Interview by Filep Motwary
It’s been almost two years since Ann Demeulemeester chose Sebastien Meunier as her successor. Since then, the brand’s atmosphere has moved towards a freshness with a sense of an urgent appeal for a new start. One would expect that a great loss for fashion would follow this enormously onerous transfer of responsibilities, but thankfully, Meunier’s collections are far from being a failure. The clothes are good, the sales are good, the mood is good—and today is a bank holiday in Belgium to boot.
FILEP MOTWARY: How challenging was it for you to take over at Demeulemeester?
SEBASTIEN MEUNIER: I did it without being so conscious of this decision, as I’m someone who does not really think of a chance when it is there. In fact, it was strangely very surprising when the first journalists came and all of them asked me about this challenge—if it was difficult or whatever. Today, yes, this question is always there, but then I didn’t know how to answer. I always give out my best work, everyday, at every moment and I live in the present. But being like this, I am able to challenge it. If I was too concerned by this question, I would be constantly frightened. At this moment everything has become more precise because people show me that they expect more and more…
FM: You have now been leading the house towards a new direction for almost two years, yet not so far away from its initial principles. Is it difficult to try really new things and explore new territories whilst maintaining the values of the house, a name known for its consistent vocabulary?
SM: A woman, who put all her heart and emotion into it, has built this house and this brand developed, if I may say, to the most characteristic image in the fashion world. She is pure, true and real without ever making any concessions. Under these circumstances, giving me the responsibility to continue it in a way that is mine, it became a mark of trust. This type of brand is very difficult to change dramatically, and it is something I do not want to pursue either. People do expect this dramatic change from me but the main reason I accepted this position is because I am respectful of the heritage and what Ann Demeulemeester became known for. I am absolutely fascinated by her work and I humbly feel I am not so far from her. It is difficult when I am asked to be so different, when I am not so different. This is the reason I was chosen in the first place. People wanting to see something different puts pressure on me, yet, when I face our clients, they are happy about the way things are and how they are progressing. It is a tricky situation and I think of it from time to time. What I do the best is to continue to present a kind of poetry, but using my own words and stories. Exactly how Ann then spoke about herself, I speak today about my experiences, emotions and my loves, my life, myself, my friends and creatively explore a territory that is really mine. I am not a designer who dreams of breaking rules; I prefer to continue a story. When she recently presented her book, Ann said to me “This is chapter one; now you have to do the second chapter.” And this is the second chapter.
FM: Let’s speak about the SS16 collection, which featured asymmetry and injections of colour, always silenced or framed in black. You conducted a very intimate presentation that reflected the way your clothes have a sexuality that is suggested rather than direct. Could you tell me about your thinking here?
SM: This collection was a reflection of what black represents today. How we want to wear it—as it will always be an important colour or non-colour. I do not trust full black fashion shows anymore. Yes, I love black, but we can see blackness in colours. The boys were like teenagers, super elegant and in between this kind of modernity of neon injections, as you said, and embroideries. In this collection I also spoke about a kind of dandy coming from a 15th-century painting mixed with today’s contemporary art. In a way, I presented the body that we desire and that reflects today. The boys’ bodies are very sexualized at this moment in a woman’s world. And although my boys look more like teenagers, my women are more dominating and represent an extra powerful elegance that is also very sensual and body conscious.
FM: Indeed this is an element that was missing from Demeulemeester…
SM: With Ann, it was not about being body conscious. It was more about a poetic balance between the feminine side of men, mirrored with the masculine part of women. With this collection [SS16 women], my approach to the masculine part of women was translating it into elegant beauty, with references to the bourgeoisie.
FM: This explicit, boyish approach you have in your collections goes hand in hand with fetishism at moments. Can sex possibly become an element of a collection that is made to be worn outside the home?
SM: This reflects my character but also, speaking of challenge, for the moment I feel a bit disconnected between what I think people want outside and what is accepted inside the house, yet is natural. Garments are made to embrace one’s self. When you are a designer, it is logical to design things that come from your inside. The term “body” fascinates me and my designs’ purpose is to make it more beautiful. I don’t want to hide the body or silence its “voice”. The sensuality of it helps me dream and to design options with a goal to embrace it. The past with Ann was perhaps more asexual, yet more dreamy and poetic. In fact all these elements were already there but not said out loud. I am a younger guy, something that she knows well. And through this angle comes my approach.
FM: There were certain feminine moments in the Men’s SS16 collection: sheer shirts, a pink sheer tank top, embroidery. Does gender matter to you?
SM: No. It is not about gender but more about attitude. I avoid just crossing the line between men and women, as I do not like men as women and women as men. For both I do something that I have always done: I like my boys “feminine”, to be able to express their emotions, and my women powerful. The man’s sensibility is something touching to me. That makes them something to protect because they take the risk to reveal themselves and my women are there to protect these boys. Women do fascinate me. I completely fell in love with the SS16 women’s collection for example, in love with my girls. You were backstage and you saw how happy I was, surrounded by them. I was so proud to have all these girls with me and there was something that struck me which does not happen at every show: the models were in love with the garments and some of them even asked me if they could walk the menswear show next season. They asked! They felt beautiful and desirable. Although I am gay, I love women for what they project and they do impress me, physically, mentally and for what they represent in life. This time especially some of them were almost two metres tall with the 13cm heels of the show. The tallest girl was literally 1.87cm. Men should look at women as goddesses. Voilà.
FM: And you had two gorgeous black girls—something new for Ann Demeulemeester. Was it some kind of manifesto or some kind of response to the accusations of racism due to the lack of black models in fashion or not?
SM: Yes, it was a manifesto but not for that reason. It was an ode to black by Ann Demeulemeester. I did use a few bright colours, but what mattered to me was the darkness and shades of black I dressed the women with. Extra black was the goal and it looked extra sensual on the black girls—imperial. They had such beauty one could not ignore.
FM: Did you use dark aubergine…?
SM: It’s interesting what you said, but no, it was black. They gave black another dimension, that we had never experienced in Ann Demeulemeester. That was my way to show all kinds of black yet also colours that have never been presented in a collection in such a way; also the black that is emphasized by the body and movement. I have such an obsession with black that I want to use my system to translate it in all ways possible. It is still a “black” company, Ann Demeulemester, a “black” client, yet black has a million possibilities and we are not in the ‘80s or ‘90s. Today black is something different and this is the time to renew the brand’s view of it.
FM: Do you separate men from women at Demeulemeester? How? Could you describe each for me? And where the two sexes meet?
SM: My girls protect my boys. They are there to let them be free and that’s the beauty of it. I don’t think of them as a couple—I do not want to create sex stories through them. On the contrary, working on both sides is a way for me to express myself the most. With my sensibility, it is about how I want to see a guy or a woman. They are independent and their link is this opposition.
FM: How would you describe the masculinity of your collections? Is it important to underline a sense of emotion each time?
SM: Yes, it is really important for me. The music of the last show was by Terry Riley—“One Earth, One People, One Love”. In fact I was speaking about seeking the love of my life, the search of a companion. I always speak about my emotions of the moment. I had a lot of hope this time; also due to the room of the show that had a lot of light, which helped me feel that way. The show just before this one spoke about a love I had that had just ended. It was all about my ex-boyfriend—it is very intimate each time. Especially for the menswear, as men hardly express intimate feelings. For women it is a bit more abstract on this level but it is also the reflection of the period I am in. There is always someone or something I think about in everything I do. It is impossible to be creative based on fantasy stories. I am someone with too much emotion. Perhaps it was because of that I became a designer, you know. Using your emotion to create can be a weapon.
FM: Is critique an important element for you, your next steps?
SM: This is a difficult question. In a way it is because it can touch me deeply or hurt me. I’m never good with critics, even a good one. It stresses me and I do not manage it so well. I become like a little boy. When I work, insecurity is an unknown word. I do it determined, day-by-day, hour-by-hour and feel strong about it. I am very sure, always, until the moment I go back home… Then I become fragile, all the tension comes out. Of course it has an importance but I try not to think about it as it would consume my energy and have effect on my work, which is what I love doing the most. You know I never watch other shows during fashion week. Of course I cannot see those before mine, there is no time. Even after, when we present the collection, it is not possible. But, two or three weeks later, I take the time to see what other designers presented. It is the only way. Naturally one would expect that I need to compare if others go in the same direction or completely the opposite, but I cannot do that during fashion week. It is a challenge I do not want to take.
FM: And how do you explain your clothes to people who are skeptical of them?
SM: It doesn’t matter at the end of the day, because if I put a look on the runway, I have no doubt about it. I would never show something I didn’t want to show. What I do gives me pride. I will only stop if the whole world is against it. But this is not the case. There are plenty of people who love it as much as I do.
FM: What do you find intriguing about fashion?
SM: To me it is about desire—the desire for a product and the desire to express through the product the power of sensuality and the elegance of it. This is the reason I love it.
FM: The Ann Demeulemeester brand has always been very mysterious. How does that constitute value in global fashion?
SM: There is no reflection of that as it is not something we calculate. This is how we are. Inside Ann Demeulemeester, we really just do the way we think is the best. We have never been a part of this communication frenzy—not then, not now. Yes, people request us to reveal more, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. It is not something I calculate—this is the reality of myself and the house I serve.
FM: Speaking of mystery, the Belgians always have a very quiet approach to things. How possible is it to maintain prosperity with such an approach in the mass communicative times we live in?
SM: Belgian fashion comes really from the ground of its own country. There is indeed mystery. It is a flat country with forests; the intensity of the forest, its darkness, its light at certain moments of the day can be inspiring. It has a very honest origin. The instinct comes from earth. The Belgians create their own culture by constantly exploring it. This is what makes them different.
FM: How different are you today compared to when you started? Could you walk me through this evolution?
SM: This is a question I have never asked myself. I continue, like then, working every day without thinking of my past and what I have achieved. Nothing has changed. I am really the same, except maybe the language and emotions I feel are now different. When I was at Martin Margiela working on menswear, I was doing the same: using his language but with my own emotion. He even commented back then that what he liked in my approach was the sensuality I projected on the work and he accepted it as something he would like to use himself. Working with Martin was perhaps a truly opposite way of approaching clothes to mine.
It is a very conceptual brand but I worked with him for ten whole years, loyally—five years on the womenswear and another five for the men’s. It didn’t feel like a job—I was a part of a family. Same with Ann: they called me when I was at Martin and it was truly unexpected. And I was doing my own line as well, which was completely opposite, or at least I thought. Ann saw the connection and through her, I saw it too.
FM: If I asked you to describe yourself, what words you would you use? Who are you, Sebastien?
SM: I’m a sensual dandy in search of deep love. Happiness for me consists of being with another person. And my work matters to me.
Ann Demeulemeester is a fashion house established in 1985 and based in Antwerp, Belgium. Renowned for a poetic balance of shadow and light, the collections for women and men evoke a serene and romantic universe nuanced with a rock spirit. Masculine and feminine elements are woven throughout each collection, as signature silhouettes fuse languid tailoring in noble fabrics with sensual asymmetries and the twist of sheer and opaque textiles. Entwined with classicism and the radical touch of music and contemporary art, each design captures strength and sensitivity in equal parts.