Belgium-born, New York-based David Vandewal has an extraordinary resume. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Vandewal (in his own words) "got picked up by DRIES VAN NOTEN," where he spent eight years, designing, developing fabrics and accessories, and helping Van Noten launch his first womenswear collection. From there, Vandewal left to join his best friend, Raf Simons, who was in the process of relaunching his eponymous line in the early 2000's. In 2005, Karl Lagerfeld and creative director Melanie Ward asked Vandewal to help launch Lagerfeld’s secondary clothing line, K Karl Lagerfeld, and all the while, he has been contributing to i-D, 10, Vogue Italia, Arena Homme Plus, W, Interview, and many other major publications. In case that is not enough, he styles for Margiela, Siki Im, Thakoon, and Calvin Klein - just to name a few, works with Barneys on their catalogues and has consulted on Louis Vuitton’s campaigns. We talked to David about Part 2 of his career, working with Raf, how Antwerp fashion is different, and more ...
The Fashion Law - How do you think you’re different from other fashion designers-turned-stylists/editors?
David Vandewal - I think it’s very specific. I started styling and doing this job out of respect for the past and what I actually was doing. For many years, I was working with design teams. I am a graduated designer. I worked for big design houses back in Belgium, in Antwerp. I actually was this little fashion kid that was obsessed with fashion and I made it into my job. I’ve worked with the best people in the industry.
So, I think with that expertise and that knowledge, and experience, I picked up styling or creative consulting just speaking from my own experiences, and how I think things work. It’s a particular way of doing things, and I think that is the key for everybody that works with me. We do things in a certain way, sometimes against the grain, not the handbook type of thing, but that, I think, is what makes each collaboration kind of unique. From my end, I actually wanted to work with a lot of different people and not always the same big designer that I very much admire and there you have the synergy. So, it comes from both ways, actually.
The Fashion Law - Everyone you work with really is quite a bit different. You’ve gone from Karl Lagerfeld to Siki Im to the collages you did for Opening Ceremony (which are so awesome, by the way!).
David Vandewal - People joke, saying from Raf Simons to Ralph Lauren but that’s a bit of what it actually is.
The Fashion Law - Speaking of Raf, it seems like your work with him was a very true collaboration, and that you must have learned so much from each another.
David Vandewal - I discovered early on that I was really inspired by people that inspire me, actually, and that was a bit of what was going on. Raf was, at that moment, a good friend that had such a unique view. He was kind of breaking fashion rules at the point, you know, with his menswear. So, I was eager to work with him and actually share thoughts with him and bounce-off ideas and see where this all would go with such a unique vision. I think that was my contribution. But on the other hand, he really inspired me to work hard and work on something that I really was looking forward to seeing how it would end or how that next show would look or what the perception of that new thing would be. That is really what drove me through the whole process.
The Fashion Law - When you look back on that time, what are some of the defining elements for you?
David Vandewal - Well, it was really interesting because Raf was, at that time, really famous for that particular slim, skinny rock n roll guy, but then he didn’t stop with that concept. He kept conceptualizing all of these youth codes. He continued exploring basically and when I jumped on the boat, he actually wanted to do the opposite. When I was working with him, we were working from the opposite end, like maxi-volume, layering, and really a lot of research on the American culture codes of varsity jackets and high school, and even down to now what are very normal things in fashion. You know, everybody makes jokes about fashion inspired by homeless people and all that stuff with layering, but that was so absurd and unique back then and we sort of started exploring all that stuff.
Raf collaborated with Steven Klein, and we did this whole Americana thing, which consisted of all interesting elements that we talk about now, but back then, varsity jackets or wearing plastic, all of that stuff was unheard of. And it was no longer about those tiny rock n roll kids, the crack heads, but it was about something else.
He keeps conceptualizing, and that, I think, is the strength of Raf Simons. It is what really kept me going and why I was so excited to actually leave this amazing house, Dries Van Noten, behind and start working with him because it was completely a new start and a new challenge and a new inspiration basically. And he’s doing this as of now. At Dior, what I see him doing is exactly the same thing as when he was doing revolutionary menswear at Raf Simons.
The Fashion Law - You've worked quite a few places. Do you feel like you reinvent yourself every time you make a move?
David Vandewal - I think I see it in two parts. I see what I’m doing now. I moved to the States, to Manhattan. I like it. I am based here. I am represented by Art & Commerce. I share all of the knowledge that I have, and this is the second part, basically, of my career. The first part was really being a designer and now it is about … the approach. So, how do you put a campaign together? How do you create trends? How do you pick colors? Etc. Etc. And that to me is, like painting or anything else, it is just about color and composition and rhyme or reason.
That is actually why I can walk into an office like Thakoon and can completely help him and follow what he’s busy with, but also walk at the same time into the Gap and work with Rebekka Bay on something that is for the next holiday. To me, this is basically the same challenge. It is very subjective and yet, very common sense to be perfectly honest. I am a big believer that fashion actually has a lot of reason to it, like reading the newspaper. When you are on top of what goes on in fashion, you can, like in mathematics, calculate what comes and what is "out" and what is "in" and what has not been explored yet and what is tired. It is very easy. A lot of people think that is crystal ball-looking or people trying to be vain or trying to profile themselves as better than others. I don’t think so. It is just very much like mathematics. After long comes short. After color comes black and white. After neutrals comes bold colors. It’s very much about logic, really.
The Fashion Law - It seems that trends have really gotten a bad reputation within the past ten years or so. I guess this is because they are so heavily tied into the sped-up cycle of fashion and the inevitable trickling down from high fashion to fast fashion. How do you see trends and fast fashion?
David Vandewal - I really think fashion is driven by trends. I just think the industry has changed so much that it goes really fast. It used to be much slower. If you remember in the 1980’s, the mini-skirt and black stockings, that lasted for ten years. People put on the black stockings and the mini skirt and you were "in" or you were "up to date" or whatever. Now, with the fast lane industry, with vertical retail, with all the big players and industrialization, a black miniskirt is on the catwalk in Paris and 3 weeks later at Zara, and we are already on the something else because we are tired much more quickly.
I think, at the moment, its much more about true design and certain personalities mixing that make things unique, more so than talking about these codes, what is "in" and what is "out," because then you quickly get into cookie cutting and saying, 'Red is the fashion color,' or 'Black is this' and 'Short is that.' I think that is something from the past that people still try to sell as an idea to mainstream people, but that’s not really how fashion works at the moment.
The Fashion Law - In the past you were much more connected with one individual house at a time. What is it like being on your own? Did it feel like a risk, or was branching out just a natural progression for you?
David Vandewal - It definitely was brave, but I can’t help it. That is the way that I love to do it. I have a strong personality and I love fashion. That’s actually how I make friends and how I convince people to work with me. I really truly love fashion and I really truly love every aspect of it. I can talk for hours about it and be really into it and with anything, like with sports or something, you gather with and associate with people and they think you’re interesting and that’s kind of how you come into your own or get a group of people around you and how you end up working for certain people.
But as for going out on my own, you will always have these moments, you know something is happening and you just have to go for it then and after you can think about it. You have time enough later to do that.
The Fashion Law - We have to talk about Siki and the Spring/Summer 2014 styling (pictured above)! For me, Siki is really powerful for two reasons: 1) Because he is so different from everyone else in New York, but 2) and maybe more importantly, his work, is so innovative and rule-breaking on its own – even if he was one of a handful of people doing similar things in New York, I think he would still stand out. How did you two end up working together?
David Vandewal - Siki and I work very closely. We go back together. We were both working at Karl Lagerfeld in New York. Siki was a part of my team. He was actually originally a denim designer in the group. We became really tight and I always thought he was very talented and he’s actually a really good denim designer, too. He always had these big words about ‘I want to become a young designer' and this, this and that. Of course, with my history, I said, ‘Well, I know kids like you. I’ve heard this all before. So, if you want to do this, I can really help you out and guide you but, I warn you, this is not easy.’ And the rest is history. He just jumped on it, and I kept true to my word when I said, ‘Whatever you do, I will back you up and help you’ because that’s what I do and it’s a big pleasure for me because I think he’s really talented.
Now he has showed his 8th or 9th collection in New York and the collaboration is so tight. I have to say what is so interesting is that Siki is such a nice and humble person. So, in the beginning and you know, its very Siki, he comes up with these amazing ideas. I remember one season it was like, ‘Oh, Michael Jordan is my inspiration.’ And knowing the clothes that Siki makes, you’re like ‘Excuse me?’ [laughs]. But, we have so much confidence in each other and he started playing with fabrics, making clothes and we turned one of his collections [Fall 2012] into a Michael Jordan basketball show.
The same thing happened for Spring basically with the whole jail concept, or it actually was this theory he had about remorse and about the beauty and the romance of these death row guys and what their history is. You know, those old Benneton-Toscani ads where they put pictures of people that are going to be killed on death row as the ad? And you know, you look at these guys, and there is a whole story, the good guy, and the bad guy. Suddenly it became so relevant and that is fashion.
For us, it was suddenly like Orange Is The New Black and the Breaking Bad series and Siki showing me pictures of guys who were in jail for 36 years and on death row, and it all starts sticking. Again, the trust is there and so, by the time the show comes, I just kind of work with him and make sure that message also comes across. For Spring, we wanted to show the whole emotion and it was about how to bring this as an interesting story that is fascinating just to look at. That is where I think everybody reacted because it is actually like seeing a little movie or reading In Cold Blood. It brings a lot of emotion. The casting. The way we did it.
The Fashion Law - You really did achieve the whole picture. The casting, the clothing, the music, the setting, the styling. It was all so cohesive and very moving.
David Vandewal - Yes. And that is a bit I think how, again – coming from Dries and Raf and Karl, that’s how trends are born. It is about creating a synergy. You create an emotion with clothes. Like now we are all obsessed with scrubs. How does that come? And it doesn’t mean the cliché trend thing. It is about, how does this influence other trends and the whole fashion scene, from the mainstream lower-end to what’s high and what people are doing. Along the lines of Celine to, it will probably end up in Zara.
You know that last Alexander Wang collection was amazing. I think it was one of my top three favorite shows because it had that kind of like preppy girl gone insane kind of thing and it’s like, why is this cool suddenly? Why does that look cool? And that’s what fascinates me endlessly.
The Fashion Law - It is interesting how this has come to be, especially since it would not have been this way, it was not this way a few years ago.
David Vandewal - It wouldn’t have been that way even one year ago. And jumping from Alexander Wang, we were busy with Siki and the whole jail, In Cold Blood, serial killer thing and then you see the Alexander Wang show and you have that great chic Georgia May Jagger in a pastel colored scrub, looking all crazy and pretty and you’re like, 'How does that come?' We don’t talk to them about it. And you have Thom Browne doing the asylum. It is like, 'Why is everyone doing this?' And that is what’s interesting. Like what you were saying earlier, these trends evolve.
The Fashion Law - Yes. The translation and that evolution is really fascinating.
David Vandewal - And there are many entities that will come from this. It might turn into people wearing more dirty pastels, diluted pastels or hospital scrubs or the shapes will turn into something else. Or a nurse-style dress will show up in Zara. This is how I think it is at the moment in the 21st century.
The Fashion Law - Speaking of fashion at the moment, how do you think the fashion scene in Antwerp is different than the one here in New York?
David Vandewal - First of all, there is a way that people deal in Manhattan or the U.S. with fashion. The reason why I’m here is that there is more of a common sense or a business sense about fashion here. Salaries are higher for a lot of creative jobs. That’s why a lot of Europeans come and work here. In Europe, their mentality in general – Belgium, Antwerp, even in Paris, it doesn’t matter – is that there is a big love for creativity that is not necessarily backed up with business and not necessarily backed up with, say, money. So, it turns into the starving artist, or that design is a hobby. I have to say, this is how a lot of talents get created, with this mentality, that there is not directly, automatically money that you can live off of. In the states, it is more of a cookie cutting, rational approach, and I admire it a lot. Eleven years here and I am actually learning all of this stuff. Like, if there is no numbers backing this, it doesn’t make sense.
The Fashion Law - Fashion is much, much more commercial here.
David Vandewal - Absolutely. Commercial and more rational. It follows certain grids, certain numbers. It is kind of like, ‘Honey, find a job. You can’t do your hobby the whole time.’ And in Europe, there is a lot of smoldering around the question of: Is this a hobby or is this a job? Of course, though, this gives a lot more room for creativity. In America it is very quickly, as you can imagine, put in the form of an Excel spread sheet, and people say, ‘Well, this doesn’t look good' and then the project no longer exists. While in Europe, I don’t think people really yet know what an Excel spreadsheet is.[Laughs]
The Fashion Law - Last question, which I ask everyone: What are you obsessed with right now?
David Vandewal - Actually, for someone who didn’t really like the 70’s, as I’m more retro and 80’s and 90’s, at the moment I’m finding myself staring at a lot of kitschy, 1970’s pictures and strange phenomenons and situations, even Kiss. It somehow interests me. It is something I really hate and have no affinity with, and it really has started intriguing me.