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Ann Demeulemeester – Fashion Designer of androgynous beauty

August 1, 2015

‘Freedom exists in the soul of one’s work’ – Patti Smith. Some friendships are inevitable. Some, such as that of Verlaine and Rimbaud, freely mock the inanities of romantic commonplaces and good taste. Some, such as that of pagan rock princess Patti Smith and Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester, seem born to conjure up the language and visions drawn from their mutual love of poetry, alchemy and minimalism.

Ann Demeulemeester

Ann Demeulemeester and Patti Smith

In the now iconic introduction to Demeulemeester’s 2014 monograph that signalled her retreat from fashion, Smith describes how the pair met.


When sixteen-year-old Demeulemeester first saw Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ in a record shop window, her gaze fixed on her perfect white shirt, cuffs cut off, decorated with a single loose black ribbon. Years later, the designer sent three perfect white shirts to the musician, tied with a black ribbon, which evoked thoughts of Mapplethorpe and of Rimbaud. Style spoke across continents.


The slim androgynous beauty they were both drawn to took shape in Demeulemeester’s clothes: layers of consciously tormented, audacious garments for a dandy of any gender, as long as it’s black. The two are tied with the same dream: which is what prompted Patti Smith to say about Ann Demeulemeester’s work as if it was her own: Freedom exists in the soul of one’s work’.

A landscape of storm ripped sleeves

And just like Rimbaud’s rejection of rhyme evolved towards the less constricted form, so has Demeulemeester’s clothing veered from classic tailoring into the fantastic landscape of storm-ripped sleeves, maudlin collars, alchemical boots: a silhouette that speaks of hope and torture, battling against the bourgeois totem of cleanliness.


Only of course, her clothes are always clean and immaculately cut. Deriding bourgeoisie may be its lingo, but her patrons remain the haute bourgeoisie that like to see themselves as filthy ragamuffins.


There’s so much going on in this intense and intimate atmosphere of monochromes. The verticals are almost architectural, from the armature of solid black boots, leather trousers and coat tails, to the haphazardly cinched waists, dripping sleeves, leather gauntlets and waistcoats.


Occasional writing on the garments – like in the loose printed sleeves from the Spring-Summer 1998 collection, or the embroidery from the Spring-Summer 2000 – is inevitably poetic and metaphysical. It reminds me of Lesley Dill’s Dada Wedding Dress with its stamped words of Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘The Soul Has Bandaged Moments’. The soul of Ann Demeulemeester’s fashion has lived, longed and bled into its soft elegant folds.

A member of the Antwerp Six

Demeulemeester started as a part of the Antwerp Six, a group of young clear-eyed designers that sprang on the fashion scene of Antwerp in the 1980s, bringing minimalism matched only by that of Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons, but with additional flair of Le Courbusier and the Constructivists.


Demeulemeester set herself apart with her dark, elegant vision, which she maintained for the next thirty years. Her own label, which she founded in 1985, focused on evolving a streamlined, purist bohemian look, never following the fashion trends and nearly never veering away from the monochrome.


Although many see her designs as romantic-gothic, there’s a genuine root of her countrymen’s protestant love of cold minimalism. There’s many ways to bring up the Old Master chic, and many have playfully explored the look that resembles the Dutch portraiture, from Hendrik Kerstens and Suzanne Jongmans to Anton Corbijn.


But whereas Alexander McQueen’s Givenchy haute couture for AW’99 references Dutch masters in their immaculate lace-collared glory, Demeulemeester reflects on stark, almost priestly silhouettes of pale-faced poets.

Ann Demeulemeester – often copied, never bettered

Ann Demeulemeester’s fashion is surprisingly hard to imitate on the high street, although labels such as COS or All Saints attempt to mimic the block/black and asymmetric, geometric cuts. All Saints came up with several similar cuts for draped knitted tops, jeans and hooded leather jackets, but never quite up to the innovativeness and quality of Demeulemeester.


For anyone wishing to recreate her silhouette, aim for the masculine wardrobe of slim jeans, tailored shirts, narrow jackets and calf-hugging boots – then put it all together with a nod to the young Frank Sinatra (as Patti refers to her ‘Horses’ pose), and go and have fun. Because fun is, after all, what style is all about.