meet your dressmaker

From the moment Ann Demeulemeester's first samples went on sale, back in 1982, Shadia Wazni has been her most faithful customer. But the two have never met - until Tamsin Blanchard introduced them. Photographs by Adrian Wilson
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Ann Demeulemeester lives on an island in the middle of Antwerp. Her "island" is a stark Le Corbusier cube, built in 1926, but still as avant-garde as ever. The house stands in stark isolation. surrounded by urban sprawl and busy roads. One sunny Sunday in June, Ann invited Shadia Wazni, a 33-year-old who works in the diamond district of the city, to her island. Ann and Shadia had never met. Despite the fact they live in the same city, they lead very different lives. But there is a connection between them; Shadia has been on intimate terms with Ann's collections since the designer's first samples went on sale in a boutique in Antwerp over 15 years ago.

After Ann graduated from the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts in 1981, she worked in the city as a designer on a mass-market collection, biding her time, earning money, and planning her own line. When the Belgian government launched the Golden Spindle Contest to promote local fashion designers and to bring creativity and industry together, Ann put together a small collection and entered. She won. To raise some extra money, she put the prototypes on sale in a local boutique. Shadia saw the clothes and fell in love with them. She bought two pieces. Since those first one-offs in 1982, she has been buying Ann Demeulemeester religiously. If a piece is rare, chances are Shadia will have it. If only two pieces were ever made, Ann will have one and Shadia the other.

"I fell in love with your clothes because I love the way they feel," says Shadia, after listing just a fraction of the pieces she has bought by the designer over the years. Standing side by side, the two women are the same height, and the same slight but muscular build. They even have the same size feet, as Ann discovers when she lends Shadia some of her shoes for the photo shoot. Shadia Wazni is Lebanese, her skin bronzed and her hair carelessly matted and highlighted blonde; Ann is pale, and has the strong features and sturdy body typical of the Flemish. But the two could be sisters.

They regard each other with some curiosity. For the summer 1998 collection, Ann developed a new fabric designed to take really strong colour. There was Yves Klein blue, red, yellow and pink - colours so intense they vibrate. Shadia bought one long skirt in every colour. "She has everything," laughs Ann. " I wear it pulled up as a dress," confesses Shadia. "It doesn't matter," shrugs the designer.

Shadia is far from the stereotype of a typical Ann Demeulemeester fan: someone dark, introverted and existential. Shadia is a free spirit, and she will not buy something if it doesn't suit her. The fact that she still wears many of the pieces from previous seasons is indicative of Ann's talent as a designer. But these are not clothes you can describe as classics. They have a unique spirit all their own. "I don't believe in classic," she says. "I believe in something new - in an emotion between you and your garment that stays. It's the same as when you buy a record you love when you are 18. If it's good, it can travel in time with you."

Ann's work is an evolutionary process. "Every collection is one piece in a big chain," she says. "Each could not exist if the one before it was not there." When show-time arrives twice a year, Ann merely downs tools and presents to the world what she has done so far. After each collection, she simply returns to her island and picks up where she left off. For Shadia, this has been perfect. There have been no stops and starts in Ann's work, just one long, smooth shopping trip, season after season.

As we look through the selection of clothes Shadia has bought to the studio, Ann pulls out reference books to confirm the seasons. But most of the pieces might have been designed yesterday. They are timeless, much as the designer's precious Le Corbusier home is timeless. "It's a great, great compliment for me as a designer if I can make something that stays in somebody's wardrobe," says Ann.

She has a very direct and open manner, at odds with the consumerism that rules the fashion industry. By its very nature, fashion is about making old things redundant to create the desire for new styles, new lengths, new colours. But not for Ann: "I cannot stand to make another thing for the sake of consumption." She is not interested in the idea of clothes as product. There has to be something more. Designing a new collection, she sets herself a problem to be solved. Each item has to have a reason to exist. When she designed a small collection of bathing suits, she did so because she needed one herself. Of course, Shadia bought one, too. All the money Shadia earns, she spends on clothes and Ann Demeulemeester clothes are the answer to her wardrobe needs.

Ann is fortunate. Unlike Shadia, she never has to shop for clothes, only ever wearing her own. "I have a great luxury: what I want, I make." If she needs something, be it a pair of gloves, an evening dress, or a pair of shoes, she makes it herself and it becomes part of her collection. Each piece is only worked on by Ann. She does not have a team like other designers. She even makes her own lasts for her shoes, sculpting until she arrives at the perfect shape.

At Louis, the Antwerp shop run by Gerrit Bruloot, the man who helped organise the Antwerp Six (Ann and five of her fellow design talents including Walter Van Beiroendonck and Dirk Bikkembergs) to show as part of London's designer collections in the mid-Eighties, Shadia is on first-name terms with the staff. Sometimes, she will customise Ann's clothes, adding a strap to a shoe or making a skirt into a dress. This doesn't seem to bother the designer, despite the fact that she is a perfectionist in her work. When her clothes leave her studio, they are made to be worn and to evolve with each individual's own style and personality.

Hanging on a rail on one side of Ann's white studio is a selection of clothes from the new collection. For the first time, Shadia is to get a sneak preview before the clothes hit Louis. Ann holds up a double-breasted leather jacket for her to try on. The designer is proud of this piece. It is deceptively simple, tailored close to the back and left roomy at the front with stretch panels stitched under the arms to allow the sleeves to be tight fitting and non-restrictive. The wrap (pictured above left) comes in different fabric weights, from fine silk jersey to heavy wool.

As the new collection goes into Louis, Shadia is preparing for a spend. "I want the grey knit dress and also the same style in the finer fabric, too," she says. "It always feels so great wearing her clothes"

Winter 1998

This garment forms the basis of the new collection: a grey, knitted length of fabric with arm holes, cut apparently at random. It is ingeniously simple and it works. In her years of collecting Ann's clothes, Shadia does not have anything like this. The boots are an example of Ann's collections being born "out of a personal need". She says: "I was tired of heels. I wanted the attitude of a flat shoe, but not completely flat because I'd feel too small."

Grey wrap dress, pounds 235, and boots, pounds 265, from a selection at Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1; Browns, 23- 27 South Molton Street, London W1; Liberty, Regent Street, London W1; Feathers, 40 Hans Crescent, Knightsbridge, London SW1; Changing Room, 8 High Street, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

Below white cotton elasticated smock, winter 1991."Ann did this again for summer `92," says Shadia. The designer rolls up the sleeves and pulls the smock off one shoulder. "It's a big shirt with elastic around the bottom. It's much longer than you can see. Shadia has a lot of pieces I also kept for myself." Ann likes to play with the way fabric moves. Her clothes look as though they are three sizes too big and are hanging off the wearer. It's all in the cut, giving the wearer an air of nonchalance.

Above black dress with silver feather chain, summer 1992; black trousers, pounds 200, and biker boots, as before, both winter 1998.

Summer 1992 was Ann's first catwalk show in Paris. "This dress has a special memory for me as a piece of my first fashion show. It is a mix of something fragile and tender and something strong." The feather is a recurring theme in Ann Demeulemeester's work.

Below long asymmetric buttoning dress, winter 1996, trousers and shoes, both winter 1998, as before.

Ann Demeulemeester likes to introduce an element of surprise with unexpected detail, often at the back. As Shadia tries on the selection of clothes she has bought with her to the studio, Ann talks through past collections: "I was the guilty one who started the asymmetric thing."

Above leather tie-top, winter 1995, and trousers, winter 1998, as before.

When Ann Demeulemeester showed leather for the first time it was an instant hit. The tie-neck halter top is typical of her work. She used the tie - the most masculine of accessories - and made it both hard-edged and feminine. "Every collection, I asked myself, how can I dress a woman with a tie?" The solution is one that Shadia loves. "I always get a lot of compliments when I wear this," she says.

Modelled by Shadia Wazni Styled by Sophia Neophitou

Make-up by Inge Grognard

Special thanks to Aida Wazni