Belgian fashion designers use everyman muse

The man on the street became catwalk star Friday as a host of Belgian designers showed off an urban cool inspired by mundane reality in their spring-summer collections at Paris fashion week.

"I want to embellish everyday life, that's what I do best," Kris Van Assche said after an austere, strong, sombre show in a vast, disused warehouse on the borders of the Seine River.

Van Assche, a graduate from Antwerp who worked with Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint-Laurent and is artistic director for Dior Homme, represents the cutting edge of Belgium's new generation of couturiers.

He said he did not care for the "fantasy of the podium" because his man "is from the street, he gets his hands dirty, his clothes".

"I like to mix genres," Van Assche said, referring to his coats with one longer half turned into an apron.

"I like it when clothes become hybrid," the designer in his mid-thirties said, "that's reality."

He had an elegant but also practical urban everyman in mind for his show.

Belts were replaced by simple white stitching on black trousers while keys on jewelled chains hung on ankle length floaty trousers, hovering above black leather boots.

Van Assche's army of tall, slender, pale-faced, immaculately groomed men were uniformly dressed in a strict palette of whites, greys and black, the only variation coming with stonewashed jeans and straight mid-length canvas jackets.

It was a more mad-hat, fun-filled collection on offer from Walter Van Beirendonck, another Antwerp graduate from the generation before Van Assche.

The everyman was still present in Van Beirendonck's familiar chunky, hairy, fat models, though the clothes he displayed in a central Paris nightclub to modern disco music were more cartoon-like and playful.

He combined tailored tartan suits with imaginative bags including a near life-size crocodile ruck-sack, or patchwork t-shirts with ankle leather trainers that had been holed with the words "Hope" and "Unite".

Open shirts and vests revealed chests covered by pearl necklaces, while the models' eyes were shielded by thick spaceman sunglasses coloured in bright orange, blue or green.

Dries Van Noten, who had formed part of "The Antwerp Six" alongside Van Beirendonck for a London show in the eighties, presented his collection in Paris on Thursday evening, with a style closer to Van Assche's urban chic.

Cans of beer cooled in ice buckets in another Seine location, this time under a bridge surrounded by metal pillars and walls covered in graffiti.

The setting was "raw, rough but very beautiful," Van Noten said, explaining that the space captured the kind of metropolitan man he had in mind.

"I used a lot of street culture, of London in the seventies, and French elegance," Van Noten said, along with the "toughness" of the British "skinheads" and "a touch of New York coolness".

Sticking close to daily life even when working in high fashion was key for Van Noten and Van Assche, but both also played on the difference between appearance and reality.

"The coats look tweed but in fact they are linen and nylon," Van Noten said of his collection. The winter feel was just an impression, "the boots look like very heavy boots but are actually very light."

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