Ann Demeulemeester has had many friends, old and new, as she defined her designs, conceived throughout her prolific career spanning three decades — but she’s not one to look back or indulge in nostalgia.
One of the original Antwerp Six who helped put that small Belgian city on the global fashion map with her soigné tailoring and dark glamour, “Queen Ann,” as WWD anointed her in a headline following a blockbuster collection in 1995, bowed out of fashion in 2013 to embark on other ventures, namely pottery and ceramics and a soon-to-launch furniture collection.
One of fashion’s melancholy poets, Demeulemeester has always shunned the limelight, preferring for years the intimacy of her house — a three-story, 1926 design by Le Corbusier, which she has now passed on to her son.
After being postponed once due to the pandemic, Demeulemeester is now mounting an exhibition during Pitti Uomo, which retraces her career in fashion, trying to distill her vocabulary through a process she described as not calculated, based on themes or chronological, she said.
“I always work on feelings, I never have a big plan, I just start working and I follow my feelings and I trust that it is the right thing to do,” Demeulemeester told WWD.
“I just picked my ‘friends,’ I have a lot of friends, there are so many clothes.…I just picked emotionally…and then I dressed everything again to see it today because a photo is a beautiful memory but I wanted to have the clothes in my hands again,” Demeulemeester offered.
Being surrounded by clothing she created over the course of 30 years was revealing.
“It was great finding back my ‘friends,’ it was in fact a nice surprise because I never had this calculated or big theory…it’s like almost 30 years of different [looks] and when you put them in a row, it was nice to discover that in fact that same sensitivity travels through time. I can just see my world, my universe and it doesn’t matter what year or whatever, it’s like a chain, it works,” she said.
“Also it gave me the chance to bring the past and the future together on one stage and it’s like one world that travels through time.…I could just put outfits made in the last few years at the end and they would fit in beautifully, that was also nice to discover that the silhouettes reflect the historical ones,” she added.
Never was her vocabulary only about fashion, nor could she ignore her attachment to music, which has punctuated her career in fashion so deeply that one could tell her ethereal and exacting aesthetic was the fashion embodiment of a Patti Smith lyric.
The exhibition space at the Stazione Leopolda venue will feature a soundscape Demeulemeester put together going through her fashion shows’ soundtracks, listening to all the CDs she still treasured to eventually distill 50 pieces of music. It provides showgoers with “an emotional roller coaster” and a “gathering of soulmates” filled, for instance, with bits of Smith’s “Holy,” statements, movie soundtracks and more.
Among them is an excerpt from an interview with Marcel Duchamp, which appeared in Demeulemeester’s men’s fall 2008 show inspired by Dadaism. Those words struck a chord with the designer, strongly resonating, as they still do, with her no-nonsense approach to her past.
“I guess I never analyzed fashion…what I was doing was focusing on what I could add that was not there, what was my voice in fashion and what I could give,” she said when asked to frame her contribution to fashion.
“What I added, maybe it’s just a little stone in a big river, I don’t know, but what I added for sure is the Ann Demeulemeester style, because I made a style and that is much more important to me than to have every season another theme or another style. My work is a life work and I work on one style and one voice, and that is the thing. It’s a voice that is strong but also fragile, that drags from the emotions, that communicates, that has a nonconformist spirit that travels through time.”
It also reflects the designer’s lack of nostalgia.
“It was more like happiness to discover that they can live today,” she said of the clothes in the retrospective. “I could wear them tomorrow, every piece, it’s not nostalgic at all, it’s just a life work that still exists and that still has a future,” Demeulemeester said. “It’s not history to me, it’s just my work and if you have a friend, friendship to me is forever, it’s not a trend, it’s forever. I don’t have many friends and the ones I have are really cherished. I think it’s the same for everybody,” she said.
For all the emotional attachment the designer has for her work, she doesn’t seem to miss fashion at all. Not as a designer, a woman, let alone as a consumer.
“I did so many things that I just moved on from. I don’t look back, I move on. I have only one life, I have to move on. I have no trouble with it but I’m just in a flow,” Demeulemeester said.
She is very pleased with Italian retailer Claudio Antonioli taking over the brand in 2020 to ensure it a bright future and feels the interest that the brand aroused is testament to her fashion legacy.
“I see my fashion as my child and now it’s ready to go by itself in the world with other people. It’s nice, it’s beautiful to have people that are working with respect. You have to give it a chance and give them the trust they need to do this,” she said.
Letting go seems to be Demeulemeester’s way forward.
“I’m a perfectionist and if I don’t [move on] I’d forever do everything myself because I cannot delegate. It’s my best and worst element, I cannot change myself, I trust, and I move on,” she said. Also, the designer feels uncomfortable with how fashion’s consumerism has gone “crazy.”
Does she buy any or make new clothing?
“I never did, I only made. I had the luxury that I could make exactly what I wanted to have.…I don’t need to [make new clothes] because I have so many, I can never wear everything I have here. From every collection I kept some pieces for me, or I made extras for me so I have lots of things and I’m not somebody who wants to change all the time,” she said.
Yet she’s not done with designing. Since waving goodbye to fashion in 2013 she’s been looking for a new creative language to explore and medium to land on, hence her collection of porcelain dinner services, silverware, glasses and a soon-to-be-launched homeware and furniture line, examples of which are already displayed inside the recently reopened Antwerp flagship and at the Paris showroom.
“I didn’t pivot, to me it was normal. I’m somebody who works on 3D shapes and it’s not very difficult to go from fabric to another material, and I have the impression that I made so many clothes already and I felt like it would be great to do something else before I die.…I have so many things I can explore, why should I stay only with fabrics?” she said of the new venture.
Not only does she see the sculptural notion of molding clay and plaster as similar to fashion creation, but also both media serve utilitarian purposes and mundane needs, which is how she envisioned her fashion, too.
“I really like to make things that one can use, if you make clothes, you add something to somebody’s life that you hope they will like. It’s my mission to make beauty and I’m just using another tool and I thought, ‘oh, let’s make a beautiful plate that I can use to put my vegetables on that I grow myself in my garden.’ It’s one world,” she said.
Together with her husband, photographer Patrick Robyn, she’s “trying to add things that we would love to have but can’t find, and I always discover that in the end if I have an inspiration and make it for myself, I always discover afterward that other people wanted them and they are really happy that I made them.
“That’s how things find their way in the world, and that’s how I work with clothes and shoes and glasses or lighting lamps or furniture. It’s always the same story.”