A conversation with Antwerp fashion designer Jan-Jan Van Essche

Menswear remains an exciting territory for young Belgian designers. The fact that there is perhaps less freedom than in women’s clothes is undoubtedly a challenge in itself. We talk to Antwerp-based Jan-Jan Van Essche, who’s quietly carving his own niche and finding his audience, dressing guys who care more about comfort, quality and substance than fleeting fashion trends.

The last time we met was in your Paris showroom. Which season were you presenting?

That was my third full season, which I showed to journalists and sold to international buyers.

You chose to design one collection a year instead of going for the seasonal approach. How do people react to this?

Buyers are a bit puzzled at first, because they have to rethink their budget and allocate it in a different way. Some don’t mind at all and end up buying what they like the most. Others are relieved, too. I guess people are looking for alternatives to over-consumption. The industry works at a certain pace and – when it comes to young designers – it’s hard to keep up with it.

It’s funny, because luxury brands end up offering more collections to compete with the high-street. 

I think they should just concentrate on their core business and do what they do best. I wouldn’t be able to do 6 collections a year and I don’t really want to.

Do you think it takes time finding good ideas and developing them?

At first, it took time to build the collection and find the right balance before launching it. We are a small team and I guess it was also less of a risk to do it this way. That was the advantage for us. Design-wise, I could obviously imagine creating more clothes, but I want to be able to focus on other projects, too, such as Atelier Solarshop, our store in Antwerp. I love the idea of an annual wardrobe and, to be honest, I pretty much wear the same stuff all year long.

I think it also reflects what the market offers now. With online shopping increasing, you can buy a winter coat in May if you need one.

I guess separations between seasons are not as clear as they used to be and people are more focused on getting a specific item than seasonal changes.

Can you tell me a bit more about your fabrics? I know you use high-quality, natural fibres in every collection.

It’s about comfort and being sustainable. My clothes should last for a while and age nicely, which you can achieve with high-quality fabrics. It’s about the way you feel when you wear something and appreciating it as well.

Is this what luxury is for you?

Yes, it’s about having this feeling of ease. For some people, luxury can be a pair of high heels or a tight corset, which alter your body and create a certain experience. My vision of luxury is more about freedom and being able to move in your clothes. They should be as comfortable as a sweat shirt, but still look smart. Of course, there are pieces in my collection that are more structured, as I ultimately want to achieve some sort of balance.

Whenever I can purify and simplify things, I feel happiest creatively.

How do you reconcile simplicity and creativity?

Whenever I can purify and simplify things, I feel happiest creatively.  Sometimes I think “Do I really need this seam? Is it ornamental or does it serve a purpose?” These are the kind of questions you keep asking yourself as a designer and you have this ideal you want to reach. It’s almost like a mind game you play with yourself.

How do stay grounded working in this business?

There are several steps within fashion where you deal with very practical things, such as production for instance. It’s about technical challenges and that keeps you grounded. The hyped-up, neurotic vibe of fashion was never something I connected with.  I’m mostly in my atelier and it’s more about a design reality for me.

Would you say you’re passionate about fashion then?

I’m passionate about my work, but not fashion in general. I can get excited about it, but fashion is more about the way I choose to live my life than what’s written in a magazine somewhere. I look at what some designers do, but part of me doesn’t want to get sucked into this whole thing.

There’s a strong spiritual dimension in your clothes. Does it reflect who you are as a person?

Yes, it reflects who I am and how I live. It’s not something I calculate or do consciously either. I would love it if my clothes could make people feel calmer or more confident. If you are comfortable with what you wear, you will come across as a more confident person. You will be more relaxed and it will have an effect on other people. I guess everyone wants to feel at peace with themselves.

Well, some seem quite happy doing the opposite. They’re probably looking for something else.

Yes, they probably are. It would be fantastic for me if people could feel good wearing my clothes. That’s the biggest compliment I could ever think of.