This year, Belgium’s MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp will launch a retrospective exhibition spanning Walter Van Beirendonck’s spectacular, strange career. Van Beirendonck—who became notorious a few decades ago along with a weirdo group of influential fashion school peers known collectively as the Antwerp Six—plays both designer and storyteller, spinning tales of identity, folklore and aliens in polka dot knits and neon leather. His collections are filled with winking, witty fetish items like masks inspired by tribal talismans and shirts that glorify hairy bear beauty and safe sex. At 54, he still considers himself a fashion outsider, if a recognized one. He talked about how it feels to round up the circus, after all these years.
When I studied fashion, it was a totally different world. We were a group of enthusiastic people with a lot of ambition. When Dries [van Noten] wanted to do something, I wanted to do it better. That competition continued when we graduated. We felt Belgium was too small, that nothing was happening and we needed to get out. That’s why we went to London in the ’80s and showed clothes there. It all happened in a very spontaneous way. I returned to Antwerp, and I’ve always lived here. I don’t have the feeling that I’m at the end of my career. If you see what happens in fashion, it’s easy to lose your belief. I see how tough it is. But despite everything that’s going on, besides the tension and the pressure, the fashion world is an interesting world and it can be beautiful. Fashion is a strong communicator, and that’s why I still believe in it.
The curators and I decided we’d organize the overview of my career in six themes. One focus is body and body shapes. I’m not using this traditional fashion approach to the perfect beauty and perfect body, but searching for another type of beauty. It’s a story I’ve been telling from the beginning, from the collections I showed on mature men to another where I used only Asian models. It’s about the variety in the world.
I’m an outsider now in the fashion world. I created a little bit of my own island where I can do what I want, but it’s still, at times, a little isolated. I made certain decisions that I only wanted to do it that way and this way, and there are consequences. Sometimes, I still am the scary one or the strange one for commercial shops. On the other hand, even as an outsider, I can still affect the industry and show my things in the way I want.
You’re always waiting for [a retrospective], but still you’re happy when it happens. It has to do with respect, I think. I’ve kept all my clothes I’ve made since graduating, so I have a huge archive. Before, it was stored in different places, but we brought it together in a huge space where everything is open and visible. Seeing it gathered gave me a nice, strange feeling. It felt like one big collection. It’s nice to see there’s a strong signature.