Kris Van Assche, Dior Homme’s Designer Interviewed

Dior Homme‘s Kris Van Assche talked to us exclusively for our third print issue of Something About during Dior Homme’s Hong Kong show in April. Read our exclusive interview with the Belgian fashion designer leading Dior Homme towards a new dawn of menswear. To see the Parisian brands AW16 collection in action, watch our exclusive short film.

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Something About Dior Homme Autumn Winter 2016

 

Meeting Kris Van Assche in Hong Kong

I’m meeting Kris Van Assche in Hong Kong. Every season Dior Homme re-stages its Paris show in Asia, highlighting the pre-eminence of the men’s market over women’s in this particular part of the world. This time round, there’s plenty of drama in the air thanks to an unabating tropical storm that’s sweeping the island.

As I sit in my hotel room, the scene outside is almost cataclysmic. I watch a huge squall whip up the waves in the bay; the sky is as black as night and the rain is lashing against windowpanes. With a few hours to kill before I meet Dior Homme’s enigmatic creative director, I escape into the world of Instagram only to notice Kris Van Assche’s earlier post: a picture of a pristine bouquet of white tulips set against an ominous sky. Flowers are a favourite photographic topic of his (“I am the flower man” he later tells me), but this particular image seems almost prophetic given the atmospheric spectacle that has since unfolded outside.

Fast forward a couple of hours and I’m discussing the storm with Dior Homme’s designer Kris Van Assche in his hotel suite on the top floor of the Shangri La Hotel. Kris Van Assche is certainly no stranger to tempestuous weather given his globetrotting career, but forces of nature as observed by the Belgian designer are mesmerizing and awe-inspiring. His social media feed is peppered with skyward photographs and he recalls how a sandstorm he once witnessed in Beijing made everything appear “golden”.

Dior Homme’s Kris Van Assche has just turned 40. His once boyish looks have given way to a more chiseled charm and he possesses that ineffable nonchalance of a man who’s comfortable in his own skin. Kris Van Assche is tall (over 6’2”), slim and immaculately groomed with a crop of dark hair and ‘just-right’ rugged stubble.

For a fashion front man, Kris Van Assche is surprisingly down-to-earth, but you have to earn his trust. His initial shyness should not be mistaken for aloofness; he’s well guarded and measured but that’s also down to him being a perfectionist. “He knows what he wants,” confides Dior Homme’s exclusive PR.

Kris Van Assche is wearing a signature black Dior Homme uniform: skinny black trousers, thick-soled military boots and a black polo top with red piping. His slim, toned arms show off his tattoos, visual allegories of his life present and past. “Hummingbirds [represent] the South and tulips, they are the North,” Van Assche explains.

Kris Van Assche was born in a small town in northern Belgium called Londerzeel. Growing up in such a provincial setting wasn’t obviously conducive to becoming the helmsman of Dior Homme (“When I was a kid it was hard to get my hands on a fashion magazine”) but Antwerp’s reputation as a centre for creativity – thanks to the dynamism of the Antwerp Six – had reverberated across the country. At school, he was influenced by the “rigour and darkness” of these iconic Flemish designers as well the exuberance of more theatrical fashion luminaries. “Jean Paul Gaultier had that craziness that also attracted me, which is also not my world,” he reveals.

Following his studies at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts, Kris Van Assche moved to the menswear studios of YSL in Paris where he was hired as an assistant for then creative director, Hedi Slimane. Kris Van Assche followed Slimane on his boundary breaking journey to Dior Homme in 2004 and set up his own label KRISVSNASSCHE soon after. When Slimane left the Parisian house, Van Assche returned as head designer for Dior Homme – possibly one of the most daunting takeovers in fashion history given his predecessor’s reputation as the originator of menswear’s prevalent rock-aesthetic. If Kris Van Assche was ever intimidated, his tenacity and quiet demeanor masterfully guided him through any apprehension. As we discuss his success over the last nine years running Dior Homme, he’s modest and self-effacing. ‘Did you always want to be the designer of Dior Homme’ I ask? “Did I want to be a designer? Yes. Did I know I was going to be a designer of a big established house? No. I was not that pretentious”.

dior homme aw16 kris van assche interview shoot film 1
Something About Dior Homme Autumn Winter 2016

Q&A with Dior Homme’s Kris Van Assche

Tell me about your childhood in Antwerp?

 Kris Van Assche : “When I was 16 to 18 we used to go to these small clubs in Belgium. The highest ‘wave’ of New Wave was over, but we were still listening to that music in those dark little clubs. I very much enjoyed the romanticism of the black hair, the black sweaters, black trousers, boots and black nail polish. Then there were also the cool kids; the ones that had scooter bikes, skateboards; wide jeans and earrings. The sportswear kids. Two clans that did not get on at all but I kind of liked both and in a weird way, that’s still very much part of my work”.

 You have a reputation for being quiet and composed. Would you say this is a fair analysis of your personality and work ethic?

Kris Van Assche : “I don’t do crazy stuff. I like spending time at my house, which doesn’t mean you can take problems out of your head of course, but the cats take care of that.”

 The cats?

Kris Van Assche : “Yeah, because they are very selfish little creatures that basically don’t care what you have in your mind, so you have to take care of them which is healthy. I have two and they are very spoilt! Otherwise I go to galleries and enjoy normal stuff. I am very much about order and regularity. I think this is the key to my wellbeing and it [helps me] support this whole system. I’m very disciplined. You know, the more you learn, the more you know you don’t know! I’m very humble about that. There was one point when I realised that every day I could have a reason to have a sleepless night. So now I have a very systematic, organised way to look at problems… and most of the time I manage to turn off my head.”

KRISVANASSCHE ceased to exist in May 2015. Now that you have announced a hiatus on your own label do you feel that you have started a new chapter at Dior Homme?

Kris Van Assche : “Now that I have put a hold my own label, I am able to infuse much more of my own identity in to the Dior Homme brand. My own brand, Kris Van Assche was known for looser volumes and the mixture of tailored jackets and the huge pants; a sportswear hybrid with tailoring. So having to focus on only four collections a year, it allows for less schizophrénie. It doesn’t mean that I won’t start up my own label at some point – I probably will because it’s something that’s in my head. For now though, there’s a lot of ‘Kris Van Assche’ sneaking into the Dior Homme collections; it’s a good thing. So yes, it almost feels like a whole new start. It’s also part of how I conceive collections, always needing the contrast, [positioning] the very sartorial [against] the New Wave tight look, and skater sweatshirts and oversize pants. It’s two codes and you kind of want to enjoy some of each. That’s what I think fashion should look like today.”

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 And creatively speaking, does Dior Homme allow you to embrace experimentation in the same way an independent label does?

Kris Van Assche : “Probably more so really, because you have no idea about the creative possibilities that working at a house like Dior Homme offers. You have 15 people on the ground floor in the atelier just waiting for you to give them directions; so it’s all about you having enough imagination to keep them going, That’s already unique. Then there’s being able to work with fabric producers and pushing their limits; being able to work with great photographers like Willy Vanderperre to make movies and to express the story and romanticism behind the Dior Homme collections. All this I was not able to do at my own label. At my own label, well, the last years were about praying we would get the shoes in time. So freedom is relative especially within the creative world, where freedom tends to come with a price ticket.”

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Something About Dior Homme Autumn Winter 2016

 You have mentioned that you are disciplined when it comes to time management. Are you as methodical when it comes to starting a new collection?

Kris Van Assche : “It depends. A new season always starts with the previous one. So with four collections a year it means they are always overlapping. It’s an ongoing process. A previous season will always bring frustrations; things you want to do better or push forward. That is the first thing. Following from this, it could be anything – a book, a movie or even an imaginary character in my mind, which has been the same weirdly over the last nine years, but [he] has changed a lot; he’s learned a lot and has grown a lot. Yes, an imaginary person who continues new stories and adventures.”

 Sub-cultures seem to be a thing of the past with social media sending endless styles and selfies into the ether every nanosecond of the day. Would you say that fashion tribes are becoming less distinguishable from one another?

Kris Van Assche : “I think menswear is still about a lot of codes. I mean we like to think it’s not but it is. Men still like to belong to a group, even if it’s about belonging to different group and taking a bit from each. But it is still about references; we like to know where things come from. I like to play around with them and push them over.”

 Your Instagram feed is very measured too. Every image seems to have been so lovingly selected, from the Dior Homme collection pictures to your more atmospheric shots of flowers.

Kris Van Assche : “Social media has very positive sides. Information is easily accessible to everyone now, so that has been a very positive thing. My own Instagram account allows me to highlight whatever I feel is important to the brand or some exhibitions that I think give perspective to my work. So while it is a very positive thing, it also can stand as something very superficial because every bit of information has to fit on to one line or one square; since my work is so much about contrast, I feel I at least need two squares to explain! I think we have lost a lot of depth. We’ve reached a bit of peak and I hope that we go back to real fashion and journalism; we need real profoundness and storytelling because it has become a bit flat.”

Aside from championing the tailoring craft nurtured within the brand’s ateliers, how do you lace the history of Dior into your designs for Dior Homme?

“There have actually been quite a few archive [pieces] that I have reinterpreted in the shows; Mr Dior’s personal handwriting [Spring/Summer 2015], his good luck charms…even the last four outfits of tonight’s show have a black and white flower motif, which is actually inspired by a piece of silk fabric I found in the archive. Our reinterpretation for Dior Homme was to reduce the scale in wool and cotton to make a kind of sporty tailoring out of it. Flowers are a big part of my personal heritage too. My second and third shows, under my own label and before I was doing Dior Homme, were all about flower men. So there are actually a lot of reasons for interpreting Mr. Dior’s heritage. It is what I relate to.”

 Your pre-collections for Dior Homme attract as much attention as your seasonal ones. Do you think this is symptomatic of a general changing tide in fashion? The focus shifting towards simplicity and a more linear approach to production…

“People always think that pre-collections are super easy, but they are not! They have become such a big reality that if they are not good, you’re in big trouble. I have the same team for pre-collections as I do for the [main seasonal] shows. My president [of Dior Homme, Serge Brunschwig] and I agree that the way we produce things creatively through fabrication, with high ‘exigence’ [exacting standards] takes time. That is what differentiates us from mass market brands.”

 How do you work out the balance of your Dior Homme shows? Dior Homme’s Spring/Summer 2017, for example, pitted modish styles and classic suiting against a Skater/New Wave streetwear medley thanks to voluminous trousers, graphic print hoodies and lumberjack plaids. So many twists and turns!

 I have no idea what is going to be a catwalk piece and what is going to be a supposedly commercial one until three weeks before the show. They may all end up on the catwalk because I work on them with the same attention and detail, so there is no hierarchy. The further [a design] goes; the more surprised you are when it sells out. You’d be amazed! They never seem to stock enough of the ‘crazy stuff’.

dior homme aw16 kris van assche interview shoot film
Something About Dior Homme Autumn Winter 2016

 

dior homme aw16 kris van assche interview shoot
Something About Dior Homme Autumn Winter 2016
dior homme aw16 kris van assche interview shoot
Something About Dior Homme Autumn Winter 2016

 Additional images in Something About AW16

Story by: Ian Thorley

Fashion: Sarah Ann Murray

Photographer: Josh Shinner

Short Film by: Abigail Fletcher

Photography Assistant: James Davey

Fashion Assistants: Veronica Perez, Lili Falbo

Grooming: Fai Archer

Models: Axl Cavell at D1 Management, Hamish Steed and Joseph Strang at Select