Walter Van Beirendonck and Dirk van Saene are a bit of an oddity in the fashion world. Think of them as the industry’s answer to Eddie and Patsy, Cagney and Lacey or Laurel and Hardy. Both men were part of the infamous Antwerp Six – which also included Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester – although their story began much earlier than that: the Belgian, bearded and bear-like designers have been partners for the past 33 years. We meet them on a cold winter afternoon in their Antwerp store.
Walter is the flamboyant one: massive rings on each finger, a thick beard and a bright sweater. Dirk appears more discreet, slouching on his chair and with a preppier look. What unites both men is a deep-rooted creativity, a complicit sense of companionship and an ability to enjoy themselves. Their story reads like the ultimate telenovela, minus the expected drama: “We were really young when we met,” explains Walter. “We both came from outside of Antwerp and were here to study. I got into the Academy (Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts) to do fashion and Dirk started his degree while I was in my second year. I remember thinking about jewellery or architecture at that time, but it was seeing the graduates’ fashion show that sealed the deal. You know, it’s not something I got into when I was 12 years old, playing dress up with dolls in my room. No Barbies for me, please!” Despite his Big Jim-less childhood, little Walter was not into macho comics either: “A lot of people think I’m crazy about them when they look at my pieces, but that’s not the case. I guess you can find traces of superheroes and other figures in my work, but it was never a fixation for me.” Van Beirendonck’s clothes have an urban and direct appeal, which he has been working on and refining since the 80s. Colour, geometry, ease and utility are all part of his vocabulary. His clothes make you smile, but they also make you think. Making statements that are often political, social, sexual or cultural, his shows promote inclusiveness, as opposed to elitism. His decision to use bigger guys for several collections was seen as a clear reaction to the industry’s limitations. “I think my clothes have always been very personal and my message hasn’t really changed with time. I had used bears and larger guys in a previous show in 1996 and remember that it was quite a small scene then. When I did it again recently, I was taking a stance against anorexia and models that were too skinny. I just wanted to show another type of physique on the runway.”
Walter Van Beirendonck’s Spring/Summer 2010 “WONDE®” runway show
One could describe van Saene’s fashion sense as more subdued and elegant. “I guess a lot of people talk about a Couture feel when they describe my clothes, and it’s something I’m actually fine with. Deconstruction was all the rage in the mid-90s and what I was doing was so different… People thought I had lost it,” he jokes. “They couldn’t understand what I was doing. It was just so out of context in a way, but also true to my own taste. I wanted to react against that movement and do exactly the opposite.” Van Saene hesitated between canvases and clothes before joining the Academy. He could perfectly live without fashion: “I don’t really need fashion to feel creative. Walter does. I’ve developed a new passion for ceramics lately and am still learning about the craft. I’ve always loved the act of painting, too. You need a team when you’re making clothes and there are so many external forces involved. I’d rather spend time alone and create what I want. Fashion is such a huge investment, both financially and emotionally. You see that with young designers now. There’s hardly a chance to grow anymore. People expect you to be huge in three seasons only.”
Although they never worked on a collection together, the pair opened WALTER in 1998, a unique space located in the heart of Antwerp, which stocked furniture as well as edgy fashion brands. During our conversation in the store, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like for two designers to live together. Fashion being the “Cursed Land of Inflated Egos”, many would probably end up strangling each other. “It’s a lot,” admits Walter. “Everything is doubled: deadlines, commitments, pressure. When we started our careers, we were in it 24/7, but now we’re much better at taking a step back and separating things. I still take a lot of my work home, but it’s different now. We never felt the need to compete with each other either. There was no reason to.” Dirk is very much involved in Walter’s work, helping out with the shows, models and offering constructive feedback. “I do give my opinion, yes. I also work on the casting for his shows. We were invited to San Francisco last May to show his Spring Summer ‘10 collection and that was a lot of fun. There were many fans coming to the event and we felt very welcome. We’re used to doing things like that together.”
Silhouettes from Walter Van Beirendonck’s Fall/Winter 2011-12 “Hand On Heart” collection
They also can’t help finishing each other’s sentences, which is both sweet and amusing. The initial reserve I felt at the beginning of our chat slowly disappears and I’m enjoying being with them as times passes by. The store closes and it’s time to say goodbye. When I ask Walter what he would do if he were not in fashion, he answers with his now customary cheek: “I’ve always loved animals, you know, so I could have worked in a zoo, or something to do with flowers. And porn, too… I would direct, of course.” But of course.
Silhouettes from Walter Van Beirendonck’s Spring/Summer 2010 “WONDE®” collection
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