Walter Van Beirendonck, the unlikely 90’s fashion guru who looks like a cross between a Hell’s Angel and the Jolly Green Giant, captured my imagination when at one of his collection’s showings in Paris the front row seats normally reserved for celebrities and editors were occupied by stuffed bears, relegating the fashionistas to the back row behind the toys.
It was Walt’s ‘fuck you’ to the fashion establishment at a time when it was bookended by haute couture’s firmly entrenched elitism and the ‘flavour of the month’ sombre deconstructivism of the Japanese school led by Commes des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo.
Van Beirendonck burst on to the scene with cult clubwear label, Wild & Lethal Trash (W<, pronounced Walt); a riotous mashup of sci-fi, neon, ethnic, holographic, hi-tech, in-your-face, fetish, cartoony clothing which at first glance appeared to be no more than a visual cocktail of corrosive fun cooked up by a caustic adolescent mainlining raspberry cordial.
But on closer inspection W<’s work reveals deeper layers of meaning on everything from the environment and safe sex to the class system and the media, delivering a hearty meal that includes an amuse bouche of provocation, entree of social commentary and main course which carves up fashion snobbery (in fact Van Beirendonck was the very first designer to stream his shows live for all to see and put his collections online for all to access). That he completes his fashion feast with a dessert hit of psychopathic optimism and unbridled joie de vivre is the icing on the cake indeed.
Van Beirendonck is probably best known for his superhero outfits for U2’s 1997 PopMart tour, but he’s also designed costumes for the Paris Opera Ballet, collaborated with Bang and Olufsen, Coca Cola and, somewhat ironically, even Commes des Garcons.
But his footprint extends far beyond the Northern Hemisphere, with Australia’s own connection to Van Beirendonck running threefold; a collaboration with Australian industrial designer Marc Newson in 1998, a t-shirt project for electronica outfit The Avalanches in 2002 and until October this year, the staging of ‘Dream the World Awake’ at RMIT University’s Design Hub in Melbourne, the first major retrospective of his work outside Europe.
Perhaps it’s because Australia is still a relatively young, irreverent and essentially optimistic country that we find we have so much in common with Walter and his ethos.
I’m just hoping we can further lure him into our clutches with an Antipodean diffusion label collaboration called W<zing Matilda.