Interview by Filep Motwary
Balancing a nostalgic sensibility with radical modernism, Kris Van Assche has created a distinctive, refined world of nonchalant elegance. His latest show for Dior Homme, for autumn/winter 2011/12, offered a strict outline for the modern man who wants to dress in fluid forms. Boys strolled down the catwalk in wide-brimmed hats and drapey cloaks, chandeliers and fireplaces in the background. The Belgian-born designer graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and moved to Paris in 1998, where he worked with Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent and then Dior Homme. His own label was first introduced in 2005; two years later, he was appointed artistic director at Dior Homme.
Motwary: Hello Chris, how does this phone call find you?
Van Assche: I’m good, thank you.
Motwary: How would you describe the Dior Homme man for autumn/winter 2011/12?
Van Assche: I have been at Dior for four years now, and I had to struggle with this heritage, and how to present a new “story” for Dior. I concluded that it is not so much about the silhouette or certain details. It is much more about the artisanship, the way the clothes are made. This is the real heritage of the house. The atelier and its expertise was more of an inspiration than just the means to execute a design. Before, a designer would just go to the atelier with a drawing and expect them to make it. Now, I go with a drawing, but I ask them to make the best out of it and really include their opinion as part of the creative process.
I see a return to what we might call “essential”, and I think this is also what has changed since the crisis. Fashion, for me, was never about extravaganzas. I don’t really like clothes that only impress on the catwalk. Now I feel increasingly at ease with just concentrating on what I see as essential, the quality and the way clothes drape on the body. So, yes, there is a form of simplicity, and it goes together with the idea of using only a few colours—whatever really seems necessary. People have said that it’s quite strict, religious even, and it makes me laugh, because frankly it has nothing to do with that. It’s about the perfection of the clothes, getting the shoulders right, seeing how it fits perfectly on the body. It has more to do with precision than strictness. But I guess that’s where my Belgian roots come out—I hear it all the time!
Motwary: That contradicts something you once said in another interview—that you don’t have a sense of humor.
Van Assche: [laughs] I don’t know. I am quite serious about what I do, but I hope there’s some humour in me.
Motwary: Is the collection a reflection of the economic down- turn that is still haunting us? How do you respond creatively to a crisis like that?
Van Assche: There is no definition of how one should react to the crisis—any crisis. One could be tempted to work on more classical lines that should be easy to sell. But maybe people wouldn’t buy them because customers are looking for more exceptional pieces instead. There is no manual here. Personally, my reaction to the crisis was to try to define myself.
Motwary: Is there any tension between the idea and the execution, in terms of the time that separates them?
Van Assche: Oh yes! It is the big frustration of my job. First, you have this initial idea and ideal image of how the clothes are going to look on the catwalk, the show itself, the models. Then you have a thousand technical things that alter all of the above: putting on the zippers, the buttons, choosing the fabrics… There is a lot of detail that alters the dreamy vision you have in mind at first.
I always say that developing a collection is five months of struggle not to lose the initial idea. There is even the possibility of things going wrong two days before the show. You have the pieces you like, and they look exactly as you had them in mind, and then you need to find the right boy to fit the jacket. The wrong choice of model can be fatal for a look.
Motwary: How do you find the right boy?
Van Assche: It’s really very difficult. Truly, I spend a lot of time doing the casting. Every time I have this specific type I am looking for. For my own label I have 25 models, so for Dior I use 40 or 45—it’s a lot. There are always 15 who are good and three I really like and see as perfect for the concept. I always wish I could clone those three.
Motwary: Who is the Dior man?
Van Assche: There is not one type of man, and certainly there is a difference between Dior Homme and my own label. For Kris Van Assche I become the client—I make clothes that I want to wear myself, things that are very close to my personal tastes.
At Dior, I have a more spherical point of view, in order to satisfy the diversity of their clients. We have the younger customers, who tend to choose pieces that are much more crazy than anything I would wear, but there is also the traditional type who wishes for a tailored suit, a politician or a businessman, maybe. In order to make the perfect suit, I always push myself to get inspired by the challenge and bring out more tailored pieces, like a tailored jacked worn inside out.
Motwary: What’s the balance between refining the signature of the house and doing something new each season? How high is the pressure to do something completely new every time?
Van Assche: At Dior the pressure is huge! Dior Homme had its own success even before I arrived, and it was my task to define a new story, a new outline.
Motwary: Although it haunted you in the wrong way, in the beginning.
Van Assche: Yes. When someone is asked to take over a house, it is usually because it’s already dead or slowly dying. That would have been easy—all I would have had to do is throw everything in the garbage and start over.
The previous Dior Homme was such a cliché; the downmarket brands were copying it. Dior had to remain a leading brand and move towards a new phase. I saw it as a great challenge to create a story for such an important house, never mind the pressure. Commercially and financially, it’s a big business and no mistakes are allowed. There are a lot of people working for Dior. I was very aware of all that and I think that together we worked it out. Now that I’ve found this new silhouette that I am very comfortable with, I don’t necessarily change it every season. I redefine it, making everything more evolved, but staying loyal to what I started eight seasons ago: luxury, comfort and exquisite craftsmanship.
Motwary: Do you consider yourself lucky?
Van Assche: [laughs] Of course I am lucky to be able to do this job. I am lucky to have my own label too—it’s very hard for a young designer these days. A lot of people would probably like to be where I am, but I worked very hard, for many years, to be where I am today—since I was 18 years old and still at the Academy. I don’t see time just flying by; my life is completely devoted to what I do. So yes, I am lucky, but nothing fell into my hands either.
Motwary: How do you balance your role as creative director of Dior Homme with running your own label? And how do you balance it all with a personal life?
Van Assche: Obviously it took me some time to find a balance, but the good thing about it is that both labels are in Paris. It’s only a 20-minute drive from one office to the other. What I do is spend two or three days at one or the other, wherever I need to be the most at the time. It allows me to work constantly with both my teams, and I’m very proud of all of them because they know how to continue what they are doing even if I am not there. The teams are really strong; they allow me to be flexible.
Right now a three-week holiday sounds like a good idea, especially after the shows, but the truth is that I cannot take it because I will definitely regret it for the whole next season. A few days off do just fine. I’m also aware of the fact that I’m the very first step of the whole process. If I am late, the whole chain will be late: the design process, the making, the price-tagging, the deliveries, the sales.
Motwary: Christian Dior never created anything for men. Do you translate the history of the house of Dior into a masculine vision, or is it purely your own ideas for Dior Homme?
Van Assche: The Dior atelier is about craftsmanship. This is a very important point to make, since not many menswear labels work in such a way. In Dior the customer can find quality and creativity, all in one piece of clothing.
Of course I spend a lot of time going through the archives of Monsieur Dior, but I don’t really relate to it, or to couture as it was back then. There is a great deal of respect for beauty and M Dior’s view of modernity, and that certain kind of elegance, which comes naturally to me. Today, Dior Homme is about what I think his message would be for the man of today.
Motwary: In what way can one still make a statement with fashion today? For example, in the 1980s and ’90s, Katherine Hamnett’s slogan T-shirts literally conveyed a message. A printed sentence on a shirt doesn’t really mean the same thing any more.
Van Assche: It has become much more subtle and much more difficult. I don’t really know how people go about it, but personally I feel clothes should underline one’s personality and not the other way around. When you have a lot of choice, it becomes difficult to pick. Some people choose certain labels because they want to express though them a certain power.
Others go for a total look, which conveys the message of the designer, not the wearer. I prefer to see people mix and match to achieve something that really represents them. I don’t like logos, never did, and I’m happy that the trend is almost off the map.
Motwary: What is the meaning of fashion now?
Van Assche: Fashion is totally necessary, even if it’s considered superficial by some. Life is tough for everybody. We constantly work, are stressed, are in a rush to get things done—so all the simple things that embellish everyday life have become really impor- tant. Fashion is one of the things that can make a dull day seem beautiful. Clothes make you feel nice. No one can deny that.
Motwary: Are you following the rise of the fashion bloggers, or the fashion film mania?
Van Assche: I’m obliged to follow them, although I try not to feel victimized by it. The fashion bloggers are often the first to know the news, but also the first to spread false rumors. I follow them from a healthy distance. There are some very talented and interesting ones, but they are only a few. There is a lot of rubbish on the net. Fashion films are something I quite like, as a matter of fact. I feel that fashion should always be in touch with new technologies. I’ve been doing these videos with the Belgian photographer Willy Vanderperre for Dior.
One of them has been released and there are two more coming. I’m very proud because through them, I can show the clothes with movement and music, from different angles, and so on. It’s another way of expanding the message.
Motwary: How do you see the future of fashion? And what about young designers who are truly talented but have no financial support?
Van Assche: I have no worries for the future of this business. It’s always been, and will forever be, a tough place to work, but it will also remain active forever. Clothes are the only way for a person to complete his personality.
As for the creative youth, I can only speak for myself. As a young designer, I had to find investors who believed in my work and helped me to push it further, and I think this is still the way it works for others. I would advise young people to start by working in a big company for a few years, to see how this industry really functions. Fashion is not about parties and famous models. It’s a tough business and it should stay that way.
After graduating he moved to Paris in 1998. He was immediately appointed at Yves Saint Laurent as Hedi Slimane’s first assistant for the Rive Gauche Homme line. The collaboration with Mr. Slimane continued at Christian Dior for the launching and development of the hugely successful Dior Homme collection until September 2004. In January 2005, Kris finally presented his own men’s collection for the first time in Paris during Men’s Fashion Week. Today he heads his own label, KRISVANASSCHE, and is the artistic director for Dior Homme since April 2007. In June 2013, he opened the first KRISVANASSCHE boutique in Paris. Designed by Ciguë, it is located in the 1st arrondissement, at 16 rue Saint Roch. In late May 2015, after several years of collections often judged as irrelevant by the critics and a style outdated by the new Londoner designers (such as JW Anderson or Christopher Shannon), Van Assche announced that he was closing his personal label for the time being, due to the difficulties of being an independent label.