance for Van Assche to present his vision of what a men’s high-end line at a couture house really should be.
His first collection, Fall/Winter 2007, was an embodiment of both his trepidation and excitement. The presentation included some twenty odd models separated into groups of three—morning, afternoon, and evening. The three times of day offered Van Assche an opportunity to articulate the entirety of the Dior Homme wardrobe, from essentials and casuals to evening wear and suiting. In his review for Vouge Tim Blanks noted that the show felt a bit “schizo,” and it was unclear in which direction Van Assche would go. While his New Wave tendencies—abundant in his eponymous line—were on display, with double-breasted, single button jackets, and heavily pleated pants in “MC Hammer” like proportions, the bulk of the collection was slim suits with lightly peaked lapels, not too dissimilar from what Slimane had shown for the past few seasons. Obviously attempting to cater to the pre-existing clientele, the collection felt muddled, with a lack of clear direction.
Following seasons, however, saw Kris Van Assche grow more comfortable. His mission was always to define what he “thought a men’s division at a couture house should be.” The answer was emphasizing fit and comfort over embellishment. “At Dior, the suit I inherited was so tiny and stiff that you could almost stand it up without a body in it. A lot of work went into making it more comfortable and wearable without losing its allure, its attitude, its silhouette,” he said. First focusing almost solely on tailoring, Van Assche’s Dior slowly evolved its own identity. He reformatted the Slimane-era suit and brought on more volume, first in the shoulders and armholes, then the trousers. Once he felt satisfied, he began to focus on sportswear, which felt purposefully segregated—almost the exact opposite of his eponymous line, where he consistently attempted to merge the two.
This slow burn allowed Van Assche to naturally let his influences manifest, rather than force them upon his work, as he had initially done at KRISVANASSCHE. New Wave, hardcore, and skate influences gradually swept into Dior collections, in at first barely perceptible ways. While nowhere near the fanfare of Slimane’s era, the look quickly found an audience, particularly in Asia. Critics appreciated that consistent—if at times safe—look. It had an air of formality, with subtle nods to contrasting subcultural elements. Through stitching, liners, and occasional patchwork, Van Assche alluded to a wide range of themes and nuances. Still, the fact that Dior Homme was ultimately grounded in tailoring, with strict codes forced Van Assche to reign in on some of his more questionable impulses, and present consistently desirable—and easily understood—clothing.
As Van Assche hit his stride with Dior Homme, his eponymous line began to move in a similar direction. Although consistently more outlandish, KRISVANASSCHE slowly began to transform. The women’s line was dropped, with Van Assche firmly fixated on menswear. Collections became more cohesive, and the mix of tailoring and sportswear, at first out of touch, was quickly becoming a dominant force in the industry. While critics were still on the fence, the business grew quickly. At its peak, the label boasted over a hundred-fifty stockists across thirty some countries. Following his appointment at Dior, Van Assche’s namesake line entered easily its most celebrated period. Hit items such as the multi-lace sneaker, layered windbreaker, and light-weight suiting, helped Van Assche attract a cult following, while his celebrated Dior collections helped raise his profile internationally. By the end of the decade, he was considered a menswear forced to be reckoned with.
Usually, when a designer moves to an established house, the house injects some cash into their personal brand as a bargaining tool. When Marc Jacobs went to Louis Vuitton, they sweetened the deal by buying his brand. Similarly with Galliano, Dior took a minority stake in his eponymous line as well. Interestingly though, Van Assche went a different route. Committed to keeping control of his name, he chose to keep his brand free of any corporate influence. Whether or not Dior’s parent company made an offer is uncertain, but the fact remains that as an independent label, KRISVANASSCHE faced the same struggles as his competitors. Following the financial crisis and a worldwide decline in the sale of luxury goods, KRISVANASSCHE—which had never boasted huge sales to begin with—was in trouble. With so many menswear designers producing premium sportswear, Van Assche found himself attempting to both combat a sluggish economy and stand out in an already over-saturated market. The brand, which he openly admitted had only survived thus far due to the “the financial support of friends,” took a big hit. With more and more of the designer’s time devoted to Dior Homme, he failed to stop the inevitable. In 2015, following his final Fall/Winter collection he announced the brand was going on hiatus indefinitely.
In retrospect, the most puzzling aspect of KRISSVANASSCHE was its utter normalcy. While the collections were thematically complex, individual pieces were relatively tame. There was suiting, some technical sportswear, but nothing truly groundbreaking. Considering Van Assche is both an Antwerp alum and a Slimane protégé, it is almost shocking that his collections lacked any sort of wow factor. While there was showmanship—not necessarily a compliment in this case—Kris Van Assche was not the sort of Belgian that the fashion industry was accustomed to.
With the closure of KRISVANASSCHE, the designer could solely focus on his role at Dior Homme. In the seasons since, tropes previously associated with his eponymous label have become increasingly present at the couture house. Although the two overlapped for years, Van Assche always maintained boundaries between the two. No longer worried about cannibalizing his own business, his flair for romanticism became much more pronounced. While for years his version of Dior Homme had offered subtle variations on the black suit, suddenly the “fashion” element became much more pronounced. Recent seasons such as “harDior” and “newave” have been quite explicit in execution. From blazer interlaced with bondage straps to “hardcore” spliced into the traditional Christian Dior logo to create a streetwear graphic, Van Assche is moving the house in an entirely new direction. The slow evolution that brought him success has given way to something decidedly more fashion-forward.
The prevailing question is simple: What effect do these new developments have on Dior Homme? Recent Dior Homme runways have eschewed traditional tailoring altogether. While the label still offers a wide variety of suiting options—as well as an extensive made to measure service—suits in the traditional sense do not appear on stage. Van Assche made his name through highly traditional, if slightly modern, menswear. The fashion heavy direction he has suddenly taken—the direction critics always assumed he would take given his background and interests—is essentially untrodden ground for the Belgian. For a luxury division dependent on tailoring, will such a drastically different approach prove profitable?
This year, Van Assche celebrated a decade at Dior. The house he helped build, left, returned to, and is now redefining. After years of fierce commitment to a singular vision, he is finally embracing his sub-cultural fascinations in explicit terms. Time will tell if his loyal customers will pull up their baggy cargo trousers and follow suit.