His creations have been worn by Madonna, sold in the world’s most beautiful boutiques, and appeared in a multitude of fashion shows. these days, the most famous hat designer in Belgium is more low-key, but just as creative. We met with this mild and reserved designer.
In the 80s and 90s, you had stores in Brussels, Paris and London. Your creations crowned the runway looks of Céline, Mugler, Chanel and Féraud. And then, one day, you decided to stop everything. Were you already sensing the turmoil of the revolution that would overtake the fashion industry just a few years later?
It was in 2001. I felt the need to take a break and slow the hectic pace that I had set for myself. I was happy with everything I had achieved, but I no longer wanted to work in such a rush. I had become a manager, rather than a craftsman. When the race for money takes precedence over creation, my job no longer makes sense to me. At the time, I had 40 employees. We made 35,000 hats a year. We had over 100 outlets in Japan alone. I had no intention of outsourcing my production, but I knew that if I wanted to grow, it would become necessary. Rather than producing in Turkey or Morocco, I preferred to stop everything in a timely way.
In fashion, we talk a lot about the concept of craftsmanship. This has always been central to your approach. Is that also why you wanted to change your business model?
Nothing can replace the magic of a unique, handcrafted garment or accessory. Conversely, it is rarely possible to evaluate the price of an industrially produced piece. I discovered my passion for fashion when I was working in a second-hand store. That is where I learned to understand the value of luxury, the beauty of these incomparable, handcrafted pieces. You can of course create a shape, then multiply it in an artisanal way. This is what I did with some of the cult models I designed 30 years ago. I just have to change a finishing detail to give them a contemporary look.
And there are so many of them…
I have a special affection for the cap, the first piece I created on a wooden form, with a moulded visor and no seams. I also love Diabolo, the convertible hat worn by Amélie Nothomb, the cowboy model Madonna popularised, and the knit hat seen on Sharon Stone, and which is now in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. I have always considered my studio as a laboratory. If there is no research, where’s the fun? Azzedine Alaïa never stopped pushing the limits of his art, till the end of his life.
You have often collaborated with Belgian artists: Ann Demeulemeester, Axelle Red, Véronique Leroy … Has Belgium has always been a central element in your career?
From the start, I knew that this country would be a great source of inspiration for me. I could have gone to London or Paris, but I knew this was where I wanted to be. Belgium is a country full of good vibes. You can see the proof in all these talents who emerge from our schools and shine bright in the big houses: Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent, Raf Simons at Prada, Pieter Mulier at Alaïa. Inspiring and multicultural, Belgium both puts me at ease and stimulates me.
For the past few years, you have been focusing your activity on the private commissions that you create in your workshop on Avenue Louise in Brussels. A trendy choice, but it wasn’t always that way.
When I made this decision, the one thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want any more business constraints. I believe that the more you give, the more you receive, so the custom-made approach gives me a lot of satisfaction. Each new collaboration enriches me.
You teach your art as part of the Master’s degree in accessories at La Cambre Mode (s), and this year, the fashion programme of the Haute Ecole HELMo in Liège asked you to sponsor a student. What message would you send to these young, aspiring designers?
I am very enthusiastic about teaching them techniques that have sometimes taken me years to learn. But beyond this purely practical aspect, I want to show them that anything is possible: as long as you take the time. Not everyone is cut out to be the headliner. You can very well stay in the shadows all your life and still have a great career in fashion. Personally, I found my way by working in contact with the material. Ethics are also very important. Just like the values that I defend. To flourish in design, each designer must stay close to his own values.
How do you see design in Wallonia and in Brussels?
I am fascinated by all these collectives that combine different creative profiles within a collaborative structure. We also see more and more small boutiques which help to recreate a beautiful dynamic in the cities, away from ‘fast fashion’. I am now 60 years old. I am living proof that there is no age limit for taking on new artistic or creative challenges.
When you design a new hat, what’s your motto?
I associate design with a suspended moment. Sometimes I walk into my studio after a discussion or an event that touched me, and I want to translate it into a hat. For now, I’m making quite a few hats with cat ears, a response to the grim atmosphere. They are a reflection of my moods. Fashion must, whatever happens, retain its sense of humour and of irony.