Ann Demeulemeester interview: making a house a home
Belgian designer finds new expressions of beauty with Serax
What does “at home” mean to a fashion designer? A fashion designer who, before she eventually retired from fashion a few years ago, presented creations seasonally in Paris, formed part of a circle of creatives that made history and witnessed her eponymous business grow to among other successes count a global network of stockists? “I think that a home is like a bird’s nest,” writes Ann Demeulemeester via email. “So, I consider it as very important.”
A few geographical coordinates that chapter Demeulemeester’s biography to date: there is the 19th century countryside villa located in the small Belgian town of Kessel – a short car journey away from Antwerp – that Demeulemeester and her husband (and long-term collaborator), the photographer Patrick Robyn, call home. Then, in Antwerp there is the house the couple had lived in for 30 years and where they raised their family. She today classes this as “the space that was the most important in my life”.
Now lived in by her son, her former Antwerp address is in fact the only surviving building by seminal Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. “We saved the house when we were very young,” Demeulemeester explains. “The house in exchange [taught] us every day what beauty is.”
Other places of note may include the Paris workshop of Antoine Bourdelle, the French sculptor who trained with August Rodin and later taught both Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti. It was where Bourdelle had once created that Demeulemeester, who made her Paris Fashion Week debut in 1992, unveiled her first dedicated menswear presentation in 2006. She has a thing for ateliers, calling them “the artist’s home”.
Also in Paris, she previously singled out a building with many centuries of history, an inner-city convent that partly dates to the 13th century. “For my fashion presentations, I loved most the Couvent des Cordeliers, an old convent where I could feel ‘soul’,” she says. “It became my ‘home’ showplace in Paris.”
And much like she remembers spaces for the feelings they engendered, Demeulemeester has long created with EQ - emotional intelligence. In 1978, she enrolled at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts to study fashion design under Linda Loppa; upon graduating in 1981, she was classed among the Antwerp Six as one of the circle’s two female members. The other is Marina Yee; Yee and Demeulemeester are joined by Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs and Dirk Van Saene.
In 1985, Demeulemeester established her namesake fashion house. Revered for her focus on materials, which she draped, manipulated and tailored to beautiful effect, Demeulemeester drew from influences that are far-reaching and have included the music of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith (the latter a close friend), the art of Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock plus the writings of William Blake and Allen Ginsberg.
All throughout, Demeulemeester dressed her models in precisely calibrated sequences of colour: a number of ensembles in sombre greys, blacks and whites (all three dominate the designer's palette) would erupt in three, four looks cut from vibrantly hued, often monochromatic fabrics. It was blues that nodded to French artist Yves Klein for spring/summer 1998, yellow and orange for SS09. “My style is the result of lots of questions I asked myself during all these years in pursuing my eternal search for beauty,” says Demeulemeester when I ask her to define her signature.
More recently, this quest has led her to ceramics. She today works from her home in Kessel, where there is “always an inspiring mess on my tables”, Demeulemeester says. “It varies from pencils and brushes, to porcelain, wood, plaster, lots of tools and sometimes a computer.”
It was here, at home, that a few years ago she began experimenting sculpting with porcelain clay. After a while, through trial and error and after taking classes with professional potters, Demeulemeester finished pieces of tableware – a plate, a cup – which she began to use during dinner parties. The idea for a line of ceramics firmed up after she met with Axel van den Bossche, one of two brothers behind Antwerp-headquartered company Serax.
In 2019, Ann Demeulemeester – Serax was premiered, starting with Dé, a collection of porcelain tableware that with hand-drawn designs in black, white and bright red tones play on notions of light and dark, paying homage to the fine art practice of chiaroscuro. “I painted shadows in order to create light,” says Demeulemeester. “I made all the first porcelain prototypes myself and loved to paint them in a way that this idea became clear.”
The product is the result of a close partnership with Serax’s teams of makers. “It was great working with Serax who found me the right craftsmen to realise all the porcelain painting by hand,” she enthuses. Since launch, she has added cylindrical candle holders, a lamp and vases to her offering.
The partnership has been a resounding success. Digital wishlists can become a vexed concept, as I experienced with Matchesfashion: the London-based retailer has stocked Ann Demeulemeester – Serax for several months now and it is via my own wishlist that I have seen duos of porcelain dessert plates, wide bowls and a dinky milk jug go in and out of stock. New on-site deliveries sell out within just a few days.
Tempting to many, the designs’ attraction may be down to Demeulemeester’s exacting standards of quality. “I follow every step of the development process until my idea comes through exactly as I imagined it,” she writes. “It is always a challenge to realise ideas, but if you can bring them into the world they become a gift to others. I think good and beautiful things enrich your life.”