It’s not about the clothes, dummy

“It’s about plastic surgery,” Walter van Beirendonck told me. I knew it wasn’t about fashion, or clothes, which is what I had a right to expect it would be about. After all, Van Beirendonck is a fashion designer, and he had just spent an hour or so with an enthusiastic young crowd at the RMIT Storey Hall auditorium, saying several times during the discussion on stage that he was not an artist.

To be an artist, if you are a fashion designer, I began to think, must be something like being branded impractical or noncommercial or incapable of designing wearable clothing.

Van Beirendonck’s recent designs, clothes that are much less commercial than the street wear and jeans for which he became well-known, can still be bought from his shop in Antwerp. Just the place to go if you want an haute couture, plastic, cherry-colored suit—available in all sizes.

Spring 2012 collection.

The problem is that van Beirendonck is an artist, or is behaving like one. At a Paris show a few years ago he put his models on stilts (the kind that plasterers use to reach ceilings), covered their faces, turned on the spooky music and waited for a reaction. The resulting ‘performance’—it’s difficult to continue calling it a ‘fashion parade’ or anything else that implies display of goods—was tremendously affecting, presenting the audience with the unexpected vision of models who had distorted their bodies to achieve a sort of perfection and had, at the same time, erased their identities. It’s no wonder that van Beirendonck’s shows are popular.

Transplanted to a theatrical stage, cut loose from the delimiting response of an industry audience, some moments he devises could easily be mistaken for ones by Pina Bausch, the German dancer, choreographer and champion of modern dance.

These effects on the catwalk have not come easily or suddenly to van Beirendonck. It’s clear from the videos of him, when he began teaching fashion in Belgium in the mid-1980s, that he used to look and behave more like we imagine a fashion designer should.

These days, fortyish, he admits that a gradual change has overcome him, the result of a desire to be more himself. He’s gone through many changes, in fact.

Fashion is the commodification of change, n’est-ce-pas?

He used to say, “Fuck the past! (Kiss the future).” One of the audience at Storey Hall wanted to know why he hated history. He is adamant that he does not; it’s just that he does not want to be tied to it.

Now he says, “You are not alone.” In the last few seasons he has stripped his designs of all ornamentation and shown us a bland future; dressed his models in hokey cowboy street wear and made them boot-scoot; then presented them all in pale-colored, knitted, clingy frocks.

Walter van Beirendonck

In a way, it’s interesting: fashion as a vehicle for thought… Do you think it’s going to work? Van Beirendonck certainly gives it a go, but the problems are too obvious. One of his recent shows sported the title ‘Gender?’ It was not about gender at all. It wasn’t even about sex (which is what most people think ‘gender’ is). It was a display of androgynous models. There weren’t any women.

“It was a male collection!” van Beirendonck explains. Exactly. Why pretend to be thinking about gender at all?

The reason, I suppose, is that fashion is not about the clothes, and not about being an artist, and not about thinking, or performance, or even business and money. It’s about expressing yourself. So there.

Originally published in RMIT’s Openline in 2000.