What is Walter Van Beirendonck Trying to Say?

By Fashion Correspondent Joseph Lamour

In fashion, I tend to favor the strange. I think that spicing up your style in a unique way is a fun way to go about life. That’s not to say that I would wear an Easter colored outfit complete with half tribal, half fetish mask and go out on the town. But, I still can admire expressing yourself through the beauty of clothing.

I recently had a look at Walter Van Beirendonck’s Fall 2012 collection that included the above image, and I’m noticing a few things worth some thought.

Take a second to look at the above triptych of some other looks from the collection and see if you find the commonalities that stuck out to me. So, are you offended? I had my phasers set to “freak out” as well. But then, I decided, to take time to think out loud about the collection. What is Van Beirendonck trying to say?

For those who aren’t familiar with Van Beirendonck, he’s a designer of considerable prestige, having been prominent since the early 80’s, if not to the general public than to the fashion world. He’s what I’d like to think of as a “designer’s designer”. After graduating in 1980 from Royal Arts Academy in Belgium, he and five other Belgian designers (who included the more widely known Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester) were known as the “Antwerp Six”. It was those six designers who helped usher in the wild and unusual color, loud patterns and casual/dressy style mixing that eighties fashion is known for. Think, all those weird clothes you remember from watching Purple Rain and Pretty in Pink probably wouldn’t have existed without their help.

 

 

Anyhow, he still is showing collections, thirty years later. His most recent collection features a look undefinable in one phrase, as you can see, but I’m going to try: Tribal fetish dandy raceshifter. You can’t look at the whole collection (take a look here) or even the looks above and think it has nothing to do with race. The masks, with their cartoon-colored Caucasian skin, S&M references, and tribal nose piercing, could give enough discussion material for fashion major’s dissertation.

And further, with the Caucasian gloves and shoes, the tribal-influenced patterns in the suiting, and as Trendhunter points out “Many of the masked models are also strutting down the runway with black pimp canes…” complete with rubber chains and locks. Are they a symbol of restraint to how a well dressed man wants to be perceived? Of a person of color? Or did he think putting a slavery symbol and some other racially charged imagery in his collection would stir the pot?

But, I won’t jump to rage, like I so often do in the fashion world. Here’s what I’m thinking: Van Beirendonck often uses solely black models in his menswear shows. For a European designer- or frankly any successful designer- that’s just plain rare. Also, I don’t think someone who seems to have such a deep affinity for another continent’s culture would be callous toward his muse. The thread that weaves in most of WVB’s clothing is the patterns, hair, and frankly, skin of the African continent. I’m going to be honest and say that’s refreshing for someone to have a thirty year love affair with a place they aren’t originally from.

Illustration from London News and Sketch Ltd. 1892. All other images from Walter Van Beirendonck F2012 Men's

So if he isn’t being callous (like French fashion magazines as of late), is there a message? If there is one, what is it? I really do like the concepts this clothing conjures up, ones of the perception of race in a non-casual setting. Or, how sometimes, race comes up unfairly in what we conceive as a civilized society. And, oftentimes, when it does, the minority in the situation (whether if you’re of color, or GLBT, etc.) feels pressure to hide their true self to fit in. These ideas intrigue me. Does this mean that if as a non-black person, if has a thought on the subject, he should express it? This all sort of reminds me of the debate about The Help, to be completely honest.

Feminine Influence on the left; Submissive Influence on the right

Looking up his recent fashion archive, he’s explored concepts as varied as masculinity and femininity, color, and sexually suggestive shapes. He’s been heavy into the tribal influence recently, however. In looking at the current collection, I veer back and forth between this idea of Van Beirendonck’s exploration of black/white and racial-symbolism-on-acid-so-we-talk-about-it. About racism perhaps, or just about his collection. The collection, when you subtract the pomp and circumstance, is very well made, interesting menswear. The colors might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the reason I used the top image in the first place is because I really love that shirt. If I ignore the mask.

The way I’ve been thinking about this collection all week, in sort of a vicious cycle of positivity and negativity leads me to wonder if this is his statement to make. I think I’m leaning toward he can say whatever he want, but anyone can say something back. Van Beirendonck was unavailable for comment, so, we’ll have to figure out the message for ourselves. Truthfully, I think that may be what he wants.

 

  • Kat

    I just want to say that I really really enjoyed this article. More please, racialicious! Thank you for giving me a lot of food for thought, Joseph.

  • EinSC

    That pretty much sums up my initial reaction

  • http://loveisntenough.com/ Jstevens0124

    Maybe it’s just the size of these photos, but I’m not seeing how these masks are at all African-inspired? To me they look like, as Lila said, a serial killer’s favorite thing–echoes of Hannibal Lecter too, no? Then again, I could also imagine them, especially the purple one, as a part of some particularly off-the-wall Cirque du Soleil production…

  • http://loveisntenough.com/ Jstevens0124

    Maybe it’s just the size of these photos, but I’m not seeing how these masks are at all African-inspired? To me they look like, as Lila said, a serial killer’s favorite thing–echoes of Hannibal Lecter too, no? Then again, I could also imagine them, especially the purple one, as a part of some particularly off-the-wall Cirque du Soleil production…

    • JS

      Yeah, they do have that Jason-mask vibe, but the african thing comes from the nose piercing I think.

  • zsazsamcbee

    Also, I don’t think someone who seems to have such a deep affinity for another continent’s culture would be callous toward his muse. The thread that weaves in most of WVB’s clothing is the patterns, hair, and frankly, skin of the African continent.
          —-I also think the above is pretty interesting considering his native country’s history with the African continent and it’s peoples.  Belgium (or Leopold, or the oligarchy) was a pretty heinous example in a fucking depraved industry…