'Black is perfect, you can fill it with any emotion'
Ann Demeulemeester's designs are modern, minimal and monochrome. Harriet Walker talks to the queen of darkness
Ann Demeulemeester's influence is evident in every pair of wide-leg, drop-from-the-hip trousers on the high street, every starched and mannish white shirt, every boxy blazer and androgynous model.
With a return to Nineties grunge tailoring on the cards, her signature ascetism is more relevant than ever.
But her eponymous label isn't enjoying a revival so much as celebrating its endurance; Demeulemeester's clothes have a cult following of devoted fans, built up over the 23 years since she first showed at London Fashion Week, one of the so-called Antwerp Six, alongside Dries van Noten and Walter van Beirendonck.
Demeulemeester, 51, offers a practical code for modern dressing, a range of high-end staples and classics rendered in her own idiosyncratic and luxurious tastes – and available now as a more accessible capsule collection for online emporium thecorner.com.
"The purpose of it is to offer some pieces that are typical and minimalist," she explains. "Just to have some good pieces in your wardrobe that hopefully you would wear for a long time."
The collection contains some of Demeulemeester's "hall of fame" items: a precisely cut, long-line leather waistcoat; tapering black trousers in her preferred peg cut; a cashmere black tank spattered with white flecks; and capacious and stylishly saggy black leather shoulder bag. All pieces are what Demeulemeester has become known for, along with her crisply tailored shirts, flowing long skirts and stompy leather boots, and which are now being emulated by newcomers such as Alexander Wang and Simone Rocha. "They're classic minimal pieces," she says of the purist look that she has made her own. "I've made this stuff for 20 years every day – it's my universe."
It's a universe that is regularly slapped with the "Gothic" sticker, thanks to the designer's preoccupation with a monochrome palette. "For me, Gothic is something from my youth, when I had a heavy metal phase," she laughs. "It's too easy to say that orange is happy and black is sad. To me, black is perfect. You can fill it with the emotion you want to express. My work has always been about authentic feeling, and I think we live in a time where we need that."
Demeulemeester built the foundation for her brand during times almost as straitened as these. She turned to fashion only after an interest in portraiture led her to concentrate on the personality as expressed through clothing, and to study at Antwerp's Royal Academy. After she brought her first collection to London, it was bought in its entirety by Barneys and Demeulemeester's fusion of minimalism, menswear and modernised Victoriana entered the mainstream.
"I think it was an advantage that people discovered at the same time six new designers from a country nobody had heard of," she shrugs. "I tried to believe that if I was doing something that was not there, then I had a chance. I made things that I would love to wear – it was the only way I could do it, otherwise I was not interested."
Demeulemeester's single-mindedness borders on intransigence, but it is born of a passion for her aesthetic. For many years, she was her own fit model, and works with her husband, photographer Patrick Robyn, to create the menswear range that she launched in 1996. The couple have been together since their late teens.
"I can make 10 jackets of the same colour, same two pockets and same length, that will look like 10 completely different jackets when you put them on," she says. "It's about the way they are cut – it makes them look and feel completely different, and move differently, and that's a never-ending study. People who wear my clothes will know exactly what I mean."
Ann Demeulemeester for The Corner is available now. thecorner.com
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