When Sébastien Meunier thinks about the Port of Antwerp he sees a world of transience and intrigue, where dockers, fishermen and ferry passengers all converge on their routes to somewhere. This was the set for Ann Demeulemeester SS20, and at the heart of it all was a sailor.
Not just any sailor – Meunier looked to Querelle, the magnetic Belgian figure dreamt up by Jean Genet and brought to the screen by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1982. It was Fassbinder’s supercharged vision of sex and violence in the port town of Brest that inspired this collection’s sensuality, with hoards of buttons and detachable bits hinting at states of undress. “Querelle is so beautiful that he creates all this sexual tension around him, and this tension between violence and sexuality,” says Meunier. “Everyone desires him and I think it’s fascinating. ”
Tension is the name of the game in Meunier’s role at Ann Demeulemeester. As artistic director – the position he has held since Demeulemeester handed him the reins in 2013 – he pairs the poetic codes of the cult brand with his tendency to push things harder. It’s romance and sexuality, through a kaleidoscopic lens of stories and references. “I use poetry, art, movies… Everything that can give me a way to present a collection that is rich, layered with a lot of themes going in the same direction.”
Tempe Nakiska: Let’s start with the SS20 collection, can you tell me what got you thinking about the sea?
Sébastien Meunier: Recently I have focussed a lot on Belgian stories and they have been an influence on my collections for Ann Demeulemeester. This time I wanted to speak about the seashore of Belgium, the Port of Antwerp, the dockers, the sailors. Because it’s an important port and it’s had lots of different kinds of people coming from the sea for a long time, so it was interesting to think about the code of sailors and dockers and so on. My angle was with a focus on Querelle by Fassbinder, as I’m really touched by this movie. I’m interested to speak about the Antwerp culture and I try to give my French vision of it, how I perceive it. I think it’s interesting that Ann Demeulemeester was always inspired by poetry and song and had a lot of references from American culture, like Patti Smith. So there was this, but there was still this deeply Flemish vibe to her collections. Whereas I’m a bit the opposite, I’m French and in designing here I try to show how I understand the Flemish culture.
Tempe: Do you think your unique perspective has helped carve your own way there?
Sébastien: I think it has helped me give a point of view of what Ann Demeulemeester is today. It allows me to speak with the public and the people who come to see and to buy the collection, to show that I have this position – of being a designer taking forward the brand a cult designer – and that I have to put my own stamp on it.
Tempe: As a designer heading up a cult house, is there a guiding lesson or principle that has helped you navigate the challenges?
Sébastien: My principle is to absolutely respect the DNA, but also to be completely myself. I have a lot of common points with Ann but also some differences and I always try to work the tension between the two – that I’m not too much Ann Demeulemeester or too much Sébastien, I need to be in the balance. I always ask myself when I do a collection whether it has the right balance of garments to express these two vibes. It’s also maybe the mix of Ann Demeulemeester romance and my more sexual interpretation of it that makes the collection more for today. That’s the exercise I really try to do each time – to keep the romance but to make it a bit harder, to push it more.
Tempe: The angle of the SS20 collection was about the port and the sailors but there was also this romantic sexual tension. I’d love to talk a bit about that and the Querelle reference you mentioned before. What do you love about Fassbinder’s work and about that film specifically?
Sébastien: Always with Fassbinder it’s a bit kitsch and there’s something very colourful and dramatically exaggerated, it’s more like a theatre scene than a real scene and I like this because it feels more like a dream than reality. Specifically in this film, the guy Querelle is so beautiful that he creates all this sexual tension around him and provokes some fights, and there’s this tension between violence and sexuality. Everyone desires him and I think it’s fascinating. So there were all different kinds of Querelle in the collection, all different kinds of guys coming from the sea, or leaving for the sea. That’s the thing with sailors, they leave and they might not come back, and there’s a romanticism in this which is very deep. So it’s this play between something that is very real and almost like a dream. For me it was a way not to do too much of a classic sailor collection [laughs], to put an angle in there that brings a more transgender vibe. Some of the sailors are more feminine, some are more masculine, we never know if they are guys or girls, or maybe they are girls becoming guys. With Querelle I could push it further because of the sexual tension inherent in the film.
Tempe: The voiceover at the start of Querelle says, “The thought of murder often evokes thoughts of the sea and of sailors. What naturally follows thoughts of the sea and murder is the thought of love or sexuality.” What do you think makes the sea such an evocative theme, in this film and in general?
Sébastien: I think there’s something very animalistic in that movie, it shows how animal-like men can be. It speaks about instinct, which is fascinating and mysterious, and there is the romantic part of it – things in this Fassbinder movie are probably similar to things that really happen in the ports, it speaks about an instinct that is really true in life. It’s something that we all have, this kind of tension sometimes. This movie speaks about it within this sailor subject, but it is speaking about something more universal.
“That’s the thing with sailors, they leave and they might not come back, and there’s a romanticism in this which is very deep.”
Tempe: There were also Shakespeare references in the collection, like the line, “Oh, then began the tempest to my soul.”
Sébastien: Yes, I really wanted to explore this North Sea vibe that we feel in the city of Antwerp. So I also took a lot of other references like, for example in Richard III, there is this sentence from Shakespeare expressing the tempest that this guy has in his head and in his heart, and it’s also about love – so it gives another angle to the collection that is more romantic, let’s say. Then I used the artist Marcel Broodthaers in the collection because he is a Belgian artist who played a lot with the Belgian gimmick, for example using a mussel to represent Belgium, or creating works of art with the sea, crabs and lobsters. So in the collection there is a print with a lobster, there’s a crab, and there’s also a mussel that I call Paul [laughs], so it’s also to have some humour in there. It’s meant to be not too serious and present different sides of my interpretation of Belgium and of this brand. There were a lot of layers. I use poetry, art, movies, everything that can give me a way to present a collection that is rich and layered with a lot of themes going in the same direction.
Tempe: Maybe using that amount of layers is key to creating a collection that flips the nautical theme on its head. You’ve taken a familiar angle and created something that feels rich and original and sensual.
Sébastien: It’s because I enter so deeply into the themes I work with, that I can give that freshness to my guy – because I try to make it not too serious or rigid. It can’t be just one layer, it has to be multi-textured. For example, in the collection you see there are sailors and dockers but sometimes also some travellers, and this referred to the boat company called Red Star Line, and many people took this company to travel to New York and Halifax, Nova Scotia, often coming from the East of Europe, passing through Antwerp on their way to America. So it’s also a study of a lot of different kinds of people.
Tempe: How do you feel before a show, do you get nervous?
Sébastien: Not really. It’s super exciting to have the possibility to do that work. I can be nervous during the process of the collection because something doesn’t work the way I want, but in a way when you arrive at the show you are happy because the work is nearly finished. We work on the staging and casting, every piece finds its way and it’s very pleasant to see this puzzle come together. I’m very frightened the day after the show, that is very stressful. There is the build-up to it all, then everyone leaves and I feel a kind of emptiness always. Also the stress of what people will feel, how the press and buyers will react, it’s very important, and we have to do another one the season after and for that you have to sell. It’s a big responsibility.
“Sometimes people think our garments are a bit complicated and we need to give an explanation of how to wear it but we don’t like this as we feel people need to find their own way. We like the multiple possibilities.”
Tempe: Did you have a favourite piece from this collection?
Sébastien: That’s a hard question, they’re all my babies. I really like the coats that are done with the double-breasts that you can unbutton in various ways.
Tempe: That ability to deconstruct and wear pieces in different ways is very much a part of the Ann Demeulemeester DNA. Is it important to you that people can put their own spin on the clothes?
Sébastien: Yes, there are a lot of detachable parts – collars, cuffs, everything is a bit detachable so your garment can be worn very strictly or very loose, casual, fluid. That gives a lot of layers to the collection because basically you can do whatever you want with the garments. Sometimes people think our garments are a bit complicated and we need to give an explanation of how to wear it but we don’t like this as we feel people need to find their own way. We like the multiple possibilities.
Tempe: You mentioned the word ‘rigid’ and it makes me think of the expectations of men to fit into these often rigid notions of masculinity. It’s something you have always played with in your collections. Do you feel a responsibility as a designer to show the beauty of fragility and vulnerability?
Sébastien: It’s something which, from my youngest days as a designer, I have always spoken about – this possibility to be who you want to be. There are always social obligations but it’s about the freedom to be able to express who you are, this sensuality, sexuality, fragility. Today I think it’s more important than ever because we see that society is becoming – in some ways – more open to different types of sexuality, but in many other ways it’s becoming more difficult. If you show a beautiful fragile guy, or a fantastic tough girl then it maybe helps someone be who they are. It’s to give the possibility for everyone to dream about what they want to be, and then to try to be it.
Tempe: Which brings me to your background, you started studying law and then eventually went into fashion – how did that dream come about for you?
Sébastien: I’ve always been fascinated by fashion but as you say, in the beginning I started with law studies, probably because I was in a very classic family and I was meant to do law at university, in a way. I didn’t feel obliged to do it, but it was natural. Even though I loved my studies and found the subjects interesting at law university, I felt that I was missing something. I realised that law as a profession wasn’t something I wanted. And then one day I went to a fashion show at a fashion school and I liked it. There was a questionnaire I filled out, I didn’t know that there was a prize to win, but I won! The prize was to fund my first year. So I said, “OK, why not, let’s go!” So I never really dreamed about being a fashion designer, or searched for it, it just came into my life. But when I started my studies I loved it and I always created with love and pleasure.
Tempe: What originally attracted you to the Ann Demeulemeester aesthetic?
Sébastien: The dream that she was giving to people. She’s such a poet and it’s amazing to see how she can make a movie with clothes in a show, that was what I liked the most in Ann’s process and work. It’s amazing to work on this constantly, it’s like feeling that you have to enter in the skin of a poet. It’s magic and pleasant and dreamy.
All clothing and accessories by ANN DEMEULEMEESTER SS20.