Purple Magazine
— Purple 76 Index issue #29 S/S 2018

Assche [van] kris

for dior homme spring / summer 2018

portrait and interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by OLA RINDAL

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve been at Dior for 10 years now. It’s amazing. How would you describe your decade? What has changed for you since you started out? It seems to me that you’re more and more at ease, and that your collections are getting better and better.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — That’s nice of you to say! Maybe that’s why I’ve lasted 10 years. I’ve spent the last 10 years growing up. It’d be a real shame if I weren’t learning as I went along because I’ve been working with the ateliers, with some amazing teams, for 10 years. There’s a very artisanal approach to the development of collections here. I’ve had a brand of my own, and I can see the difference. A designer can work in one of two ways. On the one hand, you can design, send your sketches to the factory, and wait for them to come back. That’s how things worked at my brand. On the other hand, you can do things the Dior way, where your sketch is a starting point to discuss with the head of the ateliers. You use it as a reference point, and invert it, transfigure it, creating the pieces as you go along, in the artisanal way, right on the model.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What did you learn working at Dior’s atelier?

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — It’s a much more intensive way of working. It’s pragmatic, and therefore limiting, to make a sketch and have the clothes manufactured. The work-in-progress method is more enriching. I necessarily learn more because I’m partaking in a whole process and can intervene at any of several points. The atelier is the brand’s DNA. For men’s collections, it changes absolutely everything.
Men’s is all a matter of codes, rules, and principles that you’re not supposed to change. Certain men at the atelier have been tailors for 40 years, and their methods are rather rigid. When you want to change everything, you have to negotiate. It’s interesting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — For men’s clothes, you need a rationale, methods, rules?

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Yes. It considerably enriches the development process, even if you end up getting into disputes now and then. I love that because, for me, man is in every way a combination of rules and codes. The tailors have their rules and know-how. But man bows to codes as an individual, too, because he likes to belong to a group — identify with a certain kind of music, work on Wall Street, or belong to a sports team. He finds it comforting. But every group has its dress code, its rules of conduct. It tells you what music to listen to, and what car to drive. If you belong to a certain sports group, there’s a whole panoply of consequences. Men like their codes. They’re reassuring because they relieve you of having to think too much. It’s a bit like being given an instruction manual. Me, I like codes because codes can be broken. I like having three manuals clash on a single figure. Skaters, for example, have a different manual than rockers, but they follow a similar logic, because within their group they listen to the same music, wear the same jeans, use the same skates or instruments. When you bring these different codes into confrontation, you get the effect of wheels within wheels, which then allows you to look at the codes from a new angle and switch off your automatic pilot. All this to say that man is a collection of very precise rules, methods, and logical systems that I like to contrast in my thinking. I take the same approach to the people at the atelier, who also work with well-established rules. I really enjoy that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you transgress or infringe the rules, but in a subtle way. Not brutally.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — I think that stems from my education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. I learned the difference between costumes, theater, and fashion. I can appreciate it when others go in for exaggeration, or for experimentation that leads to theatrical results on a podium, but it’s not my way. For me, the best ideas are the ones that, in the end, are wearable. There are, of course, differing ideas on what is wearable. I see young people who are much freer in this regard than I have ever been. It’s stimulating because I don’t design for myself. It’d be pretty boring if all I did was design for myself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve often been associated with Belgium, which is natural since you were born there and educated in Antwerp. Do you think Belgium is still a point of reference in terms of design and sensibility, or has everything become diluted into Europe?

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — I think there is still a Belgian reference point, just as there’s still an English, and Italian, and French reference point. But since I’ve been living in Paris for 20 years, my own reference points have necessarily gotten jumbled. And I love the French side of Dior.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you define the Belgian school?

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — When people ask me to define the Belgian school, I necessarily resort to clichés, while there are so many exceptions. At bottom, at the center, there’s Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, and Walter Van Beirendonck, who have little in common. We can nonetheless say that Belgian designers are more cerebral, less decadent, more introverted and poetic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s true. I think you’re absolutely right to say “poetic.” There’s a hidden poetry.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — We have to do some digging, which is not in line with the times we live in, when everything’s about speed. Fast fashion. You also have to do some digging to understand the story. It’s not necessarily etched on the surface.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s been the effect of phones and Instagram and all those digital images. They’ve led to a much faster and more superficial consumption of fashion.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — We’d be truly stupid to oppose it, like grandparents who say that things were better back in the day. It’d be reactionary. We have to accept the phenomenon and put the positive aspects to use. I find it fantastic that anybody anywhere can take a little phone and access all the information there is. When I was 15 or 16 years old, I had to take a train to buy an international fashion magazine. It wasn’t an everyday thing. Back then, we had to venture out to seek information. It was complicated. Today, everyone has access to everything, which is an advantage. The problem is that people consume without doing any digging, without thinking. Anyone can pose as a journalist, or a critic, or a specialist. It’s not all joy. I think we need to engage in more self-criticism, and criticism of that sort is getting rarer. That’s why we need more substantial magazines, for those who really take an interest. What is a shame, though, is that certain good magazines are disappearing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you stay inspired and so creative after all this time? A designer rarely lasts more than a decade!

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Right. No need to press the point.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There are great exceptions. Karl Lagerfeld for example! But you have to sustain the inspiration. Where do you go to seek it out? What’s your wellspring?

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — The real answer to that question is that I take more pleasure in working now than I did some time ago. I think pleasure is the fundamental engine. I like what I do, and I’ve never felt better than I do right now. I deeply love my work. And I’d better take pleasure in it, given fashion’s pace. It’s not as if I have a lot of free time for fun.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yet each of your collections sets forth a striking proposition. That’s what makes your fashion so powerful. There’s real curating behind each collection, real precision in your choices.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — I think the emphasis has to be on storytelling. This might be a somewhat romantic or even old-fashioned notion, but the fashion that speaks to me — the shows that have left their mark on me in the past — have always been the shows where I felt I was being immersed in a story. Many shows today exhibit pretty pieces and pretty figures, but then model three will have nothing to do with model seven. I can’t work that way. It’s impossible. In my view, every fashion show is a mini film, with a character that goes somewhere, dresses a certain way, has a teenager’s room, and maybe a date for the opera, and Depeche Mode posters. Maybe he listens to dark, poetic music, but he’s also kind of cool because he lives in the moment, not just in the past. In short, there’s a whole story behind this guy I’m imagining. And when I don’t have a story yet — because it doesn’t necessarily come early in the design process — I get frustrated. I might be looking at the most beautiful pieces in the world — if they have nothing to do with the story, I don’t follow. During the fittings this morning, I saw some pretty pieces, but I didn’t keep them because they didn’t match the character. They might be right two seasons from now, but not today. I spent untold hours building these fictional worlds because that’s what gives me the most pleasure. Maybe 80% of the people attending my show will be insensible to such details, but not me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s subconscious. You tell a story that’s in your head and can have a relatively abstract dimension to it. It doesn’t have to be demonstrative.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Not everybody has to understand it, but there’s a real arc from the first model down the catwalk to the 45th. For me, it’s the same character living an adventure. I might spend hours with my stylist messing with the order because if it doesn’t match, it doesn’t match. It’s like a film that skips in the projector.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like editing a film?

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Exactly. It’s out of the question to send out one model before another if, say, the hair isn’t ready. That will not happen. It’d be catastrophe for me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s why you go so far as to make your own campaign films.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Yes, because once I’ve told a story, I like to call in other people — most recently David Sims — to incorporate their vision as well. At that point, I let go of my invention a little because when you’re working with creative types, you have to allow them to make their contribution. Otherwise, what’s the point?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Otherwise, you might as well do it your­self.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Yes, and that’s not my ambition.  I actually find it interesting to watch a story change because it’s being filtered through someone else’s eyes. If I admire the person in question, it can only be interesting to watch.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Speaking of stories, if we might bring things back around to you, you’re fairly discreet about your personal life, your intimate world. You enjoy working up stories, but you don’t reveal much about your own.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — I’m rather active on Instagram. Amid the current overdose of information, Instagram is a tool that allows me to turn the focus onto what has touched me personally, what has seduced me recently. It’s pretty cool to be able to share what you love with people who are interested. It serves as a sort of filter. But when it comes to my personal life, I only show things that will shore up a fashion show’s story. What does it do for the characters in my shows if I show myself going out to dinner with friends? On the other hand, it’s totally apropos for me to show myself at the Opéra Garnier attending a Pina Bausch show because Pina Bausch, the roses on the floor — that provides some sort of explanation. Maybe 90% of people see no relation between the shows I do and Pina Bausch, but the 10% who understand why I’ve used roses in my show make it worthwhile for me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where do you think Paris fits into the fashion map these days? The city seems to be undergoing a renaissance right now. There seems to be an energy to it that’s maybe more intellectual or more palpable.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — I agree, but has Paris gotten stronger or have other cities gotten weaker? I don’t know. At any rate, for me Paris has always been the center. That has never come into doubt. There’s a lot of focus on Paris today. I don’t know what the formula  is. I don’t think about it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No, but you’re in the heart of Paris. You’ve become a Parisian.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Yes, but it’s not anything I wonder about. For me, Dior is the Parisian fashion house par excellence. If tomorrow everyone decided to go put on shows in New York, I’m not sure we’d follow suit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s another thing that intrigues me. You’ve agreed to give up your brand. Was that difficult?

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Yes, of course. It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make, professionally. Because it was a brand that carried my name. I was taking no pleasure in things anymore. It was terrible.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Too much going on?

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — No. If you’re taking pleasure in it, having too much work is no problem. But when you stop having fun, you lose sight of the big picture. I’d had my brand for 10 years, and in the end, after 10 years, it was still a start-up. A start-up has plenty of advantages. You have the energy of youth, and things are madcap, and there’s freedom to experiment. I long appreciated the contrast with Dior, where everything was much more serious and institutional, where you had to follow certain rules, and so forth. But those 10 years at a start-up tired me out.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You are a perfectionist!

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Since I was handling Dior at the same time, the problem arose when my professional development and my demands for quality created too great a gulf between me and my brand. Being unable to get exactly the quality I wanted, and unable to get the fashion shows and the presentation the way I’d imagined them, and having to hope and pray that the shoes would arrive on time — I just got tired of it all. If tomorrow someone helped me relaunch my brand, and if I could do it in a way that met my demands for quality, I’d start it back up again. The result of making this decision to halt my brand was that I got a sort of second wind at Dior. Since I was no longer split between two brands, I could devote all of my energy to one. It’s true that I’m having fun now. I’m not frustrated over leaving behind my brand. I think Dior’s been rejuvenated.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Everyone senses it. You’ve managed to produce real clothes, not just performances and spectacle. You’ve made us want to dress in a way that’s traditional and nontraditional at the same time. That’s a difficult feat. That’s your strength. You sustain tradition and modernity. You get them to coexist without clashing.

KRIS VAN ASSCHE — Yes, because at Dior you’re not obliged to choose. On the one hand, we’ve got a clientele looking for bespoke stuff, and I love that because that’s what keeps the atelier alive, for made-to-measure, half-made, tailoring, the sartorial with and without measurements taken. The sartorial is very important at Dior. On the other hand, we’ve got fashion kids looking for the latest collaboration with Dan Witz or, soon, François Bard. That duality exists at 200% at Dior. We’re lucky enough not to have to choose between being an institutional fashion house or a creative one. I find it marvelous not to have to choose. It’s natural for you to perceive that coexistence because those are the two realities at Dior. And I’m jaded with respect to neither because one feeds the other, and vice versa.


Tomohiro Ohashi, hair — Caroline Curdy, photographer’s assistant — Rene de Bathory, casting — Bakay Diaby and Ernest Klimko, models

[Table of contents]

Purple 76 Index issue #29 S/S 2018

Table of contents

Purple Index 76

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