Designer Cédric Charlier sees Belgium as a fashion force
Cédric Charlier joins a long list of top designers from Belgium. He shares the joys of striking out on his own with Divia Harilela
While Paris is considered the epicentre of fashion, designer Cédric Charlier insists Belgium is also a force to be reckoned with. The country has given fashion some of its greatest talent in the past few decades, from Martin Margiela and Dries Van Noten to Haider Ackermann and Olivier Theyskens.
"Belgium is so small that when you have something creative inside you, you really create," says Charlier at his showroom in the heart of Paris' Le Marais district.
"Belgians have a different mentality - we have no past, unlike the French who have haute couture. We have nothing to follow, so anything can happen," says the 34-year-old. "But there are still challenges.
"I'm not 22, so I need to survive beyond one season. I want to take my time, build my label step by step. But fashion is all about time. There's this pressure to move quickly. My challenge is to stay true to who I am and be honest about what type of clothes I create."
Since Charlier launched his eponymous label three seasons ago, he has generated so much press and praise from editors that it's only a matter of time before he joins the esteemed ranks of his well-established compatriots.
Charlier says fashion is his destiny. As a child he learned embroidery from his grandmother (his great-grandmother also knew how to make clothes, sewing trousers for the army).
By the age of six, he was accompanying his mother on shopping trips and advising her on what clothes to buy. At the same time his artistic side flourished, as he developed a passion for painting. He still hand-paints many of the prints for his collections.
His formal fashion education began at the prestigious art and design school La Cambre in Brussels where he specialised in menswear.
In 1998, he won the Moët Hennessy Fashion Award, which caught the attention of LVMH executives. Rather than complete his education, he decided to move to Paris, where he became an accessories designer at Céline under the guidance of Michael Kors. After two years, Charlier moved to Lanvin.
"I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have my own label, but I was starting out when I was 20, so it was normal to work for someone else. All the brands I worked at were a continuation of my education," he says.
In 2009 - much to Charlier's surprise - he was headhunted for the role of creative director at French fashion house Cacharel. His aesthetic was the opposite of the label's sweet prints and girly dresses, but he took on the challenge. In just two years, Cacharel was back on the Paris Fashion Week schedule and everyone's radars thanks to his playful collections.
After four seasons, and with his contract coming to a close, Charlier had the opportunity to finally launch his own label. With the support of manufacturing giant Aeffe (run by Italian designer Alberta Ferretti's husband, Massimo), he debuted his line for autumn-winter 2012.
He relished his independence. Free from the constraints that come with an established fashion house, he was able to explore the craft while carving out a strong brand identity.
"I knew from the beginning that I wanted to come back to the body. I wanted sophistication and something chic but for today. Because of that, I wanted to create something that was affordable. I am obsessed with the cut - it's my signature. There is a subversive sophistication to my work but I still play with colours and contrast," he says.
Charlier's designs are polished and precise but not overly feminine. Each season he pushes the silhouette further, punctuating it with industrial hardware or unique prints that add colour and surprise.
For autumn-winter 2013, his angular silhouettes feature rounded shoulders and asymmetrical details such as draping. Separates have exposed seams and panelling, while dresses come with copper zips down the spine or colourful embroideries. Monastic blue, forest green and black contrast with day-glo colours such as yellow and fuschia. He also experiments with bonding and lamination in fabrics. The look is elegant and sophisticated with a subtle futuristic edge.
His inspirations are varied, from medieval manuscripts (for the current collection) to Flemish painters. "I have eclectic tastes and I'm attracted to a lot of things. I like to bring together opposites."
What brings the look together is his vision of the Cédric Charlier woman, who is "global".
"I don't work on one woman in my head. I work on a moment. In the past, fashion was dictatorial, like when Saint Laurent was alive. Women were less free and looking for power. Today, women are different - they can do what they want. Therefore, I cannot impose a total look on my customer. I like [my clothes] to be mixed with jeans or a T-shirt that costs five dollars. At the same time it's important to present a global silhouette."
He has four women on his team to ensure that his designs are grounded in reality.
Charlier currently presents four collections a year (ready-to-wear and pre-collections) and is stocked by boutiques including Barneys in New York and Maria Luisa in Hong Kong. He plans to develop more accessories (he has collaborated with Cutler and Gross eyewear and has a small handbag line), while possibly venturing back into menswear.
"The men's line will look very different. Often when you design both for women and men, the designs can look very similar. It's not something I want to do. I am sure my man will be very different," he says with a laugh.
One thing he won't be doing any time soon, however, is working for another brand.
"Designing is like cooking. You spend a lot of money, but at the same time you can create an incredible dinner with simple products. Being independent may mean that I can only have simple pasta but it makes me happy.
It's what I want," he says.