Designer Kris Van Assche and musician Yoann Lemoine reflect on the last decade in fashion and look to the future

The former artistic director of Dior Homme speaks with the Grammy-nominated musician Woodkid on creativity in the age of Instagram and what it means to be one of the last long-term artistic directors in fashion.

Having spent the last 11 years as artistic director of Dior Homme, Kris Van Assche’s tempered hand has redefined couture codes for a contemporary audience. His often earnest references drew on the ’80s and ’90s subcultures he was introduced to as a teenager in the nightclubs of Belgium, specifically those of new wave and skateboarding. “I think of myself as a storyteller,” offers Van Assche during his first interview upon leaving Dior Homme for our forthcoming Spring / Summer issue. In practice, this evinced an aesthetic that at once paid homage to the archives of Monsieur Dior and his paradigms of precise tailoring, while pushing the men’s offering into unchartered territory, experimenting with volume, graphic logos borrowed from streetwear, and romantic flourishes. An appointed cohort of vanguard brand ambassadors such as A$AP Rocky, Larry Clark, and Robert Pattinson have helped to introduce it all to a new, youthful audience.

Van Assche’s ability for open dialogue, the push-pull of creative influence between muse and maker, is perhaps best embodied in his friendship with the Grammy-nominated musician Yoann Lemoine, aka Woodkid. Lemoine is also known for directing music videos for pop starlets such as Rihanna and Lana Del Rey and his recent collaborations with Pharrell Williams and John Legend, as well as the score he co-wrote with Nils Frahm for the JR-directed short Ellis, starring Robert De Niro. Van Assche employed Lemoine’s rich, orchestral EDM as the inspiration and soundtrack for his Fall/Winter 2013 collection and shortly thereafter, Lemoine worked with Van Assche to outfit the cast of his own self-directed music video. A mutual recognition and respect for each other’s work led to a close friendship. In the following conversation, conducted at Dior Homme’s Rue de Marignan headquarters surrounding the announcement of Van Assche’s departure as the longest-servicing artistic director of Dior Homme, Van Assche and Lemoine reflect on creativity, then and now.

Kris Van Assche—I remember coming to your concert, Yoann, in the Grand Rex and feeling that it was super modern music yet there were 50 something classical musicians onstage, with that incredible voice. The result is still so contemporary. I was literally blown away. I ended up using one of your tracks for a show. I really connected to the music and, I guess, the person behind the music.

Yoann Lemoine—It was a time when I was working on my record. I loved that you used the music, and I loved that collection. Afterwards, I asked you to dress me for some of my shows and to make a couple of pieces especially for the I Love You video that was based on
that collection.

Divya BalaWhat do you think it is about your music, Yoann, and your design hand, Kris, that dovetail so well?

Kris—I think it is poetry in a very contemporary way. I always felt there was a lot of strength, energy, and passion in your music, whilst being super poetic at the same time. It’s not a choice between being strong or poetic, it’s about being both.

Yoann—The sense of craft, the desire to make things that are well made, the technicality. It’s something I’ve tried to learn more and more in my music, to be technical, to always be curious about how you craft a sound, a melody, a harmony, how things work together, and it feels like Kris has never stopped doing that either. It’s always been about a strong attachment to craft, to making things that are absolutely, perfectly tailored, perfectly executed, and with never any cynicism—which I’ve always been very sensitive to because we live in an era of cynicism.

Kris—The way I would describe my own work is that I have one foot in tradition and one foot in the future, which is the same thing with Yoann. Eleven years at the helm of Dior Homme has been a true privilege. I was able to work with incredible people, on all levels, but especially with the tailors in the ateliers, who have amazing expertise. As I move forward now, my head and heart are filled with that experience. Yoann, I think you know all about the importance of tradition. You know how to write classical music, how to read it, how to feel it, how to compose it, but it still becomes something extremely contemporary. For me, that is the ultimate thing.

Divya—You must feel that way about Kris’s collections as well?

“It started feeling too perfect, too precious, so I felt it needed some bad taste. It was one of the first times I really went there. It’s never cynical, it’s really just to position things.”

Yoann—Especially the recent collections. I hadn’t realized it, but now that we’re talking about it, it feels like we’re moving in the same direction. We’re learning a little bit about destruction, almost sampling something. The way that I sample classical music is not like traditional sampling, but I write it, treat it like a sample, perform it, and then I take it and destroy it. We’ve talked about it before, how classical beauty in itself is not relevant anymore.

Kris—It becomes too perfect. I guess my work has always been about building bridges between youth and their culture, and a more traditional, elegant, and luxurious world. I truly believe I made young kids look differently at tailoring and luxury in general. At the same time, I have always worked on making luxury and tradition modern. It’s definitely a two-way bridge.

Yoann—You try to destroy the things that you know and clash it with things that are ugly, and we are looking more and more for uglier sounds that have a greater sense of texture and asperity. You don’t find this in classical music, even if you have a horn and a cymbal playing loudly. Everything is charted around a score and follows rules. Inside this, I try to just bring a couple of little bombs, either beats that come from hip hop or codes that come from somewhere else, and gradually destroy these things that I once thought were untouchable. I think this era is about destruction.

KrisBut always without cynicism. That’s the whole thing.

YoannI found absolutely no cynicism in the way you’ve done this in your collections. It’s more about tenderness, taking all the tradition of tailoring and the archives, and then clashing them with codes that are uncomfortable.

Kris—Well, they work on bad taste.

Yoann—We talked about this idea that there are things that we don’t want to show anymore. There are things that we reject that are from what we were before. You can come to terms with tenderness in retrospect. It’s about self-acceptance of who we are and where we come from. I believe there’s more modernity in that than in judgment.

Kris—We were having a discussion last night because we went to the Isamu Noguchi exhibition of lamps [personalized by Kris Van Assche], and we talked about my latest collection in January, and Yoann said, ‘I can’t believe you put all those tribal tattoo references in there. It’s so awkward because it reminds you of certain moments from when we were teenagers.’ It’s funny because I was working with all these archives from Mr. Dior, which, for me, is the ultimate in good taste. It started feeling too perfect, too precious, so I felt it needed some bad taste. It was one of the first times I really went there. It’s never cynical, it’s really just to position things. You have the beautiful tailoring and then you have something strong to balance it out, but it works better because there is something to oppose it. And I think that’s probably what you do also. You know what good taste in music is, the tradition of classical music, but then you also want to break it up because it makes you want to look at it or listen to it in a different way. Because when it’s all too pretty, you kind of float over it.

Yoann—And that is the intention sometimes. Things that I would’ve completely accepted a couple of years ago, I can’t accept anymore. Like the collection you are doing now, could you have done it five or six years ago?

Kris—Oh, no. Of course not.

Yoann Lemoine photographed in Paris. Photography by Tom Ordoyno

Divya—What is it about right now that inspires you to buck against tradition and blow things apart?

Yoann—I think it’s the troubled times. I think people are sick of an idea of perfection and we realize there are limits to it, that there’s only beauty as a solution, as a point of view.

Kris—It’s weird times, anyway. Everything now needs to fit within an Instagram square. There’s that and the speed of fashion, everybody’s been talking a lot about it. There’s really a lack of depth right now, I find. I guess the thing I should’ve answered when you asked what appeals to me in Yoann’s work is that he is a storyteller. And I think I am a storyteller in my work. But stories don’t fit in Instagram squares. And with all these in-between collections, mid-seasons, capsules, and collaborations, there seems to be less and less time for depth and for storytelling. So people tend to go quite brutal visually because that’s all you’re going to get as an explanation. I don’t think a classical, tailored collection is going to be a hit on Instagram. And if you’re not a hit on Instagram, then you’re in trouble. I feel there’s a pressure on creative people to be more and more visual, but in a way that requires less explanation. You can choose to see it as a challenge and say, ‘Okay, how do I react to that?’ Which makes more sense because you can’t change the times. So it’s about how that interferes with your work, to contrast and clash, allowing you to tell a story in a stronger way.

Yoann—There’s a thing in music that they want you to deliver. They talk about ‘hooks’ and they want as many in one song as possible. Things are instantly recognizable, instantly catchy and you can definitely see that in fashion, too—having hashtags and patterns that are identifiable gestures or ostensibly repeated throughout a collection. There’s a lack of subtle variation. I think that’s where the challenge is today, to deliver a very strong message in just a snap, just focusing on what you have to say quick and fast. I think that’s probably the way to do it. I don’t think I have found it yet. Maybe I’m too old for that already. As an artist, I think we have a responsibility to deliver things that have a form of depth. It can’t just be a copycat hashtag, or an easy way of doing things. I think it’s better to not be understood and fail, than not trying and delivering emptiness.

Divya—Both of you have been described as minimalists. What does that mean to you in your practice?

Kris—I don’t see Yoann as a minimalist at all. I see him as a purist, but that’s something else.

Yoann—I think I can be. I don’t dislike that word. Sometimes I say I’m a maximalist minimalist. When I write treatments for videos and concepts for projects, I always like it to be just one line. Within that one line, how do you engender things into a grand scale? I don’t like bringing in multiple dimensions that complicate understanding art in general. One thing about Kris’s work in general, with every single collection, there’s one thing you remember from it. One idea.

DivyaWhere are your ambitions focused right now, Kris?

Kris—For me, it’s just about becoming a better creative person. I’ve been here now for over 10 years. I was 31 when I got here, and it’s been an incredible adventure. It’s been super enriching for me. So, I find that there are many options now. What’s next, I have no idea other than a good vibe. Anything can happen. It’s a weird moment in fashion because everything goes so fast; there’s the musical chairs of creative directors, so there’s a lot going on, but I feel more prepared than I ever was for whatever is next. So that’s good. I have learned that hard work pays off.

“With collaborations and so on, people don’t think in seasons, but in drops, capsules, and projects. But people still give huge shows, so it all comes on top of shows.”

Yoann—There’s something about the pace of fashion. That’s one thing we don’t have in common, the pace at which we have to work. Fortunately, I don’t have a defined pace. I like to take my time. I need a lot of time to develop ideas because I feel like I deliver so much. And when I do, I have nothing left afterwards. So I always admire the everlasting inspiration that Kris has to move on.

Kris—I often have two moodboards at the same time on opposite sides of the room. But it really becomes a habit, and you get used to the rhythm of it. I tend to get really bored at the end of August because I have a month off! But do you also have certain projects for which you have deadlines?

Yoann—Yes, but they’re not vital.

DivyaThere’s no time pressure to put out your
next record?

Yoann—No. I have the extreme luxury of not having that pressure. The only pressure I have is the fear of being forgotten. But that is easily manageable. Do you think you’d make a better collection if you had two years to develop it?

Kris—No. Because the world is a different world two years later. I’m so used to the rhythm. I’m not complaining about the rhythm. I just feel like there is a moment where we should accept that we are at the highest speed at which we can actually deliver quality. I feel like right now there is a weird moment where it could actually even triple, still, if you listen to people. With collaborations and so on, people don’t think in seasons, but in drops, capsules, and projects. But people still give huge shows, so it all comes on top of shows. I feel like at some point you kind of have to accept the idea that not only can the designers not do more, but the clients can’t integrate more, either. So I find that we’ve kind of reached a good level of intensity. I wouldn’t want to go back to six months or a year per collection.

There is also something reassuring about being a designer in contrast with you. Every six months, if not every three months, I get a new chance at things; I can always adjust the message. Whereas with you, it’s more complicated. You drop a record, and maybe you won’t make another one for a couple of years. That would scare me more.

Yoann—You have less chances to fail. And then when your record is out, you have to tour it for two or three years, singing the same songs. I think probably the biggest difference between us, in the nature of our jobs, is that you never come back to a collection. You just move on.

Kris—Yeah, you just move on, but there is something nice about it. To compare music and cinema, when you read a bad review of a movie it’s like, ‘My god! Those people worked two years on a movie and the critic totally destroyed it.’ It might take another two years before they make another. I often feel very sorry for them because when I get a bad review, three months later there is a new story to tell so you can immediately adapt. I mean, I’m talking about reviews but also about personal satisfaction because you don’t like every show as much as all the others. Sometimes, something you were really believing in—a fabric, a story, a concept—just doesn’t work out the way you feel it should. So there is such a thing as a personal deception, too. But then you get to do something new immediately, so you don’t get time to cry either!

Yoann—You get a lot of time to cry as a musician.

Divya—It’s good material for the next track, I guess? What does the future hold for you, personally?

Kris—In the end, I always think of myself as a storyteller. For example, the stories we’ve told with our shows and other projects, together with my longtime stylist and collaborator Mauricio Nardi. This imaginary Dior Homme character we’ve created over the past 11 years would be a nice and interesting guy to meet, for sure. That’s what I will continue to do.