Kris Van Assche is a romantic anti-hero. Since succeeding Hedi Slimane as artistic director of Dior Homme in 2007, the Belgian designer has steered a
quiet and precise course. Van Assche’s decade-long reign at the house has taken a consistent approach to men’s fashion
at a time when the concept of menswear itself has been under siege by chauvinism, metrosexuality, and the disruptive rise of streetwear. Despite countless headlines about “the death of tailoring,” he has remained true to the craft and its ability to forge a prototype of masculinity for the twenty-first century. Van Assche is building this new order in silence but he is not afraid to please.
Jina Khayyer visited Van Assche at the Dior headquarters on Rue de Marignan in Paris.
Jina Khayyer: When you came to Paris and started your career as a designer in the late 1990s, fashion for men had become a catwalk fantasy. The industry became obsessed with juvenile utopia, but most men couldn’t connect with it. When you took over Dior Homme, you showed a radically different kind of man. An anti-hero in wide-cut tailored suits with flower pins. The industry doesn’t always love you for it. But men do.
Kris Van Assche: When I first looked at men’s fashion, I looked to the 80s and the 90s. The 80s were about oily, tanned, muscular guys – a cliché image that men didn’t relate to. The look of the 90s – the juvenile, skinny, drugged-up look – was a 180-degree reaction against that muscular guy. But again, it was just another stereotype. As a man, I was not relating to any of these clichés. So, I do have to admit that when I started designing on my own, the first few seasons were about pleasing myself.
And then you moved outward from there.
It was a shift to reality. And then I understood how exciting reality can be. It used to be that in the 90s and 2000s, it wasn’t masculine to talk or think about fashion. Only the younger generation – our generation – was ready for it. So it was logical to address fashion messages to these kids. When the term “metrosexual” became trendy – as horrible as I find that classification – it helped to make fashion popular and masculine, even among older men.
What is your approach when creating a silhouette?
Creating a silhouette is an evolution. Last winter, I experienced the first major shift in my career that made me put my own label on hold. For years, I always had to cut ideas in two: The brand Kris Van Assche was about street and sportswear, while Dior Homme was about luxury. For many years, this division made it somewhat easy in my head as a starting point. But then it got to the point where there was something schizophrenic about splitting ideas. Fashion has changed. It’s not interesting to make those divisions anymore. Yes, Dior Homme is luxury, and tailoring is our core, but we can include street and sportswear codes without moving away from luxury. Since more street and sport influences have flowed into Dior Homme, I have realized how important it is to concentrate on the core, especially since tailoring today has a problem. Tailoring is not flexible – it can be stiff, as often it is hard to move in tailored fabrics. So, for me, the biggest challenge is to give movement to tailoring. Another ongoing story in the evolution of my silhouette is that I am always looking into contrast possibilities – tailored suit jackets and sporty trousers, tailored suit pants and boots. There are always at least two influences that clash, and my silhouettes grow on this idea of clash.
When you design, do you think in single pieces, in silhouettes, or in building a wardrobe?
There are two different ways of looking at that. Yes, I am building a wardrobe. But I am also in touch with reality. I am conscious of the fact that Dior Homme is a big brand that caters to a grand variety of clients. There is the made-to-measure client. There is the three-button cashmere coat man. There are the trend kids who want full-on fashion. It’s quite a complex wardrobe. So how do I develop a collection? In the end, I like to tell a story. Each collection is like a short movie. There is this imaginary character that needs certain clothes for adventures that I come up with. The scenery is from the world that I am creating. The music, the soundtrack, is like the words to the images – I really pay attention to the lyrics. I love it when the phrases link in with the collection. The soundtrack for the last summer’s show, for example, was “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode. It was so autobiographical because I really enjoy silence.
Fashion is the opposite of silent though.
I like contrast. I like clashes. Where there is sun, there is shade. Sometimes I like being in the sun. Most of the time, I can remain in the shade.
Do you need to continuously study men and their desires to be able to cater to them?
It’s not a conscious thing, but yes, of course. I have a very great, young team around me, so it comes naturally to be aware of what’s happening.
In the past decade, the perception of men’s fashion has changed multiple times, mainly through comebacks. The return of streetwear, fired by Supreme. Do contemporaries effect your point of view on manhood and dress codes?
I am not sure if it effects me, but I notice it. Especially the streetwear movement, as it is a movement I relate to. Paris is at the end of the fashion agenda, so by the time people get to Paris, they have already seen so many collec- tions. Before my show opened last June in Paris, all the papers and critics were raving about sportswear and screaming, “Tailoring is over!” That was really disturbing for me, as my collection was all about tailoring. For me, great tailoring is never out of fashion.
But what about the comeback of macho-chauvinism, which manifested itself through the rise of Trump?
Trump is something else – it deserves a particular attention. I am 41 now, so obviously I start looking back on how my life was when I was a young. I feel the world was a more tolerant place. Chauvinists were a dying breed. By putting the heroes of my youth – people like Boy George, or Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode – in the Dior Homme campaign, and by looking at what they stood for and how that was celebrated, I react to the Trumps of today. I want to remind all men how open-minded we were when we were young.
What does masculinity mean?
It’s a letter in your passport.
Is every man masculine?
There are endless variations on masculinity. But for me, yes, every man is masculine.
There are a lot of photographs of flowers on your Instagram account – more owers than selfies actually.
If I had not been a fashion designer, I would have been a florist. There is something very unnecessary about ow- ers, but I do feel they make all the difference. There is something very fragile about both owers and fashion.
When did you first realize, consciously realize, that you are male?
I remember noticing very early on that I did not fit in with the football-playing kids on the street. I was already paying much more attention to the way I was dressed and taking care not to get my shoes dirty. I became aware of my difference at a very young age, which in turn made me aware about the world that comes, or is supposed to come, with the letter “M” in your passport.
There are so many stereotypes attached to the idea of manhood. Do you like to indulge in any of these clichés?
Stereotypes are what I love most about menswear. I actually think that’s why I became mostly a menswear designer and not a womenswear designer. I love all the commonplaces: the Wall Street guy, the biker guy, the football guys, the skaters, the goths, the New Wave guys. A man always needs to belong to someone, somewhere, or something. Just recently, I realized again how male stereotypes are related to an activity and how that activity gives a lot of rules. It’s really very reassuring.
What club are you in?
Well, I am obviously in the fashion club, which is a world on its own. But I am not a dancing-on-the-table guy. I feel the most comfortable with the scene I was brought up in – the Antwerp scene, which is a more recluse, darker, intimate scene.
What’s the soundtrack of that scene?
New Wave. Techno.
Who are your male style icons?
I hate the notion of that.
Your favorite color for men?
Your favorite fabric or material for men?
Wool mohair. I love mohair. It’s very nervous, but at the same time, it keeps its shape.
What is fashion for men today about?
We all declare to be leading very active lives. In contrast, tailoring is not exactly the type of clothing you have the most freedom of movement in. For me, fashion today is about making pieces that combine those two worlds. My focus now is to make jackets that are fitted to the body and to really study the armhole and the shoulder- line, so you can move your arm even if it’s a skinny sleeve. Reality is my playground. I have customers that take off their jackets but keep their pants on, so I need to make sure I can design pants that work on their own. A great silhouette is worth nothing if the single pieces don’t work on their own.
In the current Dior Homme Winter 2017/2018 campaign, the model is Dave Gahan, who is 55 years old. Dior Homme is not the only brand advertising with aged men these days. Are men – in contrast to boys – back in fashion?
For me, men are always in fashion.
Not many designers have remained at the helm of a major house for an entire decade. What’s your secret, Kris?
And what’s next for you?