Hong Kong show marks new direction for Dior Homme, creative director says
After nine years in the job, Kris van Assche feels reinvigorated by decision to put his own-name fashion line on hold and infuse more of himself into Dior’s menswear collections
Even casual observers of high fashion will have a sense of the chaos that is pervading the industry at the moment. Competition is stiff, sales are slowing, and big-league creative directors have departed some major fashion houses: Alber Elbaz left Lanvin, Alexander Wang left Balenciaga, Francisco Costa quit Calvin Klein, Hedi Slimane left Saint Laurent and Raf Simons quit Christian Dior.
Dior Homme creative director Kris van Assche is staying right where he is, though. Simons’ departure from the fashion house, after three-and-a-half years in which he helped restore order following John Galliano’s exit, left van Assche as the star name at Dior. Not that he is resting on his laurels. Five days into a recent trip to Hong Kong, the workaholic has barely seen anything of the city. Instead, he has shuttled between his hotel in Central and Shaw Studios in Tseung Kwan O, casting models and doing fittings for a catwalk show, one of Dior’s biggest events of 2016.
“The only time I saw the pool was while having lunch,” van Assche says as he sits down for an interview at his hotel on the morning of the show last month. “How could I be serene about tonight if I hadn’t been fully involved? I mean that’s not even imaginable.”
The Hong Kong show, called “The Art of Falling Apart”, was the fourth Dior Homme presentation in Asia; previous editions were held in China’s top cities. Why did it take this long to come to Hong Kong?
“The first [show] was Beijing, then Shanghai, Guangzhou [last year] and now Hong Kong, so it’s like we’re moving towards the south … it’s basically a little bit like a message to the rest of Asia saying, ‘Okay it’s no longer just about China but about the rest of Asia, too’.”
That evening, van Assche’s efforts prove a success. Shaw Studios has an industrial look, more Berlin than New Territories, as models parade down the catwalk to the thump of 1980s electronic dance band Nitzer Ebb. French electro band Club Cheval and DJs entertain at the afterparty until the early hours.
In his ninth year as creative director at Dior Homme since taking over from Slimane, van Assche is more than ever injecting his own aesthetic into the brand.
While he is acutely aware of the commercial reasons for showing in Asia, he says: “When I work, I don’t necessarily think so much about region.”
His autumn-winter 2016 collection is all about deconstruction, reinvention – and what he describes as a clash. “The collection is about contrast, which is actually the case with everything I do,” he says.
Dior Homme’s signature aesthetic is skinny tailoring, but the collection features retro skater motifs such as oversized trousers and baggy tops – evidence of van Assche’ s interest in cool streetwear, something he intends to feature more in future collections.
“There is the New Wave music influence, which is very much linked to the black skinny suit the house is famous for, but in a more romantic, dark way; so there’s the tight sleeves, tight trousers, which are opposed to the streetwear influence of the skater,” he says.
Was van Assche a skater himself? “No, but I mean that’s not the point,” he says. “The point is that all these are kind of fantasies or souvenirs of when I was young.”
Tall, pale and tattooed, van Assche, 39, was born in the Belgian town of Londerzeel and grew up in what he describes as a comfortable but conservative environment.
His interest in fashion began when he was 12 and he became intrigued by what people wore and why. After attending the prestigious Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, van Assche headed to Paris. His first internship, at Yves Saint Laurent menswear in the late 1990s, proved significant: he worked under Slimane, who took van Assche with him when he went to Dior Homme in 2001.
Van Assche is a member of a golden cohort of Belgian designers, among them Simons, Lanvin menswear designer Lucas Ossendrijver, Olivier Theyskens, Christian Wijnants and Anthony Vaccarello, the new creative director of Saint Laurent. They are following in the footsteps of an earlier generation of Belgian designers, the Antwerp Six – Walter van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee.
Asked why Belgium, with a population of 11.3 million, continues to produce so many influential fashion designers, van Assche points to two things: it has “very good fashion schools” and, coming from such a small country, “we had to try a little harder”.
“It’s not even about me or my generation. The generations before me did a great job putting Antwerp and Belgium on the fashion map,” says van Assche. “They really had to make a lot of noise to get noticed.”
Van Assche’s road to success has not always been smooth. The designer established his eponymous label in 2005 as an independent concern outside the corporate umbrella of Dior’s owner LVMH.That allowed him to explore more overtly his fondness for streetwear; but although it garnered critical acclaim, van Assche was forced to put the label on hold in 2015.
He saw this setback as an opportunity to inject more of himself into Dior Homme. “Sportswear is probably the most significant thing that I’ve put into recent collections; maybe because I’ve just put my own label on hold ... a lot more of me gets infused into the Dior Homme collection,” he says.
“Before I had to be almost schizophrenic about collections; so, since now everything goes into Dior Homme, it’s funny to see how much of myself is in [the latest] collection ... I feel like it’s like a new direction for the brand.”
Looking ahead to the presentation of the Dior Homme spring-summer 2017 collection in June, he says: “I feel like I turned a new page this January, June is just a second step ... so it’s like a whole new thing.”
Van Assche has also been freed to pursue more personal interests in art and furniture design,
areas he missed exploring when growing up. For the past five years his obsession has been 1950s French ceramics.
“I was not one of those lucky few that grew up in an arty environment. My parents were very traditional people so the learning process started at an older age ... I have the feeling I’m at 10 to 15 per cent of what I should know,” he says.
In contrast to the turbulence around him with Simons’ departure, and the changes at other fashion houses, van Assche seems a rock of stability. After nine years in one of the most demanding jobs in men’s fashion, he feels reinvigorated and excited about the future of the brand.
“I have many years ahead of me. No, I don’t really have this feeling of having reached a certain level of where I would be able to say, ‘Okay, now you can sit back and relax’,” he says.
“I guess the minute you do that in fashion you’re over anyway.”