The romantic fashion of Ann Demeulemeester, (also) featured at Pitti Uomo

The 102nd edition of Pitti Immagine Uomo is about to open its doors. This year features an exceptional special guest, who over the course of her career lasting more than 40 years has written indelible pages of the history of fashion with a capital F: in fact, the Ann Demeulemeester brand will be the guest of honour of the Florentine kermesse, as the protagonist of a special project curated by the same Flemish designer that will animate Leopolda Station during the four days of the event (14-17 June). It is a significant part of the brand’s relaunch strategy, which has been under Claudio Antonioli since 2020, added to the three collections designed so far by an internal creative team, as well as the reopening in September 2021 of the flagship boutique in Antwerp, a place intimately linked to the (glorious) past of the Belgian label.

The store was redesigned by Patrick Robyn, Ann’s husband and close collaborator, and is a showcase for the label’s new direction under the aegis of Antonioli. An entrepreneur, owner of the eponymous multibrand and already one of the co-founders of New Guards Group, he acquired the brand a year ago, determined to restore it to its rightful role. Indeed, it was the founder who brought it to the top of the fashion world as one of the Antwerp Six: the six designers (in addition to Ann, Dries Van Noten, Marina YeeDirk Van SaeneDirk BikkembergsWalter Van Beirendonck) who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in the early 1980s and would soon make an indelible mark on the fashion of the time, becoming a fundamental part of fashion history.

Ann Demeulemeester: the beginnings

Ann Demeulemeester portrait
Ann Demeulemeester in her studio, Antwerp, 1999 (ph. by Kevin Davies)
Antwerp Six
The Antwerp Six

Just think: born in 1959 in Waregem, West Flanders, Demeulemeester had considered dedicating her time to painting in the beginning, as attracted as she was by Flemish portraiture, but soon realised the expressive strength of clothing and enrolled in fashion design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She graduated in 1981, giving rise to the brand that bears her name four years later along with Robyn. In 1986 she joined forces with the above-mentioned university partners: they rented a van, filled it with their own creations and travelled to London to exhibit them at the British Designers Show, where they were a huge sensation. Their proposals, on the other hand, were astronomically far from the pomp prevailing in the eighties, a decade characterised, stylistically speaking, by shoulders, baroque, glitter and much more, their touchpoints were rather more in step with the conceptualism driven by the innovators who had arrived in Paris from the Far East a few years earlier, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo.

Ann Demeulemeester’s creative inspirations

Having gained notoriety, Demeulemeester began to detail her very particular vision of ready-to-wear: in her opinion, clothing is a means of communicating, an emanation of the creator’s personality, of her sensations, experiences and interests. The Belgian creative orients the latter towards the verses of poets like Rimbaud, Blake or Byron, on the music that expresses the anxieties of the youth of that time (Doors, Velvet Underground, Nick Cave…), on those paintings that, in youth, had pointed her towards the art school of Bruges. As a teenager, she then came across the cover of Patti Smith’s album Horses, with the cover featuring the artist in black and white wearing a superbly androgynous outfit (the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, cursed genius of American photography); she fell in love with the music and even more with her style: in her academy years she made three white shirts and managed to send them to the singer’s address in Detroit.

Patti Smith Ann Demeulemeester
Ann Demeulemeester with Patti Smith

The priestess of rock became her muse, and a friendship and mutual esteem soon arose between the two, with Smith even signing the introduction of the monograph published by Rizzoli USA in 2014, which retraces over 30 years of the label’s history with words and images, dwelling on the sentimental value that the garments signé Demeulemeester have for her (“I draw great power from wearing Ann’s clothes. They make me feel safe […] They are a talisman”, she wrote).

First collections

In the brand’s collections all this translates into a twilight romanticism veined with melancholy and bohemian spirit, in the chromatic absolutism of black and white (sometimes broken by flashes of bright colour), in the tension between opposing elements (rigour and delicacy, body and lightness, fluid shapes and others adhering to the body) that characterise every outfit, a real leitmotif of the designer’s work.
The first women’s fashion show in Paris was held in 1991, in a bare art gallery where severe, blatantly dark looks broke out, crushed by critics branding them “funeral directors”. She adjusted the bar, made her silhouettes drier and further refined her vision with almost scientific precision, while remaining elusive with unambiguous definitions and easy categorisations, which soon began to tickle the interest of the press, buyers and simple observers, struck by the designers cutting-edge, often deconstructive, approach.

Menswear did not take long to arrive, and in 1996 men’s outfits began to appear, seamlessly mixed with the women’s releases, a choice that was repeated in subsequent collections until the creation of a specific line in 2005. Besides, Demeulemeester never paid too much attention to gender distinctions, clearly ahead of today’s gender fluid. Men and women therefore shared many of the cornerstones that, season after season, forged the maison’s aesthetics: the insistence on fluid and elongated lines, bias cuts, preferably graceful, naturally soft fabrics (silk, rayon, jersey, linen), with textures reduced to a minimum even in the most dense materials such as leather or cloth, surfaces punctually rippled by layering or clever draping, the copious use of belts, ribbons and cords, as if to support garments from which a sense of precariousness emanates, of only apparent carelessness which is then the essence of Demeulemeester fashion.

Ann Demeulemeester collections
Ph. Erik Madigan Heck for Nomenus Quarterly
Ann Demeulemeester collections
Ph. Erik Madigan Heck for Nomenus Quarterly

The success of the label and her retiring from the stage

The brand’s man has a perennially dreamy look and a noble but tormented soul; a bit the maudit of today, a bit rebellious metropolitan style, with relaxed-fit trousers and crumpled blazers. A hint of vanity is granted with the use of feathers, a decoration that exemplifies the dialectic between natural sophistication and eccentricity that is so dear to the designer: thus feathers resting on wide-brimmed hats, attached to necklaces, bracelets and other jewellery or even covering the boas wrapping around the clothes of the Fall/Winter 2010 show.

Ann Demeulemeester runway
Ann Demeulemeester S/S 2007 (ph. by Giovanni Giannoni)

The brand’s consolidation process reached its peak with the S/S 1997 collection, a symphony in black & white punctuated, for the men’s part, by hints of layering, widely unbuttoned shirts and pants almost liquid in their looseness. This time the critics enthusiastically applauded the textbook performance, the New York Met Costume Institute purchased several key pieces, and the cult brand status became clear. Her withdrawal from the scene was a surprise in 2013, communicated with a handwritten letter. She was succeeded by Sébastien Meunier, who worked in the wake of his illustrious predecessor, introducing minimal variations from time to time, fluorescent touches here (S/S 2016), softness with decadent aesthetics of a closed bedroom there (S/S 2018).

Ann Demeulemeester black white
Ph. by Erik Madigan Heck

A new turning point: Antonioli

The new turning point came in the summer of 2020 when Meunier left the maison and after a few weeks Antonioli, one of the brand’s first historic retailers, took on the role for an undisclosed amount. The founder was (re)convened to play the role of creative consultant, some already hypothesise her greater involvement, her niche, while the new owner speaks to MF Fashion of a ‘new beginning’, yet to be written. Basically, it is a rethinking of the concept of masculinity, finally called upon to recognise all the fragilities, doubts and fears inherent in the human soul: the masculine ideal of Demeulemeester is present more than ever.

Ann Demeulemeester b&w
F/W 2021 collection

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