rediscover the sex and humour in walter van beirendonck’s provocative archive

The radical Antwerp-based designer is selling a curated collection of pieces direct from his studio via Farfetch and House of Liza.

by Steve Salter
04 July 2019, 9:30am

From the moment Walter Van Beirendonk graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp back in 1980, the larger-than-life character and original Antwerp Six-er’s strong graphics, innovative cuts and irreverent approach to fashion has continually shocked, surprised, seduced and left us questioning the world around us. But for those of you who grew up online, how much of this bearded maverick’s pre-internet provocative power are you aware of? Have you seen the long latex jackets, tube skirts and muzzle headpieces from his controversial 1982 debut, Sado? How about the muscle tight latex suits from his fetish-inspired autumn/winter 98 collection, Paradise Pleasure Productions? Or the penis-shaped papier-mâché hats from his phallocentric spring/summer 08 collection, Sexclown? Or the life-size dolls wearing masks emblazoned with slogans that included ‘Get Off My Dick’ and ‘Terror Time’ from his spring/summer 96 collection, Killer/Astral Travel/4D-Hi-D? Well, as Farfetch join forces with vintage specialist House of Liza to launch a collection of Walter Van Beirendonck archive pieces, a generation that missed out originally are able rediscover some of his most iconic work.

Walter Van Beirendonck archive modelled by students from  the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp

From the moment House of Liza curator Gonçalo Velosa opened the doors to his east London-based treasure trove of fashion in 2010, the longtime Walter Van Beirendonk collector has been pushing the visionary Antwerp-based designer to work on a special project selling direct from Walter’s own personal archive. Now, thanks to the persuasive power of Farfetch, Gonçalo has been invited into Walter’s studio for the first time and they’re finally ready to present a carefully curated edit of signatures styles and one-of-a-kind designs from 1990 to 2018.

With picks that include the deconstructed bomber from The Big Bang autumn/winter 91 collection and the bespoke trousers crafted from interlined ‘Walter’ toys from the 2003/04 Pixidust collection and a tailored jacket with three-dimensional applique effects from the Sexclown collection, the 122-strong piece edit is a back to the future capsule offering some of his most iconic pieces once more. As the collection is photographed on some of Walter's current Royal Academy of Fine Arts students, Walter takes us on a history lesson.

Walter Van Beirendonck archive modelled by students from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp

Now, of course i-D knows and loves you but for the benefit of anyone reading this who doesn’t know who Walter Van Beirendonck is, can you introduce yourself, both as a bearded man and as a designer?
I’m a very dedicated fashion designer and it’s still my passion. For me, it’s important that I am a human designer; approachable and very much related to our contemporary world. I graduated in 1983 and made my first collection in 1985 and I’ve made a new collection each and every season since. I believe you can communicate a lot through fashion and that’s what I really like about it. All the shows I have ever done are a communication tool.

What's your secret? How do you keep going, how do you keep your creative fire burning?
Because I still enjoy it and I’m totally independent. In the 90s, I worked very closely with a backer but then in the 00s I took the decision to do it alone and this actually freed me to carry on doing my thing. I actually feel more like an outsider now. I’m accepted in the fashion world, I’m there, but I’m also not there, I’m completely free and gives me the possibility to keep on going.

Walter Van Beirendonck archive modelled by students from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp

How have you navigated the seismic shifts that have changed the fashion landscape while remaining true to yourself?
I’ve not changed. The fashion world has changed, the world has changed, the way of communicating has changed but I’ve stayed true to myself and my way of working. On top of that I always try to be inventive and be open minded about everything: gender, sexuality the possibility to wear whatever you want. All of this made me keep going, when it was either up and down, I kept believing in what I was going and pushed me forward.

Beautiful. And now FarFetch, House of Liza and a new generation all believe in you too. How did this collaboration come about?
It was rather spontaneous. I’ve known Gonçcalo for a long, long time and have always liked what he’s doing, how deals with clothes and his archives. It’s a great feeling to be in his shop and I really admire the designers he’s collecting. He kept on asking if one day it would be possible to come to my archive but I always pushed this away as it felt rather strange to sell from the archive. Then, in the last few seasons, I started to reorganise it and realised that there were some very important pieces, from shows but also some very good pieces that hadn’t been on the catwalk, so I started to think this could be great.

Walter Van Beirendonck archive modelled by students from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp

Did you begin with a clear idea of which pieces you wanted to sell or was it a case of rediscovering them in the archive?
A few months ago we spent the day together in the Antwerp archive. I proposed some pieces but we looked through everything together.

Has this process inspired you?
What I liked about the shoot Farfetch did in Antwerp is that you can see it all come together, and it all fits together, it’s my signature and you see the synergy of my work over the years. You can take something from the 90s and combine it with something from the 00s and it all feels cohesive. I’m really proud of that.

Walter Van Beirendonck archive modelled by students from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp

Can you tell us the story behind your favourite piece?
The blow-up jacket. I remember when I first did the drawing because it was a very difficult piece, first to imagine and then to make. It took several seasons to find the right maker to help realise it. At that time I had a very strong technical assistant and we worked very intensively together to find a specialist who could create it. This became a very iconic piece and it ended up in the Camp exhibition at The Met. At that time, everything was very physically oriented so, for me it was like “just blow up your muscles and you’ve got them!”

As signature pieces like this one and silhouettes are shared once more, what do you hope people take away from the project?
I’m very happy that today a new generation who did not follow me though my career are interested in the archive. I see this across Instagram and Facebook. It’s great awareness for these people to know that something happened in the 90s and now they can buy these vintage pieces.

Walter Van Beirendonck archive modelled by students from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp

Now, as head of fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, this question must be one you continuously think about, but what advice would you give the next generation of fashion students?
To keep on believing. The youth can be impatient and in fashion they want to make it immediately. They want to be stars, secure good jobs but sometimes it’s really not like that. Some of them have great luck but then I see very talented people who don’t get the right positions or jobs and that’s when they really need to give it time. Just look at the Antwerp Six, it took almost 10 years from graduating before people started to pay attention to us.

Finally, what's next? What excites you most about the future?
I’m excited that I can still do what I do. New projects and new adventures are always coming up. I’m still teaching, still doing collections and I keep on going and that feels good.

Walter Van Beirendonck archive modelled by students from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp
Antwerp Six
Walter Van Beirendonck
Royal Academy of Fine Arts