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Dream The World Awake

12 May 2023

An Interview with Walter Van Beirendonck

For Belgian‑based designer Walter Van Beirendonck, it is important that clothes are representative of the spirit of the wearer, as opposed to the body wearing them. With bright colour, fluidity and playfulness, Van Beirendonck’s designs have expanded the limits of traditional menswear and broadened our contemporary understanding of self-identity. Now 66, the legacy designer is still pushing the boundaries of fashion and identity. 

His eminence can be traced back to 1985, when Van Beirendonck began teaching at the Royal Academy, three years after creating his first collection, Sado, in 1982. In 1986 Van Beirendonck, along with Belgian designers Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee and (now long-time partner) Dirk Van Saene, travelled to London to show their collections at the British Designer show. Here, each designer showcased pieces that incorporated unconventional fabrics, new silhouettes and innovative techniques, all of which had never been seen before under the Union Jack. Fortuitously labelled the “Antwerp Six” (from the British press’ inability to pronounce the designers’ names), the group went on to play an influential part in positioning Antwerp as a flagship site for design innovation. Along with Martin Margiela, the Antwerp Six have made immeasurable contributions to the fashion industry.

In 1992, after working independently for almost a decade, Van Beirendonck partnered with jeans manufacturer Mustang to create his streetwear label W&LT (Wild & Lethal Trash), orientated directly toward a younger, more adventurous market. The label’s aesthetic was exactly how the title sounds: a strong statement of individuality with saturated, colourful and bold graphics, political commentary and motifs of a supernatural existence. W&LT was disruptive, it was exciting and silly, it was new for the world. W&LT was one of the first fashion brands to have a website, which introduced ‘Puk Puk’, a virtual pet from planet Dork (home to rubber volcanoes and florid flowers) that came to be the ultimate mascot for the label. Beyond the internet, W&LT’s biannual menswear shows in Paris were legendary—almost carnivalesque—littered with over-the-top hair, makeup, masks, men on stilts, techno, gas masks and flying dragons. You name it, W&LT did it.

In 1999, responding to the humdrum state of the fashion world, Van Beirendonck found the ironically named label Aesthetic Terrorist. Given his contract with Mustang at the time, he was not able to trade under his own name and therefore had to design anonymously. While challenging, this period was integral to establishing the association between W&LT and his eponymous label Walter Van Beirendonck, which lives on in its full spirit today. Until 2022, Van Beirendonck was professor, director, and head of fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He personally taught the now-renowned designers Raf Simons, Bernhard Willhelm, Kris Van Assche and Demna Gvasalia, who have each emerged from his tutelage with their own distinct design identities.

Although there have been many renderings of Van Bereindonck’s spirit throughout his collections, each one has been a canvas for cause, teaching us that fashion can be a vital source of communication in this world. More so, Van Beirendonck has proven himself to be a born activist. He has shown us how to be an individualist and outsider and, in doing so, he has undoubtedly allowed us to dream this world awake.

Writing back and forth to each other for five consecutive hours, to Be editor Hugh Barton asked the legendary designer about his time in Antwerp and his affiliation with the punk and rave scenes of the 1990s, his design process, print-making practice, thoughts on appropriation, leaving the Royal Academy, and his life at home. Van Bereindonck’s answers were delivered in poetic prose, colour and capitalised letters, by and large affirming his authentic spirit, enthusiasm and infectious passion for life.

SEAN wears WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK FW2022 Otherworldly Articulated Suit, AW1997 Zippered Face T-Shirt, FW2022 Mesh Face Morph Mask and FW2022 Hyper Bear Boots. Photo by Edward Mulvihill 

HUGH BARTON How are you?

WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK I am doing well, thank you! I’m in a very busy period at the moment, working on the new collection for SS2024. 

HB Are you still based in Zandhoven? 

WVB I am living in Zandhoven, twenty kilometres outside Antwerp. But my studio is in Antwerp, so I go to the studio regularly to work with my team.

HB Do you find being slightly removed from the city improves your design ideation? Do you ever feel disconnected from life in Antwerp?

WVB No, I don’t feel disconnected at all. I never left Antwerp due to work, but Zandhoven is really my home, where I spend evenings and weekends and work in my (secret) tiny workroom!

HB What is your home with Dirk Van Saene like? I read that you are a collector of toys and African art. Would you mind telling us about this? Do you have a favourite toy and art piece at home?

WVB Our home is an old traditional house from the 1800s, with beautiful authentic features. There’s enough space to live, but also space for Dirk’s ceramics atelier and oven, and for my small workroom (where my collection of dolls is stored). I do most of my designing in the small workroom. Behind the house is a beautiful wild garden and a completely ‘green view’, it’s really peaceful. The greenery was one of the main reasons why we decided to come and live in Zandhoven.

In the house we do have African art, mostly masks and marionettes—bright-coloured objects which make us happy—from the Bozo in Mali. Next to that we collect native folk art, mainly paintings and Hungarian ceramics from the ’50s and ’60s. We also collect the work of some contemporary artists, including Folkert de Jongh. 

And then there is my collection of dolls. Hundreds of dolls are lined up in my working space, watching me while I work. I started to collect them when I was young, most of them are from second-hand markets. With the dolls there’s no particular theme or value, they represent a diversity of fantasy figures which give me continuous inspiration. I love my toys. Some of my favourite ones include my Japanese wrestler dolls, inspired by the Mexican wrestler cult—they look really great and strong!

HB You are known for incorporating elements of punk into your designs and using unconventional materials, like rubber and plastic, which often fall within this aesthetic. How does punk influence your design concepts?

WVB Before punk there was glam rock. I was between twelve and fourteen years old around that time, so this period influenced and inspired me enormously. The power, controversy and energy that glam rock loaned to creating clothes, shoes and makeup was as impactful as a bomb! For me it all felt like a complete expression of freedom and fantasy. David Bowie was, and remains, my big hero. He taught me that clothes can communicate strong messages. Besides Bowie, I also enjoyed the concerts of The Sweet, Gary Glitter, Mud, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. This whole musical movement happened around the same time as my coming out, and it supported me enormously.

Then, the punk movement surged during my first year at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. We were all intrigued by what was happening in London. I was a dedicated follower of Vivienne Westwood and I remember going to King’s Road to visit Worlds End; seeing all those amazing punk characters was a treat for the eyes. I found it fascinating that they were making a political statement through the punk ‘look’, which, at the time, seemed to be a strong reaction against the ‘rigid’ aspects of English society.

I always loved the DIY mentality in punk looks and I enjoy playing around with these ideas and interpreting them in my own way. During my time at the Royal Academy my classmates and I travelled to London a lot. London was really our playground; shopping, markets, cultural visits to museums and galleries combined with going out to Taboo nightclub, and dancing with Leigh Bowery, or attending Club For Heroes, and seeing designer Stephen Jones for the first time. I have lots of fantastic memories and adventures from those times in London. 

BILLIE wears WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK SS1996 Inflatable Muscle Jacket and AW1998 Red Striped Suit Pant. Photo by Edward Mulvihill  

HB Music has played a big role in your runway shows. A favourite collection of mine is Spring Summer 1996, featuring a variety of Underworld’s tracks including ‘Born Slippy’, which opened the show. Has rave music similarly influenced your work?

WVB Music is, and was always, very important in my life. I love Underworld and the song ‘Born Slippy’. It was an amazing soundtrack and opener for my show in the Lido in Paris. I love the raw feel and energy that rave and techno music offers. I play music all the time while I work; from classic music to hits, indie and techno. I still buy CDs to see and read all the information. I’m currently listening to Arctic Monkeys’ The Car.

HB Would you mind telling us about your personal experience in the rave scene? What was it like in the ’80s and ’90s? How has rave culture evolved since then?

WVB I was never a real raver myself but, one way or another, the clothes I was designing in the ’80s and ’90s, and even later, appealed to the kids’ new beat. 

The colours and energy, symbols and prints of the clothes that the house, rave and techno kids were all wearing seemed to be telling stories they were fascinated by. And this was all a coincidence—I did not design this way to get their attention. 

Once when I was in Germany, I went to attend a famous rave. I remember queuing up between ravers who were wearing my clothes. Ironically, because of my look I was not admitted inside. With my long beard, rings, earrings and the studded patched vest I was wearing, I looked more like a metal fan than a raver. Luckily, the other people in the line told the security guards that I was an ‘important’ designer and that they were wearing my clothes, so I got in! 

I mostly felt like an outsider in all these scenes, even in fashion I feel like an outsider. But I enjoy stepping in and getting out. The experience is great for a moment, but I do enjoy diversity. It’s like eating a hamburger from time to time, but also going to five-star restaurants.

HB You are the only designer from the original Antwerp Six that actively chooses not to include shades of black, brown, or grey. Why is that? What does colour mean to you?

WVB Since my youth and commencing my studies at the Royal Academy, I was (and still am) fascinated by colour. I love to work with prints and structures, combining colours and creating clashes. It is part of my identity and was probably stimulated by my love of nature—I love flowers, I love animals, I love the world. I do use black, brown and grey too. But they are just a part of the rainbow of colours I like to use all the time.

HB Have you always created your own prints, specifically the ones produced in the ’90s? If not, who do you collaborate with most often?

WVB I always design my own prints for my collections, then I work together with the right artists to get the desired result and spirit for my design. The prints I did in the ’90s were really adventurous. I had very dedicated Photoshop designers in my team and big computers in the office, and together we created the most amazing prints. This was all before digital printing started, so most of these prints were transfer prints, a very intensive process. Besides that, I work with fantastic cartoon artists who create all these fantastic ‘Puk Puk’ figures and characters for me. 

This is how I work for all my collections; dying my own colours, making my own fabrics, making my own prints. It is a very expensive and time-consuming process, and it is always a race to meet deadlines! But I always enjoy doing this and it is surely a big part of my fashion DNA.

HB There have been many supernatural figures present in your collections. What do these figures represent?

WVB Supernatural, otherworldly figures and aliens: I love these topics. I do believe in life somewhere away from our planet, and I hope that one day UFOs will land on Earth and save our beautiful world. In several collections, during the W&LT period (but still today), I have introduced a kind of alien energy to my work; I like to imagine how they see and experience our world and civilisation. This idea continually influences the prints and garments that I make. 

SEAN wears WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK SS1996 W&LT White Leather Alien Jacket and SS2021 Ghost Pant. Photo by Edward Mulvihill  

HB I wanted to discuss the Royal Academy of Fine Arts a little more. From 2007 until mid-2022, you were professor, director, and head of fashion at the academy—a great achievement. Could you talk to us about your recent departure and the decision to focus on your brand?

WVB I started to teach in the fashion department in 1985, shortly after graduating. In 2007, I became head of the department and remained there until 2022. I taught intensively for thirty-seven years on a regular, two days per week timetable. In 2022 I turned sixty-five, which means (in Belgium) that you must stop working as a teacher. You are really forced to resign and there are no exceptions. It was a purely administrative thing and not my decision.

HB Would you mind talking to us about the label Aesthetic Terrorists? We heard a story that some people claimed the brand was ripping off W&LT. Ironically, you were the anonymous head designer of W&LT all along. What was it like being anonymous in a label you were designing for?

WVB Aesthetic Terrorists! Yes, this was a weird period for me. In 2000 I decided to stop my contract with Mustang [clothing manufacturer]. I literally stepped out and left everything I built with W&LT behind and Mustang continued the label without me. After that, I was not allowed to do any commercial collections for five seasons under my own name. So that’s why I did the collections NO REFERENCES, GENDER, DISSECTIONS, STARSHIP EARTH and REVOLUTION anonymously. I presented them in Paris, but I did not sell these collections, it was purely for press and to keep going. 

This was when I started up Aesthetic Terrorists: a small, more commercial collection with a strong name and statement, and with a mask as the symbol. Because of my contract with Mustang, I could not tell anyone that I was the designer behind it. So, my assistants started to travel around to try to sell the collection, to get my designs in shops again and try to earn some money. We also presented the collection at international fairs where the reactions were sometimes really aggressive and hostile. Walter fans were really standing up for me, telling the sales people that it was a shame how Aesthetic Terrorists copied the Walter/W&LT spirit. Anyway, Aesthetic Terrorists had a short life. The attack on 11 September 2001 in New York made it impossible to use ‘Aesthetic Terrorists’ as brand name and to continue. I then picked up the Walter Van Beirendonck collections again, starting from scratch. Step-by-step, working extremely hard, I made my comeback in the fashion world as an independent designer. 

HB What are your thoughts on appropriation—what role does it play in the fashion arena today? Have you had any instances where people have ‘copied’ your designs? If so, how did you respond?

WVB I hate copycats! 

I always find it weak and unfair that other so called ‘designers’ are ‘inspired’ by my work. It has happened a few times in a very obvious way, and it felt like a kind of violation. I create my designs carefully, step-by-step, over a long period of time, in an honest and original way. They are a part of my own design language, my own DNA, my own colours, shapes, experiments and fashion statements. To then see that a huge, luxury fashion house with unlimited possibilities and budgets is copying that DNA feels horrible. It is a big shame that the fashion world works that way. That’s also why I have a love/hate relationship with the fashion world … sometimes fashion sucks! That’s why I cherish my independent, ‘outsider’ position in the fashion world. It’s like the story of David and Goliath, but we all know who wins at the end. Creativity wins in the end. 

HB For this issue, which is centred around notions of punk, we photographed a selection of Octavius ‘Otto’ La Rosa’s (founder of dot COMME) personal archival collection—arguably one of the largest in the world. It was a trip down memory lane. Which collections evoke the best memories for you?

WVB Difficult question. It is always difficult to choose and, in fact, I love them all. All my collections have souvenirs and anecdotes. Of course, there are a few HINGE collections: BAD BABY BOYS, A FETISH FOR BEAUTY, NO REFERENCES, REVOLUTION, SEX CLOWN and, of course, more recent ones. It is a rollercoaster to realise and develop such complex stories every six months, but I still enjoy it. Telling these stories gives me power, joy and happiness and I live for the reactions from the fans and buyers!

HB Your collections have always been canvases for causes, tackling issues like the HIV crisis, LGBT rights, gender fluidity and diversity in the fashion industry (to name a few). What do these topics mean to you? 

WVB I carry these topics in my heart. From the beginning, when I started designing, I felt the need to include these topics in my work because I do care about the world and its people. I see fashion as communication. You can tell stories and make statements through clothes and fashion shows. For a lot of people (and press) I will always remain the crazy designer—making funny, colourful collections. But luckily, others can profess my importance in fashion and read, and understand, my work. “Stop terrorising our world”, “dream the world awake” and “kiss the future” are some phrases that convey a lot about how I think and work. 

HB You have die-hard followers and collectors all over the world; it’s certainly something that proves your authenticity in the industry and speaks to your activism. Do you have any advice for young, emerging designers? Especially in terms of brands adopting this approach?

WVB Authenticity is the most important thing for a designer. An immediately recognisable signature, a strong design DNA: that’s what makes the difference. Authenticity, more than ever today, in our flattened fashion world dominated by money and arrogance, is crucial for any emerging designer. Never be a copycat. When I teach young people, I am constantly telling them to go deeper and further, to study intensively. This gives them the opportunity to concentrate on themselves for several years, to explore their deeper self, their own character and fascinations, to work hard on their own artistic language and vision. Then, when graduating, that will become the foundation for their career as a fashion designer. This sounds a bit selfish, but it is a necessity when studying fashion. I would also tell young designers: you can do it! Be patient and work carefully and honestly. It will probably take a while, but if you really want it, it will happen one day. Believe!

HB Finally, would you be able to give us a glimpse of what to expect from the next collection? I will be attending the upcoming show and am eager to know more… 

WVB I have been working on the new SS2024 for a while now. I have already made lots of decisions and have made a lot of sketches, but it is too early to talk about it. It is still a fragile embryo that needs a lot of attention and love. 

HB Thank you, Walter. Looking forward to seeing your new collection in June!

first photo assistant BRIDGET MACWHIRTER
second photo assistant HARRY BURMEISTER
third photo assistant BENJAMIN DOWD
hair direction, styling and wigs JOEL FORMAN
hair assistant NISAL ATAPATTU
makeup artist ROSE LETHO
makeup assistant KARA IACOBELLIS

A special thank you to Octavius La Rosa and his personal archive of Walter Van Beirendonck pieces. 

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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