Kris Van Assche is a man who lives for his work. He talks about fashion the way the most devoted convert might talk about religion. For example, the Belgian, 33, refers to his career decision to set up his own eponymous women’s wear line back in 2004 as a “philosophy of life” and a “haven of peace.” He compares the correlation between his men’s wear work for Dior Homme (Van Assche replaced Hedi Slimane as artistic director in 2007) and his women’s wear line to the union of a man and woman, another common analogy in religion. His holistic approach to design makes for two clothing collections that look like different sides of the same perfectly constructed coin. Even his popular sneakers have a certain intensity to them. His work is precisely tailored and, yet, relaxed. It’s intellectually heavy, but still light. His work has also been the subject of much scrutiny during the past two years since he’s replaced Slimane, the man who revolutionized men’s wear (Karl Lagerfeld lost more than 50 pounds just to fit into Slimane’s trademark slim-fitting suits), and took Dior in a completely different direction. It’s not an easy act to follow. But one gets the sense that Van Assche will be successful simply because he’s so dead-set on it. We caught up with him during the weeks following his spring 2010 men’s show for Dior, as he was preparing to create his next women’s collection, which will show in Paris this October.
What are your earliest memories of fashion?
Fighting with my mother over a yellow sweater I didn’t want to wear. I must have been around 4-years-old.
Who were some of your earliest fashion heroes?
I first learned about fashion through huge French fashion shows like the ones from [Thierry] Mugler and [Jean Paul] Gaultier. Though, I quickly discovered Belgian fashion with the likes of Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela and so on. I felt much closer to their world and their approach to fashion.
If you could pinpoint a pivotal point in your career, what would it be?
Setting up my own label, Kris Van Assche, remains the most decisive moment of my life. Although I was well prepared and organised, it felt like a huge leap into the unknown. This fashion house is incredibly important for me. It’s my laboratory and my haven of peace. Creating your own fashion house is much more than creating a boutique. It is in reality a life choice, a state of mind. A philosophy of life so to speak.
How would you describe the Kris van Assche woman?
She’s a conqueror and she’s sensual. She mixes clean cuts and softness, rigor and lightness. Her suits are inspired by the man’s wardrobe. She’s the strong woman standing behind my romantic man. She’s all the women who surround me who don’t let anyone tread on their feet, and manage to do it without turning into men.
Is it difficult switching gears between your work for Dior Homme and your own collection?
It’s not as tough as I thought it would be. There are certain themes that just don’t feel right for the one or the other, but most of the time the decisions feel natural. Of course, at Dior Homme, the atelier influences the direction of the clothes a lot. It’s a different kind of research there, so the result is different. For my own label, 80% of the work is done while sketching. At Dior Homme, the sketch is just a starting point.
Before you began working for Dior Homme, how did you perceive it?
As a line that initiated the revolution in men’s wear fashion during the last decade. Dior Homme represents luxury and modernity, creativity and quality.
Is it easier to create a collection for Dior now than it was when you first replaced Hedi Slimane there?
Nobody said it was going to be easy, and it wasn’t. It was clear to all that it was going to take some time. But I am getting there and I feel better after each show. Each house goes through changes of artistic directors. It should be a mundane occurrence. It’s not worth making a big deal out of it. For my first Dior Homme catwalk I felt like I was in the line of fire. It doesn’t help you make changes to the label. A label that does not evolve, doesn’t exist. What’s innovative at a specific moment does not remain so for long. My aim is therefore to make changes.
With each collection, do you ever feel a certain pressure to create “the new”?
Of course, [if I don’t create] desire and pleasure, the work is meaningless.
What is the experience like reading the reviews after a collection shows?
It would be hypocritical to say that it doesn’t touch me in the slightest. After a show you always read the critics feverishly. A bad critic has the same effect as a slap. You feel a sharp pain but it goes away fairly quickly.
What is usually your starting point for a collection?
I don’t have a ritual. It varies. It can be a piece of music, a photograph, a story. I have an open mind towards each and every culture, whether popular or underground. I get inspired by everything and I remain constantly porous.
Outside of the world of fashion, whose work do you find inspiring?
I’m close to certain up-and-coming contemporary artists. David Cassini and Andrea Mastrovito are people I admire and whom I know well. I sometimes create [visual art] installations for which the concepts, even if they seem remote from fashion, undoubtedly influence my collections.
Of your contemporaries, whose work do you find particularly good or inspiring?
Belgian artists like Ann Demeleumeester, Dries Van Noten and Haider Ackermann remain references for me as far as rigor, talent and independence are concerned.
In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception that other people have of you?
I am not distant, I am Flemish. There’s a slight difference.