Homme is where the heart is: Kris Van Assche's tailoring has transformed Dior's menswear - Features - Fashion - The Independent

Homme is where the heart is: Kris Van Assche's tailoring has transformed Dior's menswear

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Van Assche has designed the label since 2007 and has softened its razor-sharp tailoring

'The atelier was pure white, unornamented and intensely silent. People whispered and walked on tiptoe, and even the clients talked in hushed voices." So said André Courrèges of the atelier of Cristóbal Balenciaga in the 1950s.

Today, there's something of a similar feeling at the house of Dior. Not the Dior womenswear salons at 30 Avenue Montaigne. Those are in the Louis Seize revival style of Monsieur Dior's beloved Belle Époque, coloured in that dusty Dior grey and peppered with spindly, oval-backed grisaille chairs.

The Dior Homme salons at rue François Premier, however, are ascetic, to say the least. Floors are bare boards. Chairs are metal, cold and hard. Everything is a right-angle. The clothes are prominently black and white, similarly hard-edged. Even the air conditioning units are streamlined into seamless white towers, like distended iPods cross-bred with totem poles. Or maybe altars.

Dior Homme's autumn/winter 2013 show, by Kris Van Assche (Carlotta Manaigo) Dior Homme's autumn/winter 2013 show, by Kris Van Assche (Carlotta Manaigo)
The ecclesiastical undertones are more about perception than reality, though. Since its inception in 2000, Dior Homme has inspired near-religious devotion among many of its followers. Kris Van Assche has designed the label since 2007, but it was Hedi Slimane who established Dior Homme, his first autumn/winter collection in 2001, creating a template for men at a hitherto intrinsically feminine house. He also revolutionised men's silhouettes, popularising a reed-thin, relentlessly youthful masculine ideal, the first real change to the ideal male body since the advent of the pumped-up Bruce Weber 'himbos' of the late Eighties and early Nineties.

It won plaudits, and fans. Slimane designed the suit Brad Pitt wore to marry Jennifer Aniston in July 2000. He dressed fellow designer Karl Lagerfeld – but only after Lagerfeld worked on achieving that skinny silhouette. "I suddenly wanted to wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane," said Lagerfeld, in the diet book he published following his extreme weight loss. "But these fashions, modelled by very, very slim boys (and not men of my age) required me to lose at least 40 kilos (almost six stone)."

So, Slimane made men slim. He not only designed clothes, he changed the pure idea of 21st-century masculine beauty. He was, it's fair to say, a tough act to follow. Kris Van Assche was originally Slimane's assistant. He left Dior Homme to establish his own house in 2004, returning in 2007 to head up the men's maison after Slimane departed. Some say Slimane asked for too much money. Others, that Dior top brass were irritated with his autocratic manner and worried by collections that began to be increasingly criticised for an aggressively youthful standpoint.

Van Assche's first collection, for spring 2008, approached Dior in a subtly different manner. Rather than a radical rehaul, or continuing along the path Slimane blazed, Van Assche chose his own middle ground. He softened the razor-sharp Dior tailoring, loosened the pin-thin silhouette. He let us breathe a bit. "There's something very, very restraining about the suit," Van Assche still says today. "Which is so not how we actually live. As I am, in a way, my first client – I am, in a way, the first one suffering from my designs! – I am aware of that comfort, the lack of comfort, the need for comfort." He continues. "One of my big projects since I got here is loosening up the rigid frame of the suit. It's about gaining in movement without losing in elegance."

Van Assche's autumn/winter 2013 collection for Dior Homme (Carlotta Manaigo) Van Assche's autumn/winter 2013 collection for Dior Homme (Carlotta Manaigo)
Above all, he did it quietly. Van Assche has been at Dior as long as Hedi Slimane. Come January 2014, his tenure will be the longest. We met on 1 July, the same day as Raf Simons' latest haute couture presentation and two days after Van Assche's spring/summer 2014 Dior Homme ready-to-wear show. Those ascetic air-conditioning units were humming quietly, like a far-away choir. Van Assche himself, the pontiff of Dior Homme, was dressed with monastic simplicity. His brow was furrowed, his mouth pursed. He looked serious, puritan even. Severe. I later discover that I was just one of a number of interviewers visiting him that day, which perhaps explains the slightly pained expression.

Before we met, I was briefed. Van Assche didn't want to speak about Slimane. Which is understandable. The former Dior creative director is once again very evident, given his new role at Saint Laurent. Which was his old role: Hedi Slimane was hand-picked by the late, great Yves Saint Laurent to head his menswear line in 1997. Saint Laurent himself was Christian Dior's choice to succeed at his eponymous house upon his death 40 years earlier. French couture is even more incestuous than the royal courts of Europe.

In another odd twist, Van Assche himself started his career at Saint Laurent, alongside Slimane, in 1998. "It was almost by accident – by opportunity I should say – that I ended up doing menswear," Van Assche says. "My first internship was at Yves Saint Laurent for menswear… that's what made me move to Paris, initially for four months and then I ended up staying. All that is history now." He dismisses, then comments, "I kind of got stuck."

Kris Van Assche was born in a small town, Londerzeel, in northern Belgium in 1976. He is 37 years old. He started to work in Paris following studies at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, a school renowned for its fashion alumni. They include Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela, cutting a swathe through contemporary fashion. How was that experience? "I don't know, it was 15 years ago," begins Van Assche, a hint of irritation in his voice. "It's a very demanding school. In that way, it's close to reality. They don't make things easy for you." He pauses. "It's really about defending your spot, which is kind of what real life is about. It's a tough school."

Van Assche's autumn/winter 2013 collection featured fastidiously clean, souped-up minimalism (Carlotta Manaigo) Van Assche's autumn/winter 2013 collection featured fastidiously clean, souped-up minimalism (Carlotta Manaigo)
Hesitant to look backwards, and demanding. That's shorthand for Van Assche's Dior Homme. His autumn/winter 2013 collection was about "rigour, calm and control", which translated to a fastidiously clean, souped-up minimalism, all scuba-zipped suits and clunk-click aeroplane belts clasped around tight, tautly-tailored overcoats. The La Garde Républicaine venue was transformed into a flush white box; come April, the collection was shown in similar disco-futuristic white enclaves, albeit across the world in Beijing, China.

The film Gattaca was one inspiration – Van Assche himself refers to it as "the Gattaca collection" – and the clothes seemed like evolved tailoring, 22nd-century suits. Darwinian Dior. "It wasn't so much about making a futuristic collection as a state of mind," says Van Assche. "I felt everyone was so pessimistic about the future, I wanted to express that message about being confident in the future. Which is the role that fashion should play. To make people dream." As with Gattaca, there was no room for error. It's an interesting expansion on that trite press release cliche of 'Designer DNA'.

If we're talking DNA, Van Assche's isn't just from Antwerp. "It shaped me," he says. "But spending six years being an assistant at YSL and Dior Homme really shaped me. That's the mix I have in my head: being an Antwerp designer, working in Paris." He's also an Antwerp designer working in a Parisian house with an atelier which, Dior proudly boasts, is a first in menswear. The atelier, focused on construction and pattern-cutting, is based in-house at Rue François Premier.

"That's where a lot of ideas come from, you see things that are in the process, so you can stop them, change it, turn it inside out," says Van Assche. "It's what I call technical beauty, which is the technical aspect of things – whether it's watches or cars or the construction of a jacket – [it] tends to appeal to men. It does to me. I'm not so much into ornamentation. I quite like things to be technically explainable." Geek chic? Sort of.

The autumn/winter 2013 featured scuba-zipped suits and clunk-click aeroplane belts clasped around tight, tautly-tailored overcoats (Carlotta Manaigo) The autumn/winter 2013 featured scuba-zipped suits and clunk-click aeroplane belts clasped around tight, tautly-tailored overcoats (Carlotta Manaigo)
Construction is, of course, an enormous part of the Dior heritage. Not Dior Homme, but Dior full stop. Monsieur Dior brought structure back to womenswear. Read his autobiography, Christian Dior and I, and he literally unpicks the structure of the dresses in his first collection, built like houses around his women using Victorian dressmaking techniques that had to be re-learnt by his seamstresses. Some were so stiff and heavy they could stand up alone.

Thankfully, that's not where Dior is today. Despite doing a roaring trade in suits, Van Assche is aware of the restraints. "Nine years ago, my very first silhouette was a three-piece suit with sneakers. That's kind of where I come from," recalls Van Assche of his first own-label collection. In turn, that's what he's brought to Dior Homme – a relaxing, a loosening of the previously tourniquet-tight Dior silhouette.

Unlike Slimane before him, Van Assche has an eponymous label. He continues to design it. Although it contains suits, it's more firmly focused on sportswear. While Dior Homme's winter collection featured tailored suits of almost biological perfection, the Kris Van Assche collection fused sweatshirts with shirts, literally: slicing them apart at the chest with the tails of a shirt attached to a sweatshirt chest, say – Frankenstein fashion.

Van Assche's urge towards sportswear has only been amplified by his Dior work, and its focus on perfection – sometimes relentlessly so. There's also the very valid point that Dior Homme isn't Kris Van Assche. It's part of him, but not the sole expression of his fashion ideals. "For me, it was a very personal reflection of me being in a couture house for the men's division," recalls Van Assche. "What should a men's division in a couture house be like? There are two ways to go about luxury. You can either add, or you can reduce and concentrate on what is essential. I chose to do that."

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Energy Markets Analyst

    £400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

    Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

    Nursery Manager

    £22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

    Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week