The History of Ann Demeulemeester: In Freedom and In Truth
Nothing captures the essence of a designer quite like their take on a classic. However, transfusing a specific aesthetic onto the familiar is no easy feat. An essential item is at its best when it maintains a level of truth—its foundation still recognizable to an audience in the midst of nuance. This speaks to the way in which clothing acts as language, where wearers connect with designers based on the fluency of what is “spoken” or created. A mutual relationship is developed from this poetic exchange and a bond is formed. The story of one designer in particular is rooted in this idea; for her, a simple white shirt says it all.
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In 1975, a young Flemish designer discovered the debut album Horses while passing her local record shop, being drawn in by the cover image. Having no prior knowledge of the album, she was transfixed both by what she saw and what heard—she felt an instant connection to the woman who made such an emotionally charged piece of work. Inspired by that distinct portrait, in which the singer-songwriter gazed directly at the camera in a white button-up shirt with a black ribbon around her neck and a black blazer held casually over her shoulder, the teenage girl made a loose vow that she would someday meet the maker of the album. She later initiated that vow by tracking down the famed artist in Detroit and sending her a wrapped gift of three impeccably made white shirts. It was a gesture of gratitude for the way in which one artist’s work inspired another—a mutual symbol of being seen, of being understood. And thus, the story outlines the birth of a longstanding friendship between designer Ann Demeulemeester and the seminal artist Patti Smith. It also highlights the founding principles of Demeulemeester’s eponymous brand.
The story of Ann Demeulemeester’s label is one marked by reverence. Her work is distinguished by a juxtaposition of hard and soft, of romance and edge, of tradition and deconstruction. The heartbeat of it all, though, is an outpouring of herself. She started the label in Antwerp in 1985 with her husband, photographer Patrick Robyn, and built it up to a point where she felt it was able to stand on its own by 2013 without her at the helm. She parted ways in a manner that is emblematic of her style: a handwritten letter sent to the press via a PDF file. The news was a shock to be sure but has created a second wave of the brand under the direction of designer Sebastian Meunier. He was hand selected by Demeulemeester in 2010 to lead the brand’s menswear offerings and was her choice to take the reins upon her stepping down. The shift denoted a clear distinction between the woman and the brand she built.
Demeulemeester’s personal story begins in the countryside of Flanders, the northern region of Belgium that encompasses historic cities like Brussels and Antwerp. The area is known to produce talented artists: between the 15th and 17th centuries, pieces by the likes of Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder were prized for their vibrant use of color, distinct, realistic details, and lustrous textured surfaces that characterized it from the work being produced throughout the rest of Europe. Demeulemeester’s pieces have a similar allure—her style is purposeful and notedly eschews being on trend in favor of defining them. Her affinity for fashion was never sparked by knowledge of the industry but instead inspired by portraiture. An appreciation for clothing began while deciding what to put onto the bodies of the subjects she drew. Her work is based on the “why” of what we wear and sits at the intersection of “personality and clothing.” Under Ann’s direction, new ideas for the label often developed as solutions to her own wardrobe challenges, and they tended to become best sellers. Take for example the brand’s celebrated chunky heels. They were birthed in the late 90s when shoe options seemed to swing between two extremes: the flat menswear-inspired shoes made popular by Comme des Garcons and the slim high heel. Demeulemeester wanted something that would give her a bit of height without having to teeter carefully through the streets. It took 30 tries to perfect the desired silhouette, but the intense attention to detail paid off in a classic style that inspired a growing trend and allowed the label to add footwear to its offerings.
Demeulemeester’s personal convictions and talent were bolstered by formal instruction. In an interview with writer Katherine Betts, she recognized her early “Flemish Christian education” for nurturing her to be “honest, hardworking, quiet, intimate, and discreet.” This was later followed by enrollment in the famed Royal Academy of Art in Antwerp in 1978. The school is known for its rigorous programs that have produced several notable alumni, including the aforementioned Rubins. The school’s coursework instills a precise approach to craft—requiring designers to back up their grand ideas with technical abilities. That was the common thread for Demeulemeester and her group of classmates that would collectively become known as the Antwerp Six following their acclaimed runway presentations in London in 1986. While their styles were drastically different, their combined work garnered attention to emerging fashion talent in Belgium that endures today.
Demeulemeester’s work received significant praise following her graduation from the Academy, culminating in awards that highlighted her as one to watch. She served as a freelance designer for two years before starting 32 BVBA with her husband in 1985—it remains the parent company of Ann Demeulemeester and includes designer Haider Ackermann’s label. Her first official runway show was in a nondescript art gallery in Paris in 1993; the clothes were likened to a funeral procession. Though it was not well received, the collection spoke to Ann’s defiant spirit—she would always do things her way, even if she wasn’t immediately understood. It also underscored her design philosophy, as she was not afraid to admit when a collection did not work. In a 1997 interview with Vogue, she commented, “Designing is like experimenting in public. I’m not afraid to make mistakes.” Ann saw that owning one’s style is the trade-off for having such a defined vision and that, as creative as fashion allows one to be, the apparel industry is still a business.
To help manage the house and its affairs, Demeulemeester hired Anne Chapelle in 1993. The label was on the verge of bankruptcy and Chapelle’s business and leadership experience helped to navigate a necessary restructuring as Demeulemeester sought to keep the brand independent. While Chapelle had never worked in fashion prior to this new role (having held a background in research and pharmaceuticals), her hiring was typical of Demeulemeester’s nature. The women were friends first and that bond, along with Chapelle’s wisdom, prompted Demeulemeester to reach out. The move would prove fruitful for Chapelle as her ability to offer support to new designers without changing their unique language has also helped to develop Haider Ackermann’s label and more recently, the relaunch of storied Parisian atelier Poiret.
With Chapelle’s assistance, the next few years of Ann Demeulemeester would see the brand become a go-to thanks to its changing silhouette. Slim, expertly cut trousers became the label’s calling card. In a similar vein to Miuccia Prada and Jil Sander, Demeulemeester’s work was adored by sleek, urban women who wanted clothing that could move with them through their busy day. These were pieces that stood well on their own, regardless of whether someone knew the designer’s name or not. In fact, when Chapelle joined the company, one of her first tasks was a trip to observe the sales team at Barneys New York. As one of the brand’s largest accounts, Chapelle was curious as to how they interacted with and understood the label; she was surprised to find out that most people still could not pronounce the name. That would all change with Demeulemeester’s hallmark collection for Spring 1997.
Given her attention to the body and the way clothing contorts it, Demeulemeester has been compared to the likes of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. She blends clean lines with a willingness to play with proportion and it is often to great effect. Her spring 1997 collection was praised for the way the pieces draped away from the body with aplomb, creating easy to wear styles that many were ready to buy right off the runway. The collection was the opposite of the body-conscious view that had become popular in the late 90s. She told CNN Style that she was tired of seeing women in pieces that were fitted to the body and wanted to create a new silhouette. It was also a departure from Demeulemeester’s previous collection, where critics felt that her efforts were forced. She agreed and decided to go in a new direction, by creating a body of work that looked, and felt, freeing. Patti Smith performed at the show and her lyrics were described by Demeulemeester as being both “tough and tender.” The clothes mimicked that sentiment, with the fluid, asymmetric cuts later becoming a signature detail for the brand.
The cultural impact of the show was underscored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s acquisition of certain pieces into their permanent costume collection. They solidified Demeulemeester’s voice within fashion—striking a balance between poetic and pragmatic. This was enhanced through a strict color palette of black and white, which eventually expanded to include neutrals and warm tones like tangerine around the early 2000s. She told Dazed magazine in 2002 that “Things aren’t interesting if you level them. It’s the voice that’s interesting.” Hers was a voice that remained strong, even in the midst of fashion’s changing landscape. The late 90s saw globalization enter into the industry, with many storied design houses seeking expansion and courting promising names to head the creative vision of their womenswear and menswear offerings. Stylist and editor Edward Enninful, whose personal uniform during his time at i-D magazine included white Ann Demeulemeester pants, noted that the appointment of Tom Ford at Gucci brought about a new wave of glamour to the late 90s; instead of grungy looks that revealed the reality of many youths of the era, Ford’s vision for the future summoned the decadence of Studio 54. Demeulemeester herself had been approached by a few of these labels, including Givenchy, but did not entertain the idea. This may be because of her fierce desire to remain independent of the fashion world both financially and in terms of proximity; the label’s headquarters remain in Antwerp, Belgium.
Sebastian Meunier’s interpretation of Ann Demeulemeester is a bit less strict than her own vision. Where Demeulemeester’s influences remain a constant, Meunier’s inspiration is varied and focused on the abstract. He has mentioned that he does not hold firm to what inspires him. He designs from his gut first and tries to honor the legacy of the house without simply regurgitating Ann’s ideas. His previous positions designing for the MM6 and menswear lines of Maison Margiela provided a strong foundation for Meunier to build upon at Ann Demeulemeester. Of his time there, he said, “Classic garments were the basis of everything…our job was to transform them in an unexpected way and change radically the perception of them.” This vision is seen clearly in his work for Ann Demeulemeester’s autumn 2018 show, where details like a cut-out corset and gloves, a throwback to both the Victorian era and the late 30s, were modernized with raw hems and leather fabric. He continues to show exaggerated proportions and androgynous designs that recall Ann’s handiwork, though his departure from her ethos is seen in stylized runway looks that are often punctuated by pops of bold color. His overall take on Ann Demeulemeester is more sultry than his predecessor’s yet remains steeped in a similar duality.
In all, duality is an accurate summation of the Ann Demeulemeester brand. It remains relevant because it is a brand that champions freedom. Demeulemeester herself propelled that narrative by understanding that freedom is not without restraint. Doing it one’s own way requires a desire to do the work and to do it well. For her, beauty was never put before function because they are one in the same- she actually saw it as the top priority of a designer, going so far as to fit pieces on herself and friends to make sure they work well on multiple body types. She was also one of the first designers to show both menswear and womenswear in the same collection, which became a precursor to the gender inclusive looks seen now. The honesty of her work continues to resonate with loyal fans today- a point that is surely not lost on her.
It also aids in her appreciation for the artistry of others; along with Patti Smith, she has collaborated with and/or featured the work of artist friends including Jim Dine, Nick Cave, and PJ Harvey. Her interaction with Dine is yet another example of her personal approach to design: upon discovering his pieces in an art gallery, she immediately went home and wrote him a letter that inspired him to fly to Antwerp five days later to collaborate on her spring 2000 collection. Featuring blown up images of Dine’s signature bird motif rendered on sheer fabric and layered atop tees and wide-legged pants, the show was a beautiful portrayal of the shared language that is spoken between souls. It went much deeper than fashion alone; which is exactly the point. In her words, “I don’t design for the woman because the woman doesn’t exist…those who feel like I do, who feel close to me find my product and find my soul.”