A taste for paradox

Kris Van Assche is a bit of a mysterious figure in the fashion world. The Paris-based Belgian – who designs Dior menswear as well as his own line – is clearly not the flamboyant type. In this exclusive interview, he opens up to talk about his own style, avoiding sartorial clichés and why having fun with clothes is important.

One thing Kris Van Assche cannot stand is stereotypes. The 35-year-old Belgian designer – who launched his own brand seven years ago and has been at the helm of Dior menswear since 2007 – has a quiet passion for subtlety, which seems to be an integral part of his personality. His design stance is more essential than extreme. A firm believer in discretion and refinement, he pays close attention to detail and doesn’t try to stand out. His clothes demand a second take, as there’s nothing obvious about them. Whether he designs for Dior or his own brand, Van Assche applies the same consistency to his approach. There’s something linear and precise about his style. It’s gimmick-free and functional. He’s been reworking the same items since the beginning and doesn’t look for shock value.

His clothes demand a second take, as there’s nothing obvious about them

Despite studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the mid 90s and being surrounded with fans of trailer trash and heroine chic, Van Assche was always low-key in his perspective and never into anything flashy or overt. In fact, his restrained aesthetics and vision have not always been read properly, only slowly gaining prominence in an industry where flamboyance and inflated egos are commonplace, “I’ve been in this business for a while now and realised that no one could put me in a box. It amuses me sometimes, because I’m not even aware I’m doing it myself, but I am attracted by things that cannot be defined. I subconsciously avoid classifications and feel uncomfortable with them. For instance, when I pick models for my shows, I tend to stay away from prepubescent boys or gym bunnies. I hate clichés. I’m much more interested in ambivalence and ambiguity. I guess there are complex elements in my work, which people might not notice straight away. Such an approach has its advantages – as you don’t get categorised somehow – but the inconvenience is that people don’t associate you with one specific word or item. Other designers can be identified much more easily.”

‘I hate clichés. I’m much more interested in ambivalence and ambiguity.’

Van Assche seems highly aware of the image he projects and there’s a genuine critical distance in his behaviour. You can feel that he’s probably his own worst critic at times and a sense of humility permeates his words. Don’t expect him to gloat about his success or many achievements. He’s far too understated for that. Quick definitions don’t satisfy Van Assche. Throughout his career as a designer, he’s been looking for a sense of balance, trying to address the demands of contemporary life without renouncing his creativity. He defines his ideal man as an “acrobat”, an individual who would be able to balance opposite and contrasting worlds. Van Assche’s collections have illustrated this point well, pleasing fashion folks and industry experts alike. When he started designing for Dior, journalists were tough, but he kept doing what he was good at. Replacing Hedi Slimane who had left the house was no easy feat, but Van Assche stuck to his guns until the fashion world finally caught up with him. He has a healthy dose of pragmatism, making him undeniably Belgian, even though he’s been based in Paris for years.

Van Assche makes clothes men actually want to wear and there’s no denying that he knows how to sell. His pieces may come across as simple and minimal, but they’re not plain either. Finesse seems a natural calling for him. You won’t see Van Assche indulge in sequinned pink trousers or brightly printed shirts, even though he probably loves to see them on other people “I don’t go out a lot, but like to watch how teenagers dress. Lately, I’ve seen some very cool types wear extreme things and get away with them. I love that kind of energy. I look at eccentrics like Anna Dello Russo or Bryan Boy and find it great that they are in fashion. When I studied at the Academy in Antwerp, clothes were taken too seriously and there was a feeling that you had to suffer for fashion in order to make it happen. It was all about conceptual style and intellectualism then. Such an approach no longer fits our world. It’s nice when people have fun with clothes. These kids don’t care whether you think they’re smart or not. They’re just here to have a good time.”

‘The starting point for my last collection was seeing these tattooed, skater guys in LA and wonder what suit they would buy once they got a regular job.’

Van Assche’s clothes are masculine, but they’re not butch either. He respects tradition, but also wants to move it forward. In his focus on suits and shirts, he’s tweaking elegance for a new generation that grew up in jeans and trainers. “The starting point for my last collection was seeing these tattooed, skater guys in LA and wonder what suit they would buy once they got a regular job. Formality does not have to exclude style or comfort. I don’t actually think elegance can be defined as such. There’s something very personal about it. The same suit can look fantastic on one guy and grotesque on another one. Caricatures are not elegant. When I meet someone new, I look at their clothes and the way they carry themselves. Elegance is about an attitude in the end. It’s the whole package, not just garments.”

Van Assche has been playing with proportions to modernise the suit. He has taken the sartorial stiffness away, keeping structure as a backbone. His clothes are fluid and don’t go against the body. The idea is that you could wear his clothes in any context and not feel inadequate. In many ways, his designs incorporate the techniques and ease of sportswear, while keeping a distinctive touch. In his choice of colours, Van Assche favours subdued tones, such as white, black and grey. They may all be reassuringly masculine, but he knows how to give them a fresh spin. “I wear a lot of grey myself and love pinstripes, probably because they’re traditional and remain one of menswear’s key staples. I don’t really have a desire to go against the grain in my work. I’ve always liked classical patterns and neutral tones are a no-brainer for me. It’s not like I need to over-analyse them.”

‘I don’t feel the need to personally relate to the clothes. I can work with something I wouldn’t wear myself.’

His clothes demand a second take, as there’s nothing obvious about them. Although Van Assche is clearly not an extrovert, his cool demeanour does not exclude a sense of humour. After all, he’s used to the level of scrutiny and responsibility that comes with being your own boss and designing for a major luxury brand. He manages two separate teams at the same time and is very good at it. There’s also a feeling that he’s gradually loosening up and letting go with age. “I probably designed things that were crazier when I started. I was very young when I launched my own brand and learnt something new each season. I’d say I’m comfortable with my own style now and pleased with what I do. That may leave room for bolder things to come. The one thing that has changed within my own line is that I don’t feel the need to personally relate to the clothes. I can work with something I wouldn’t wear myself. It’s not a problem for me. That’s something I found impossible to do at the beginning of my career.”

Van Assche’s own balancing act is to grow his label – which has a fairly selective and niche market – while keeping the executives at Dior happy “I couldn’t be freer with my own brand and Dior does have its tricky aspects. What can be frustrating with my own collection is that I have all this freedom, but also material limitations that I cannot ignore. Things can be tight and challenging as far as budget is concerned. At Dior, I have my own atelier and a bigger team. They can spend a very long time on research and work on great projects. It’s a completely different set-up. When you have more possibilities – like I do at Dior – you always have to watch that your focus does not get lost. Freedom is a relative notion, I suppose.”

krisvanassche.com