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Designer Dirk Van Saene goes from fashion to ceramics

“Stories of hope and despair”, Dirk Van Saene’s first solo exhibition, opened at Galerie Sofie Van de Velde in Antwerp. The designer combines his three passions: ceramics, clothing and furniture.

Un perfect timing, this confinement! In early March 2020, fashion designer Dirk Van Saene presented his winter 2020-2021 collection in Paris. Two weeks later, the country was confined. “I had already designed a new collection and I was about to have it produced. We had bought the fabrics, but I stopped everything. I did not want to follow this production or the sale digitally”, says Dirk Van Saene.

Not that he suddenly fell into a black hole in mid-March, because the designer still teaches Masters students at the Fashion Academy in Antwerp. However, a lot of time was freed to complete his secret project: “Stories of hope and despair”, his first solo exhibition, which opened last weekend at the Galerie Sofie Van de Velde in Antwerp.

“For the first time, I am combining my three passions: ceramics, clothing and furniture”, he explains in his workshop in Zandhoven. “Since classic plinths are commonplace, I used vintage furniture to display my ceramic sculptures.”

“A sculpture of Anna Wintour that I worked on for days exploded in the oven.”

For some, Van Saene also designed outfits. “No, these are not fashion silhouettes from the collection I canceled, but rather classic pieces, like a suit or a white shirt. A sculpture wears a suit, it has table legs for legs. and wears ceramic shoes. The furniture and clothing reinforce the character of the sculpture. The result is sometimes surreal, sometimes frightening: each sculpture evokes a specific emotion. “

The solo exhibition “Stories of hope and despair” allows Dirk Van Saene to present his ceramic sculptures for the first time.
© Charlie De Keersmaecker

What emotions dominated your year 2020?

Dirk Van Saene: “At the beginning, I found this isolation rather pleasant. This deserted world seemed very refreshing. A few years ago, Walter (Van Beirendonck, the companion of Van Saene, also fashion designer, Editor’s note) and I moved in in a 19th century notarial residence in Zandhoven. In spring and summer the large garden was like a decadent luxury. “

“But, since the dark winter days, we have struggled. Not only do we miss those around us, but also the physical contact with art. In 2020, I went through an emotional roller coaster, which we Also notice in my sculptures. Even though this white clay looks very serene, I lack a touch of drama and tragedy. You can see it in my characters, who are sometimes historical or mythological characters, like Cupid, and sometimes real people . “

So there is a chance that someone will recognize themselves in one of your sculptures?

“I made a sculpture of Raf Simons. And of Walter, of course. Lump, Picasso’s dog, and Jacqueline Roque, his last muse, also appear in the exhibition. I leave the rest to the imagination.”

Raf Simons seen through the eyes of Dirk Van Saene.
© Charlie De Keersmaecker

And Virgil Abloh? In September, Walter Van Beirendonck accused the creative director of the Louis Vuitton men’s collection of plagiarism?

“No, he’s not one of them: I only represent people I respect.”

In 1881, the French painter Edgar Degas caused a sensation with the sculpture of Marie van Goethem, a 14-year-old French dancer of Belgian origin. Degas had dressed the sculpture in clothes: a tutu, ballet shoes and a wig. Did she inspire this exhibition?

“Yes, of course, but there are also many examples in African art of masks or sculptures dressed in fabric. Walter and I have a collection of Bozo masks from Mali. At the time, they were dressed for the show. . I find that very inspiring. Even if, nowadays, we are quickly accused of cultural appropriation. What absurdity! As Belgian artists, we could only be inspired by the Carnival of Binche? “

“It wasn’t until late in the day that I realized I didn’t have a team spirit.”

Why did you get into ceramics ten years ago?

“During a trip to Budapest, Walter and I discovered 19th century ceramics. We then started collecting figurative and folkloric pieces, notably from the Hungarian ceramicist Livia Gorka.”

Dirk Van Saene also devotes himself to painting as an autodidact.
© Charlie De Keersmaecker

“Since I wanted to practice this craft, I took classes at the academy. Now it’s trendy, but, at the time, I was almost the only one. I mastered the technique quite quickly, even if ceramics remain an exercise in patience. A sculpture by Anna Wintour that I worked on for days exploded in the kiln. “

Do you see your exhibition as a parade of sculptures? Or does it not have much to do with fashion?

“At the parade, I’m already tired of my silhouettes, because, in my head, I have already started on the next collection. Here, it’s different: I continue to look at my sculptures with pleasure, which is not the case. case with a garment. The creation process is also completely different: it takes many to make a fashion collection, whereas a ceramist does not need anyone to create a sculpture from a block of clay. 10 euros. Creating something from start to finish is fine for me. “

As he found the classic plinths too ordinary, Van Saene replaced them with vintage furniture.
© Charlie De Keersmaecker

So are you not more of an artist than a fashion designer? Isn’t fashion above all a team sport?

“I hesitated for a long time between art and fashion. I do not regret my choice, because fashion allowed me to flourish. And Walter and I lived together fantastic moments. When I was a student, I dreamed of working in a big house like Prada. But leading a creative team of 250 people would make me very miserable. “

“It was only late in the day that I realized that I didn’t have a team spirit: consultation and delegation are not my forte, I prefer to do as much as possible myself, until packing the orders! I also wanted my fashion brand to stay small, so I could get to know each customer and each store. I didn’t want to get involved in this one-upmanship of collections or outlets. The flip side the medal is that I never made a lot of money. “

It could have been otherwise: when you won the Cannette d’Or competition in 1983, Jean-Paul Gaultier was part of the jury and offered you a job directly.

“At the time, I didn’t realize that it could be a big stepping stone. I didn’t intend to live in a small room in Paris, just for this job. Maybe it was stupid, but I’m happy with the turn my life has taken. Now I know how it goes with these big fashion brands: it doesn’t mean much. “

For some of his sculptures, Van Saene also designed outfits.

Suppose the exhibition is very successful. Could she announce your departure from fashion?

“No, I will be doing collections again. After a few seasons, I will definitely itch again, but not at the moment. Ceramics is not a plan B, because my expectations are not as high as in fashion. . I am already happy to be able to exhibit this work in such a renowned gallery and that Sofie Van de Velde has given me this opportunity, without having seen a single ceramic in this series. “

“I really feel carried by her. She takes care of everything, so I just have to concentrate on the creation. In the 37 years that I have worked in fashion, I had never been accompanied by a such a personality. Fashion designers and their gigantic entourage always make me laugh, with all kinds of characters who play the essentials. So I say to myself: behave normally! “

Are your sculptures a reflection on the emptiness of the fashion world? Is it the masks, hypocrisy and heightened emotions that reign in this industry?

“In a way, yes. But maybe the art world is like that too? I don’t know it very well yet. Who knows, maybe I’ll be disappointed in a year? now it isn’t. Sofie Van de Velde is very human, and anything but snobbish. It’s refreshing at times compared to a lot of fashion figures. “

“Stories of hope and despair”, Galerie Sofie Van de Velde

In his exhibition, Dirk Van Saene also presents brightly colored paintings of his sculptures. Additional originality: they are all on a long strip of paper and can be sold by the meter, like rolls of fabric.

Until February 20 at Galerie Sofie Van de Velde, Léon Stynenstraat 21 in Antwerp.

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