Heart on her sleeve

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 May, 2010, 12:00am

It's a sunny day in Paris and a woman dressed head to toe in black sits alone at a table in the middle of a small courtyard. A few yards away inside a showroom, buyers and editors are scrambling over her latest collection, but she doesn't seem to notice as she puffs on her cigarette.

'I am so not into fashion. Even at school, I was a complete outsider. All the other students would look at me and wonder what I was doing there,' she says staring at me with her piercing blue eyes.

'I was always the strange one, but that's me,' she says with a shrug.

Although Ann Demeulemeester is one of the industry's most avant-garde and well-known designers, she likes to keep a distance from it all. Aside from frequent trips to Paris to show her bi-yearly men's and women's collections, she spends most of her time locked away in a Le Corbusier-designed home on a deserted island outside of Antwerp. There, she spends her days with her husband and partner of 35 years, Patryck Robyn, designing, cooking, gardening or painting. Guests aren't common, unless you count the occasional visit from the couple's son, Victor, who is an art student.

'The more alone I am, the better. I am an individualist and I like to work alone, or with my husband and people around me who I trust. I never travel. Once they put me on a plane to Hong Kong, it was horrifying. I hate flying,' she says.

That trip to Hong Kong was in 2007, when she opened her first store in the city on On Lan Street. She hasn't been back since, although she has strong following here: her designs are also available at multi-brand boutiques including I.T and Joyce. This month, her store will move to newer and bigger premises on Ice House Street but Demeulemeester says this is not enough to get her back on a plane.

'I feel upset and displaced when I am made to travel. I travel in my head and it works well for me.'

Demeulemeester may sound more like a tortured artist than a fashion designer, but these raw emotions have characterised her work from the beginning of her career.

Born in Belgium in the 1950s, Demeulemeester was interested in the creative arts as a young girl. During her time at the famed Royal Academy of Fine Arts, she started drawing portraits, which started an interest in the human body.

'I was intrigued by who is wearing what and why. When you draw you get involved in the details and colour, no one is naked in front of you. I became intrigued by the relationship between human beings and garments. I thought maybe it would be a modern profession - to study the relation between men and their clothing. So I went on to study clothing in order to understand individuality. Clothing for me is just a covering,' she says.

Unfortunately, her tenure at the academy wasn't the experimental experience she had hoped for due to the rather rigid curriculum. But it encouraged her to think outside the box and develop a silhouette and colour palette that would eventually set her apart from other designers.

'I was studying and creating silhouettes that are almost exactly the same as they are now - the black suits and white shirts. [Teachers] would complain that I did so much black but they didn't realise that I focused on a monochromatic palette because I wanted to go to the essence of clothing.

'I am constantly studying shapes. When you make a new shape and cut, you want to see it in pure lines to control your silhouette. Sometimes it's so beautiful that I don't want to be distracted by colour and decoration because it's about architecture and silhouette. I still work this way,' she says.

Demeulemeester officially launched her line in London in 1986, along with other members of the influential Antwerp Six such as Dries Van Noten. Together they revolutionised the fashion scene with their fresh new look and experimental style - something Demeulemeester is still very much known for.

'I think people weren't expecting something to come out of Belgium. I was just aware of the fact that there was so much clothing in the world, therefore I had to be sure that I added something that wasn't there already - something that was of use. That's why I thought the only way to do it was in a personal way'

It is this biographical element that continues to dominate her work and attract a cult following even after 20 years. Rather than follow trends, Demeulemeester has remained faithful to her style season after season, from the tightly cut Edwardian jackets and slim black trousers to the billowing romantic blouses and chunky biker boots, each one given a new look through subtle changes.

'Its very simple - my style is one soul that is growing. It's to my own soul and my own taste, yes, but the garments have evolved a lot. The craftsmanship has become much better; it has been defined and perfected and even then I still find faults and things I can do better and change. As long as you can feel you can do better you can continue working. Each collection is a step and evolution, and each one has an emotion that is important to me at that moment.'

Naturally, part of this evolution has included experimenting with other elements that were absent from her earlier collections such as embellishments and prints. This spring she has included jackets with lapels made from zippers and a black and white print of bird wings on maxi skirts and draped vests. These are juxtaposed with black leather to create an intriguing yet beautiful combination.

'If there is colour, there is a real reason why it's there; it's not just decoration. It's not about taking the same garment and doing another print or another dress in another colour - it's not the way I work,' she says.

'It's about finding the right accessory to make the emotion clear, finding the right balance. It's how you do embellishments - if it's done in a cheap way it doesn't work but sometimes you need it to find the right balance. You can easily take those pieces and wear them wrongly. Spring was about birds and finding the right balance between violence and fragility because that's what these creatures are about.'

So after more than 20 years in the industry does Demeulemeester see herself continuing designing forever?

'I hate it when people ask me about the future and what new projects I am working on. We work like crazy making four collections a year and everyone comes and asks what new things we are doing. Give me a break, I am working like crazy. That should be enough for now.'