after ten years at dior homme, kris van assche still leaves us dreaming of tomorrow
“I am conscious of time passing and the necessity to enjoy life. I’m much more comfortable at 39 than I was at 16, believe me. People say, ‘I wanna be a teenager again.’ That’s really not my ideal at all.”
This year, Kris Van Assche turned 39. Over green tea at the Marignan in Paris, days after his spring/summer 16 show for Dior Homme, he mentions his age several times. He was just thirty when he stepped up to the job of Artistic Director in Hedi Slimane's place, faced with the unforgiving challenge of taking over from the poster boy of millennial menswear, as if he'd committed treason or joined One Direction in Zayn's absence. His age, it seems, reminds him of the authority and calm gained from his endurance. Once scrutinised for his polite Belgian ways, he now deals it out as he's taken it. "I just posted a selfie with A$AP Rocky so you're gonna be so disappointed," he smilingly retorts, for instance, when asked about his "formal" social media manners.
Only months ago, he announced the hiatus of his own label, KRISVANASSCHE, something he doesn't want to "get into" but which he puts down to timing. Is he happier in fashion nine years on? "Oh yes, very much. I feel like Dior Homme has a totally new vocabulary now that nobody ever questions anymore," he says. "Of course it was not easy, but if it's easy it means I'm not trying hard enough. If you like to play tennis, play tennis, but if you want to be number one at Wimbledon it's gonna be a tough job." His Dior boy was perhaps a late bloomer, trapped in the shadow of his predecessor for seasons until he finally came of age: this soft, cultured, romantic young gentleman in an uptown vs. downtown aesthetic, as dreamed up by Van Assche.
"I feel he changed hugely," he says of that boy. "With Hedi now having his own show at Saint Laurent, put those two shows next to each other and that's how much it has changed. It's become more what I consider to be the right answer to what the men's division in a French couture house is supposed to look like. Because that's really the question I asked myself almost nine years ago. For me it was not supposed to stay so niche. It had to grow and evolve towards something else, and it sure as hell grew." If you want proof of Van Assche's knack for merchandising, all you need to see is the smile on Dior CEO Sidney Toledano's face every season when he goes backstage to greet his golden jean machine.
But Van Assche hasn't rested on his laurels, least of all when it comes to showmanship. For autumn/winter 15 he presented a study in formalwear with tailcoats parading around a symphony orchestra performing Koudlam's The Landsc Apes. The show added new personality to Dior Homme's always highly choreographed orchestrations, and a deeper glimpse into the mind of its designer. "I've always been one for tradition," he says on the subject of formal dress codes. "I try to concentrate on what I feel Dior Homme should represent in what's happening in the world. Dior, being a couture house, should be grand. I was like, wow, people actually buy tailcoats. I thought they just got them to please me, but no, they sold them! They just put in a new order."
The sentiment of grandeur is symptomatic of an unapologetic bourgeois dream. He was close to his grandmother, a lady of the Belgian upper class whose family lost their wealth when she was young. "She had a lot of those rules, like how to sit at a table and set it and put flowers on it," Van Assche recalls. "And she tried to stick with those rules even though she didn't have the fortune anymore that was supposed to go with that. She had my father, and he really rebelled against that, because he didn't understand why they had all those rules and not the status to go with it. My father is very down to earth, and I don't think he's worn a tuxedo in his life. When I came along, I got her eye for detail and longing for a certain heritage and love of beautiful details that make all the difference in life."
Van Assche doesn't lavish these glimpses into his personal life on you. He's been relentlessly reserved during his tenure at Dior Homme, and hasn't always been a fan of the media. "It's kind of annoying when, for ten years, you get exactly the same question. You're constantly repeating your own CV. 'What was it like growing up? What was it like going to the Academy? What was it like coming to Paris?' It's twenty years ago— please give me a break! So we always start off on the wrong foot. But when it allows for a better comprehension of the work then it is actually interesting."
The discretion now associated with Van Assche, he says, was hardly written in the stars when he was a teenager in early-90s rural Flanders. "It's funny—and now I'm gonna lie down on the bench," he surrenders, "because when I was a young boy, my big examples were Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, these big extravagant characters in fashion. In the end, I turned out to be much closer to a certain Belgian attitude of more discreet designers. That's exactly why I admire them. I spent my teenage years being a Madonna fan, for God's sake, and I think I'm as far as you could possibly get from that type of character, so I admire that. I don't question it anymore, but I accept the fact that I will never be Madonna."
After Raf Simons took over from John Galliano on the women's side of Dior, Van Assche now works side by side with one of those fellow discreet Belgians - at least on paper. "The men's division has always been so separate from women's anyway that there was always a big gap, and yeah, maybe aesthetically the gap is less big now. I don't really think about it. We're in separate buildings; we have separate teams. I very much admire Raf, and I really, really respect what he does." Does he wear Simons' menswear? "No, but I've had my own label so God knows I have a lot of clothes! My boyfriend wears Raf."
This is Kris Van Assche 2.0: polite as ever, but with newfound feistiness and ease that perhaps wasn't there nine years ago, or even five. Put it down to the relief that must have come with jamming the breaks on his eponymous label, which he ran independently, or perhaps to the inescapable reality of age and the wisdom it brings. "I am conscious of time passing and the necessity to enjoy life," he admits. "I'm much more comfortable at 39 than I was when I was 16, believe me. People say, 'I wanna be a teenager again.' That's really not my ideal at all. I feel much more in balance and am much happier than I used to be."
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Willy Vanderperre
Fashion Director Alastair McKimm
Grooming Sofie Van Bouwel at Touch by Dominique Models Agency using Chanel
Nail technician Eva de Keersmaker
Lighting technician Romain Dubus
Digital operator Henri Coutant at Dtouch
Photography assistance Jorre Janssens, Sander Muylaert
Styling assistance Lauren Davis, Katelyn Gray, Sydney Rose Thomas, Inge Theylaert
Production Isabelle Verreyke, Willy Cuylits, Dieter Blonde, Mira Schouten at Mindbox
Producer Floriane Desperier at 4oktober
Models Benno at Tomorrow is Another Day, Jolan de Bouw at Hakim Model Management, Ruben Pol at 16Men, Tim Schumacher at Premium Models, Yasko
All clothing Dior Homme spring/summer 16