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Article on Ann Demeulemeester By CATHY HORYN | Dated, but Great Article year - 2006

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Article on Ann Demeulemeester By CATHY HORYN | Dated, but Great Article year - 2006

Post by xyz on Tue May 14, 2013 5:34 am


Ann of Antwerp

August 27, 2006

The setting of the Le Corbusier house where the designer Ann
Demeulemeester lives and works in Antwerp reflects her place in the
fashion world. It stands at the edge of a treeless lot near a highway
overpass, isolated both aesthetically and physically from the apartment
blocks in the southern part of this Flemish city. The original owner of
the house, built in 1926, had hoped to establish a Modernist community,
if only to counter the local gingerbread, but it never came. What came
instead was a world war and senseless urban planning. In 1985, her
career not yet begun, Demeulemeester and her husband, Patrick Robyn,
who was trying to establish himself as a photographer, bought Belgium’s
only Le Corbusier house and started to restore it. Now, except to
travel to their country home, 30 minutes away, they rarely leave

‘‘I’m not confused about what’s happening in fashion, because I follow
my direction and go,’’ Demeulemeester says one afternoon at her dining
table. She has laid out plates of salad and cold tuna and opened a
bottle of wine. She is 47, and the lines of her face have begun to set
in, but it is still a fascinating face to look at, pale and vigilant
and framed by dirty-blond hair. Victor Robyn, the couple’s only child,
an art student in Brussels, has dropped by and left with friends. When
Victor was 3, his parents built a studio next door, with offices and a
private entrance for the family, so that Demeulemeester wouldn’t have
to feel like she was actually leaving her son to go to work. Today the
family compound consists of four buildings. Although the house is by no
means a shrine to its architect, Demeulemeester and Robyn are eager to
play host to Le Corbusier’s ideas. There are the original paint colors
— chocolate, azure and cream for the main room. There are simple light
fixtures and cool, black-tiled floors. There is, as well, the grid of
windows facing a small walled garden. Demeulemeester seems oblivious to
the traffic beyond the open windows. She says she doesn’t pay attention
to other designers’ work: ‘‘I never study what others are doing because
it doesn’t help me.’’

This seems strange. At a moment when many designers, along with
architects, star chefs and art dealers, feel driven to be everywhere in
the world — in China, at the latest art fair, opening a hotel in Dubai
— Demeulemeester is interested in only her world. Her influence is
pervasive this season. Among those designers like Marc Jacobs and
Miuccia Prada whose power we readily trust, if only because they more
easily monopolize one’s attention, there was a strong sense in their
clothes of Demeulemeester’s proportions, her asymmetrical cuts, her
blunt, northern femininity. Discharging their ladylike tweeds and
presumably the women in them, designers now spoke of ‘‘urban females’’
and ‘‘the warrior woman,’’ ignoring, as Sarah Mower of Vogue pointed
out, that this has been Demeulemeester’s single-minded view for 20

Demeulemeester says she was unaware of her influence until a journalist
mentioned it, and then, even in the collections where it seemed most
obvious, like Marc by Marc Jacobs, it wasn’t evident to her. ‘‘When I
looked at the clothes, I didn’t see my thing,’’ she says. She is at
least sensitive to the prevailing rhetoric. ‘‘I hate when people
suddenly say, ‘And now we are going to do the glamorous woman, now
we’re going to do the strong woman,’’’ she says, studying me. ‘‘Sorry,
I am a strong woman. And I go for it. I don’t have to play this game.’’

Demeulemeester and the other Belgian designers of the late 1980’s,
among them Martin Margiela and Dries Van Noten, made their reputations
by opposing and even mocking the barbarism of the decade — none more so
than Margiela, who made clothes from recycled garments and plastic
trash bags and set himself up as a virtual designer, remote and
unanswerable, before the term was fully understood.

It may be that in the current climate of opportunism, with its
what-do-I-get-out-of-this attitude, people again want clothes of
substance and surprise. Clearly Demeulemeester thinks so. ‘‘I don’t
think women can take superficiality much longer,’’ she says. ‘‘They
want a soul again. I’ve always worked with this emotion. That’s why
people are turning toward me, I think.’’

Demeulemeester graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in
1981, the same year that Rei Kawakubo showed her first Comme des
Garçons collection in Paris. Kawakubo, with her almost brutal cutting
techniques, proposed that women were strong and selfdetermined.
Demeulemeester, born a generation later, just assumed that they were.
Both her father and her grandfather earned their living drying chicory
for the coffee market, and when she was 16, she met Robyn, a local boy
who already had leanings to become an artist. Demeulemeester says the
only time fashion entered her consciousness in her girlhood was when
she made drawings of classical portraits; she noticed the relationship
between the subject and his clothes.

At the academy, she says, she felt like an outsider ‘‘because I was not
fashionable in the eyes of the others.’’ Though Belgium produced
children’s clothes and fine tailoring, it had no fashion identity, and
of the two old women who taught Demeulemeester pattern making, one
sewed her own clothes and the other was extremely rigid. She believed
that you should not put white and black in the same outfit. ‘‘That was
my big discussion with her,’’ Demeulemeester says, smiling.

‘‘And she was, like: ‘Ann, you can’t use white. It’s not chic. Use
offwhite. Chanel used off-white.’ Chanel was her ideal. So I had a big
fight with her. All these things were happening, punk in London, and
she was living in her Chanel, off-white world.’’

‘‘The Antwerp Six’’ was a media appellation born in London in the late
1980’s to help manage foreign-sounding Flemish names. In reality there
was little communal spirit in the group. ‘‘Everybody was doing his
thing,’’ Demeulemeester says. ‘‘We weren’t doing things together.’’ By
the early 90’s, the Belgians had established themselves as devout
individualists at the Paris shows, with Demeulemeester projecting a
militant, and often tender, modernism. Her women looked cool and tough,
as if they had just finished a gig in Rotterdam. Though she has always
pursued experimental cuts and fabrics, like the papery leather she used
this past spring for a stunning white shift, her clothes follow a
narrative, which was a problem in the 90’s, when designers fell under
one extreme influence after another. ‘‘I had the impression, around
1995, that all of a sudden the weather changed,’’ Demeulemeester says.
‘‘It was all about these big houses. Gucci had started. For me, it was
the opposite of freedom. I couldn’t understand.’’

Demeulemeester wants to show me her studio, and we head upstairs,
which, like the rest of the house, has black-tiled floors and wall
colors so deeply pigmented that they resemble velvet. We follow a
passage into the adjoining building and enter a large white studio with
a copy of Man Ray’s hanger mobile. Few independent designers have the
luxury of such space. In the mid-90’s, Demeulemeester asked Anne
Chapelle, an acquaintance and businesswoman, to run her company, and,
as Demeulemeester says, Chapelle restructured the business ‘‘as a
little multinational.’’ Later they created a holding company that today
includes the rising Belgian star Haider Ackermann.

We pull out photographs taken by Robyn of early collections, beautiful
portfolios produced despite the fact that the couple had little money.
Demeulemeester is often associated with Patti Smith, but to my mind her
clothes have never resonated more emotionally than when she
collaborated with the artist Jim Dine. ‘‘I saw his photos in a gallery,
and it was one of those moments that you don’t have often,’’ she
explains. ‘‘I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. I felt sick. I
came home and wrote him a letter. I had to do it. And four or five days
later, he was sitting here in my studio and saying, ‘O.K., we’re going
to work together.’ Can you imagine?’’ The result was exquisite
asymmetrical dresses with silvery-gray photo prints of birds of prey.

For fall, as other designers were paying homage to her past work,
Demeulemeester explored drapery, creating wrapped dresses that lent
mystery to her tailoring. She has her store in Antwerp, which each week
sends hard-to-find pieces to clients in New York, and I know women who
have as much Demeulemeester stashed in their closets — skinny T-shirts,
boyish black boots — as they do Prada. She recently expanded her men’s
collection and would like to do a perfume.

‘‘I never organize or plan things,’’ she says. ‘‘I go step by step.
Maybe it’s safe like this, I don’t know.’’ Demeulemeester smiles,
coyly, and you know that this thought doesn’t trouble her in the least.
She says: ‘‘I just wait because I think people will find me. And I’m
not the kind of person who will knock on somebody’s door. I wait. If
they’re good for me, they will come towards me.’’

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