IN CONVERSATION WITH WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK
words & interview by Marie-Pauline Cesari @itsjustmp
photos by Yaël Temminck @yaeltemminck
“Everything flows from my heart and my guts”
WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK’S name is synonymous with boldness and innovation. His collections, inspired by the visual arts, literature, nature, and ethnic influences, are known for their unusual colour combinations and a strong graphic influence. Head of the Fashion Department at Antwerp’s ROYAL ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS till last year, he was awarded the honorary title Cultural Ambassador of Flanders in 1999.
The fashion industry is a world in constant flux. Trends wax and wane like desert sands. But there is one designer who stands firm and remains resolutely himself. WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK is renowned for his fearless manipulation of shapes and silhouettes, geometric structures with heightened volumes, and designs characterized by a melding of vibrant colours that result in captivating visual compositions. A pioneer and outsider, WALTER’s fashion shows are artistic performances that mirror his social and cultural preoccupations. Using devices like impactful messages written directly on the clothes, fetish accessories such as masks, and collections with names like Aesthetic Terrorist, WALTER makes waves and leaves his mark. From addressing racism and AIDS to tackling climate change and advocating for queer rights, he has introduced concepts before others.
We met him at his atelier in Antwerp on a rainy afternoon and asked whether he considered himself as a whistle-blower. He laughed first, then nodded.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it is true that I often initiate things before others. I introduced concepts like gender diversity and multi-racial shows back in the 90s. My work gains recognition later on, often starting from the art world.’
WALTER’s work has indeed fallen victim to a lack of recognition.
‘I am shouting,’ he said ‘but people don’t hear it at a certain moment. They didn’t understand what I was doing and where I wanted to go.’
We thought that perhaps this feeling of shouting into the void would discourage him from tackling subjects and bringing forth new trends. But, to our great delight, WALTER feels more understood now and considers himself privileged in his work, particularly thanks to his independence. His unique and recognizable style sets him apart from dominant trends, and he draws his inspiration through his endless curiosity. He sees beauty and artistic interest everywhere.
‘There’s no limit that restricts what I find culturally appealing,’ he said, ‘I appreciate kitsch just as much as I admire the intricate beauty of an Egyptian art exhibit. This philosophy has always underpinned my work.’
History influences how he approaches designing for the future. WALTER is continuously researching, actively seeking inspiration from books, exhibitions, galleries. But in his fashion designer’s journey, one individual played a key role: DAVID BOWIE.
‘He was the figure who not only introduced me to fashion but also showed me how clothing can communicate and help shape a personality or identity.’
‘This realization sparked my interest in garments and clothing. For me, fashion is a form of communication. BOWIE excelled at communicating; he conveyed incredible stories through his music, appearance, and performances. At that time, he was my true hero.’
The fast-paced pulse of the fashion industry, synchronized with the rhythm of fashion weeks, forces designers to consistently think ahead and incorporate a certain routine into their creative process, while maintaining relevance and fostering innovation. For WALTER, this process unfolds spontaneously rather than through deliberate planning.
‘It’s not a week-long contemplation; rather, I gather inspiration from my research, combine elements, and spontaneously generate ideas. I create sketches and concepts on paper, which evolve into a logical sequence. I work on a collection for about six months, beginning shortly after presenting the previous one. Even at the start, I often have inklings of ideas that will conclude the next collection.’
His creations incorporate humour, which he considers an important skill and an efficient way to convey messages. He has managed to find a perfect balance between playful, humorous elements and serious messages, attributing his spontaneous approach to the influence of PAUL MCCARTHY and MIKE KELLEY.
‘Back in the 90’s, they were significant influences. Their installations and performances tackled intense themes like incest and terrorism, yet they presented them as fairy tales. This was a revelation for me and influenced how I build my collections.’
According to him, spontaneity is a distinctive quality that characterizes younger generations.
‘The offer to teach (at the ROYAL ACADEMY OF ANTWERP) came in 1986, and I took a liking to it right from the start,’ he said. ‘I felt I had an aptitude for teaching… Teaching demands energy, and it compels you to remain relevant in the eyes of the younger generation.’
His latest collection, the Spring/Summer 2024 collection, illustrates his deep concerns about the frontier between humanity and technology. Entitled ‘DAWLEETOO’ — in reference to the ‘lost city of Z’ — this collection emerged from his fascination with AI-generated imagery. WALTER has always been captivated by new technologies and their ability to blur the line between the real and the virtual. He believes that technology such as 3D printing can shape the future of sustainable fashion.
‘The challenge lies in being part of the system while staying true to values,’ he says. ‘Brands might lay claim to sustainability, but true credibility comes from creating high-quality, enduring products. It’s about crafting garments that stand the test of time and connecting with the younger generation.’