NEW YORK, United States — This morning I received a scanned, hand-written letter from the Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester, announcing her decision to part ways with her brand. First, it was heartwarming to see her familiar, beautiful script, and then came the shock of the content. “I feel it’s time to separate our paths,” she wrote.
After a few minutes my shock subsided. It is always terribly hard to see a designer exit the brand he or she has built from the ground up. But, the tone of the letter seemed peaceful, another chapter of Demeulemeester’s life closing and a new one beginning.
Demeulemeester has always been my favourite designer. She is the reason I got into fashion. The first time I saw her clothes at Barneys in 1999 was a revelation and a revolution in my personal style. It was the moment I realised that fashion can have meaning and that clothes can be an outside reflection of one’s inner state. I did not know who this person was that made these dark, romantic clothes that were impossibly elegant and without the slightest hint of the pomp and circumstance of bourgeois taste. Without having read a single word about Demeulemeester, I felt immediate kinship. I knew she had to have listened to certain kinds of music, had to have read certain kinds of books, had to have experienced certain kinds of art in order to create those black and white, purposefully imperfect garments that empathically reflected the imperfections of the mankind, its simultaneous strength and fragility.
When years later I read the first interview with her, it held no surprises. And years after that when I sat down to interview Ann at her Antwerp boutique, the second writing assignment of my journalistic career, there were no surprises either. Of course she had a picture of Leonard Cohen in the store. Of course she was friends with Patti Smith. Of course she has read Rimbaud and Blake.
Demeulemeester was one of the Antwerp Six, the wave of Belgian designers that revolutionised fashion in 1986 and have thrown open the floodgates of creativity since then. Her voice was always strong and unique and has influenced many designers that came after her. She has been a fixture of the Paris fashion weeks since her first women’s show in 1992 (she began showing menswear alongside her womenswear in 1996 and began showing the men’s separately in 2006). Demeulemeester was one of the first designers who has made cultural influences such as punk and rock music, and gothic and romantic poetry the centrepiece of her oeuvre, paving the way for designers like Raf Simons and Rick Owens. She has always preferred quiet evolution of her signature style to jumping from theme to theme. Though this insistence on authenticity sometimes spawned accusations of stagnation, it has also gained Demeulemeester a hardcore following. As Nicole Phelps of Style.com rightly noted in one of her reviews, those who accused Demeulemeester of not changing weren’t looking closely enough.
Indeed, Demeulemeester’s body of work is proof that if you stick to your guns, even the fickle fashion world will listen. Like any true creator, Demeulemeester wanted to say something with her work and she has said it. One can hardly ask for more from life. Thank you, Ann Demeulemeester for the beauty you have brought into this world.
Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine and the founder of stylezeitgeist.com. His first interview with Ann Demeulemeester appeared in Another Magazine.