Last July, during the Paris menswear spring/summer '96 shows, the 38- year-old Belgian designer managed to do the impossible - shock a theatre full of jaded, seen-it-all, done-it-all fashion hacks.
At his W< (Wild & Lethal Trash) show, a black horse galloped on stage, threatening to leap into the audience; sinister models wearing bags printed with profanities over their heads walked off the stage and into the cameramen whose lenses were zooming here, there and everywhere, desperately trying to keep pace; feather-plumed go-go girls danced their way round a fountain that rose out of a false floor; a CD-rom came to life before our eyes as the W< interactive game show characters walked out of a huge screen and on to the stage. And to top it all, a mechanised, prehistoric, sci-fi creature cranked its wings and flew, seemingly unaided, from one side of the auditorium to the other.
But despite all the theatricals, the moving stage and the sculpted foam wigs in neon colours, the clothes - bright, fun, and functional - shone out like beacons.
For Walt, the use of an interactive CD-rom for a catwalk show was a logical step forward. "It's incredible what you can do - entertainment, games, information," he says. The W< CD-rom, Paradise Pleasure, opens a whole new dimension in fashion marketing and "infotainment". You can view the winter collection, as shown in Paris, but can also go behind the scenes and learn about the designer's philosophy: click on a topic and Walt will give you his thoughts. If you want something more light-hearted, the Puk-Puk game is worth a run through. Or if you are feeling truly mindless, click on any feature on Walt's face and alter his appearance. "Don't be scared," read the instructions. "He might look dangerous, but basically he's a really nice guy!"
There are also plans to allow Walt's fans to link up with him at his office via the Internet and, no doubt, the next move will be on-line shopping. The W< label and CD-rom project is financed by the wealthy German jeans company, Mustang. Other designers, including Paul Smith and Griffin, have set up home pages on the Internet, but van Beirendonck will go down in fashion history as the first designer to make a CD-rom come to life in a catwalk show. "CD-rom gives an extra dimension to the collection, but I still want to keep a human feel to what I do," he says.
Although people left the W< show in July (and the first Paris show in January) muttering about the "new Jean Paul Gaultier", van Beirendonck is not a new kid on the block. He has been in business for almost ten years and is a friend and contemporary of Dries van Noten, a fellow Belgian who not only shares the multisyllables of his name, but has emerged as one of the most influential menswear designers of this decade. When van Noten showed his collection two seasons ago in a sports arena, van Beirendonck modelled, barrel-shaped torso and all. To repay the favour, van Noten was the man pressing the buttons on the CD-rom at Walt's July extravaganza.
This autumn, the second season of W< clothing will appear in the shops. It is usual for menswear designers to use "real" men to model their clothes - men who are typically going on for six feet, slim and attractive. Walter's models, by contrast, ranged from muscular to big and flabby. Except that the flab was pulled together by brightly- coloured rubber bodystockings worn under the outfits, making the models look like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers with a taste for S&M, one minute hard and aggressive, the next cartoon-like and humorous.
It is the rubber bodystockings that may have scared off mainstream store buyers; the W< collection is being sold only by a handful of small independents in Britain - the Library, Burro and Sign of the Times in London, and Geese in Manchester. But take away the dangerous and outrageous styling and you are left with clothes that are refreshingly bright, (who says menswear can't be fun?) usually (but not always) functional, saleable and wearable.
Peter Siddell, owner of the Library, which sells the cream of labels, including Dirk Bikkembergs and So, has just sold out of his first delivery of W<. Siddell remembers buying van Beirendonck's first-ever collection in the Eighties when he was the menswear buyer for Jones. "His style hasn't changed much," he says. "He's one of the best." Once the show is over, Siddell sees the clothes on the rail and chooses pieces he knows his customer will want to wear. "W< is the only high fashion clubwear I stock, but it also works for the man who wants to liven up the most boring jacket. I even get Sloaney types buying it simply because it's quirky."
Olaf Parker of Burro agrees: "I think W< is going to be really big. It could be as ubiquitous as Junior Gaultier was about four years ago - except that the prices are better." A pair of orange cotton drill combat trousers retails at pounds 75. And if fluorescent orange is not your thing, there is municipal blue as well. Burro is also selling a range of graphic T-shirts, cycling tops with cartoon graphics (Walt designed the cycling shirts for the Tour of Belgium in 1989) and neoprene cropped biker jackets in day- glo colours.
Walter van Beirendonck is enjoying the growing success of the label. "It has taken a long time for people to appreciate what I am doing," he said. "The shows are wild, but in the end, it is all about affordable and wearable clothes, and not just clothes that appeal to fashion people."
W< is available from The Library, Brompton Road, SW3; Burro, Floral Street, WC2; Sign of the Times, Short's Gardens, WC2; Geese, Deansgate, ManchesterReuse content