Jan 04, 2011 12:00AM

Walter and Dirk

We chat to Belgian fashion partners Walter and Dirk.

Belgian designers Walter Van Beirendonck and Dirk Van Saene are a rarity. Together for 33 years, theirs is a notable partnership in an often fickle industry. They confirm the age-old idiom that opposites attract: while Walter is flamboyant - today he wears gargantuan rings on each finger, a brightly coloured scarf, and a thick cotton boiler suit with countless pockets - Dirk is more discreet. He slouches in his chair in front of me, sporting a clean, preppy look.

Both men were part of the infamous Antwerp Six - which included Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester - but their story started long before then, meeting as students of Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Art.

"I got into the Academy to do fashion," says Van Beirendonck. "I remember thinking about jewellery or architecture at that time, but it was seeing the graduates' fashion show that sealed the deal. It's not something I got into when I was twelve years old - no Barbie Dolls for me."

Before joining the Academy, Van Saene was torn between the worlds of clothes and canvasses. Despite leaving art for fashion, he asserts that he felt no specific calling. "I don't really need fashion to feel creative. Walter does - I've always loved the act of painting. You need a team when you're making clothes and there are so many external forces involved. I'd rather spend time alone and create what I want."

Van Beirendonck's designs have an urban and direct appeal, combining colour, comfort and utility. Making statements that are often political, social, or sexual, his shows promote inclusiveness, as opposed to elitism. His decision to use men over boys for several collections was seen as a clear reaction to the industry's limitations.

"I had used bears and larger guys in a previous show in 1996," he says. "When I did it again recently, I was taking a stance against anorexia and models that were too skinny. I just wanted to show another type of physique on the runway."


Van Saene's fashion sense, on the other hand, is more subdued and elegant, but often against the tide. "I guess a lot of people talk about a 'couture feel' when they describe my clothes, and it's something I'm actually fine with. Deconstruction was all the rage in the mid nineties and what I was doing was so different... people thought I had lost it. They couldn't understand what I was doing. It was just so out of context in a way, but also true to my own taste. I wanted to react against that movement and do exactly the opposite."


Although they've never worked on a collection together, the men set up shop in 1998 and WALTER was born, a unique space located in the heart of Antwerp stocking furniture and fashion. As the three of us sit in the store, I wonder what it must be like for the two designers. After all, fashion can be the Cursed Land of Inflated Egos, so do they ever end up strangling each other? "It's a lot," admits Van Beirendonck. "Everything is doubled: deadlines, commitments, pressures; [but] we never felt the need to compete with each other. There was no reason to."

Words: Philippe Pourhashemi