It might just have been vacuous hype when the Antwerp Six – six avant-garde Belgian fashion designers – were heralded as the ‘next big thing’ in 1987 by powerful Polish PR Marysia. Especially since said PR is believed to have been the true inspiration for Absolutely Fabulous’ Eddie Monsoon (rather than Lynne Franks), according to one particular name she championed, Walter van Beirendonck. In the event, he and three others – Anne Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs and Dries van Noten – were no flashes in the pan, and remain successful designers to this day.
The way they were bracketed, dramatically, as the Antwerp Six, was ‘practical,’ says van Beirendonck. ‘We were desperate for recognition outside Belgium.’ In fact, nationality was all the designers had in common. While Demeulemeester was all hair-shirt austerity (frayed, ‘deconstructed’ clothing in funereal greys), van Beirendonck was gleefully feelgood (menswear in Day-glo, cyber-punk shades and synthetic fibres that proved manna to the colour-hungry rave generation).
His label W< (short for Wild & Lethal Trash) became known for its outrÃ©, subversive catwalk shows seething with models of all ages and sizes, some in rubber catsuits and sinister wrestler masks. Consummately postmodern, he referenced anything from hardcore S&M to comic-book superheroes, his clothes emblazoned with aggressively anti-nostalgic slogans like ‘Kiss the Future’. He also had the suitably futuristic idea of launching his collections on CD-Roms and a website.
Sporting his trademark Tyrolean woodcutter beard, combats, Indian diamantÃ© earrings and San Francisco biker knuckle-dusters, van Beirendonck is, thankfully, still crazy after all these years. His theatrical aesthetic inspires young designers today, from Arkadius to Victor & Rolf. And now, for Selfridges’ London and Manchester stores, he is overseeing the design of the interiors and windows of its month-long, Bodycraze event, showcasing hot trends in nutrition and beauty. Expect aphrodisiac bars, designer tattooists and ‘food doctors’.
So why did Selfridges pick him? ‘He is a true visionary,’ enthuses marketing director James Bidwell. ‘His concept will animate the space with amazing colours, movement and energy.’
Van Beirendonck’s concept is indeed reliably off-the-wall, and springs from a self-penned poem about a goddess ‘wearing a huge, multicoloured necklace, frolicking ecstatically above the earth. One day, the necklace breaks, scattering beads all over the world. Each containing different fantasies, and the people who find them can indulge it.’
His fanciful conceit will be conveyed by a soaring video screen, picturing the deity and her shattering necklace in each store, and speakers declaiming the poem. Some of the beads – fragments of a necklace based on a design by milliner Stephen Jones – will bulge out of the surrounding floors in 3D, as if they’ve landed there.
His windows will relate more to his own pick ‘n’ mix, postmodern fashions. ‘I want to fuse different ethnic and historical inspirations from around the world under one roof. I want to show that people have always been adorning their bodies, but I also wanted to create a contemporary reworking of these historical elements.’
Cue the jumble of references to sartorial, sometimes body-distorting traditions fighting for attention in each window: Elizabethan ruffs, Marie Antoinette-style pannier dresses, Dior’s 1947 New Look, the towers of chokers worn to elongate the neck by women in Padang, Indonesia, skulls trained into cone shapes by the African Mangbetu tribe. Oh, and a 1976 punk with safety pin-incised cheeks.
It’s not quite the mish-mash it sounds. Each window will feature one mannequin distilling four styles, each clearly shown in their original historical or ethnographic context by footage on four video screens. ‘I don’t want to pretend I invented these styles,’ says van Beirendonck, in a nod to the postmodern axiom that originality is a myth, and that, instead, artists, designers and so on simply quote ideas created by others. Some of the Amazonian mannequins, clad in paper clothes by designer Isabelle de Borchgrave, recall Jean-Paul Goude’s 1980s photographs of Grace Jones, particularly one of her bodypainted with tribal patterns by Keith Haring.
Van Beirendonck’s cheekiest intervention will be to sneak less-than-svelte mannequins into windows showcasing clothing by Calvin Klein, – a sideswipe at body fascism.
How subversive is van Beirendonck aiming to be? ‘If you want to dig deep, the multicoloured beads signify a desire for multicultural unity. But I don’t want to preach, or criticise society for being conformist.’ Really? ‘Well, I do want to point out there’s more to consumerism than buying swanky branded perfumes. That it’s also about tapping personal, individual fantasies.’
Bodycraze is at Selfridges in London and Manchester from 7-31 May. For more information, log on to the website at www.bodycraze.co.uk