Ricky Martin and Berluti’s Kris Van Assche reflect on two decades of radical self expression

20 years after ‘Livin la Vida Loca’ became a global smash hit, the musician and the creative director discuss coming out, speaking up against oppression, and the subversive power of personal style for Document Fall/Winter 2020

What do we mean when we talk about the counterculture? For a long time, the term referred to anything that challenged prevailing norms. When the editor of the La Crosse Register wrote a letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1956, to excoriate Elvis Presley for arousing teenagers to “sexual indulgence and perversion,” he was sounding the alarm for those who subscribed to a narrow set of white, straight, conservative values that didn’t include self-expression, sexual freedom, or very much of anything that might be deemed “fun.” Although counterculture movements have waxed and waned since the birth of rock, reaching an apotheosis with the Summer of Love, the ghost of Elvis continues to haunt the gatekeepers of the status quo: Music, allied with its equally rebellious accomplice, fashion, can be radically transformative.

It’s unlikely that this history was top of mind when Matt Lauer and Katie Couric introduced Ricky Martin to US audiences of the Today show in 1999 as “the Puerto Rican Elvis.” Although he shared Presley’s hip-thrusting moves and suave good looks, Martin was still largely a creation of the contemporary music industry, having been thrust into the spotlight at the age of 12 as the then youngest member of the Latinx boy band Menudo. As he explains to Kris Van Assche in this astute conversation with Document, “They were telling me what to wear and even what to say and what to sing.” It took time for Martin to find his voice, but when he did—defying friends and colleagues by coming out publicly in 2010—he was unstoppable.

Van Assche began his own career in fashion at Yves Saint Laurent shortly before Martin’s explosive single “Livin’ la Vida Loca” became a global smash, but what interested the designer in choosing Martin as an interlocutor is the radicalism that turned a pop star into a countercultural force—using his enormous fame as a platform to challenge assumptions and hypocrisies. “I am a Latino gay man married to an Arab living in Trump’s America,” Martin says. “Is that counterculture? Well, maybe it is.”

At the same time as Martin was making waves in the United States, Van Assche was in the foothills of his career, working as first assistant to Hedi Slimane on his Rive Gauche Pour Homme line. Van Assche would present his own eponymous collection in 2005, before taking over as artistic director of Dior Homme from 2007 to 2018 when he left to helm the luxury brand Berluti. As with Martin, the pandemic challenged his decades-long work ethic. “I was not ready, and I was not prepared,” he says. “My house has never been an office—I didn’t even have a printer there.”

But the pandemic also gave both men space to reflect on their values. “I learned a totally different rhythm,” says Van Assche. “Everything was way calmer, so I learned things can happen in a more serene way. It’s been a total reset for me, I must say.” Here the two men swap observations about life in a pandemic and what ‘counterculture’ means in an era when anyone with a phone is also a judge.

Aaron Hicklin: Both of you have public-facing careers that are about presentation and engaging with people. I’m curious what you both think about being in pandemic mode for seven months now. Have you given thought to how this will fundamentally transform the way we work, live, be?

Ricky Martin: I think we’ve been forced to get creative. The level of anxiety for me was very overwhelming when I first heard, ‘We’re going to cancel the tour, and God knows if you’re ever going back on the road.’ This is all I’ve done since I was 11 years old. Music-wise, I locked myself in the studio because that was the only way I could let go of the amount of emotion I was feeling. I started reaching out to my colleagues. Everybody was on the same track: anxious, overwhelmed, sad. We were all grieving for what was. We’ve been forced to jump into this meditational kind of approach to life. Living in America with the insanity [of our] leaders, it’s very hard to be hopeful. I don’t want to sound cliché, but thinking out of the box and creating other things within music—that has been my medicine.

Kris Van Assche wears t-shirt, pants, bracelet, and belt (worn throughout) his own. Photographed by Louis Canadas in Paris. Groomer Michaël Delmas.

Kris Van Assche: [My experience was] quite similar because I’ve been doing this job for over 20 years. I’ve literally just had one fashion week where I was not working on a show—the first two months I was at Berluti which was a very conscious choice. But apart from that, for over 20 years, every six months I’ve had a fashion show. So not doing a fashion week seemed like something that was totally impossible.

We were all discussing the virus for weeks, but when we did decide to all confine and quarantine, all of that was decided within 24 hours. It was a very instant decision, so I was totally not prepared. My house has never been an office; I would always keep work at work. I didn’t even have a printer there. Quickly, I started organizing. I needed a method, I needed a system. That kept everybody healthy, even when we were sometimes getting very upset and losing confidence.

I learned a totally different rhythm because, obviously, the work rhythm was not the same working at home. Everything was way calmer than the hectic moments we’d get into at the office. I learned things can happen in different ways; they don’t always go like they have been going for 20 years. It has been a total reset for me.

“You tell me ‘counterculture,’ and I go to so many places. I am a Latino gay man married to an Arab living in Trump’s America. Is that counterculture?”—Ricky Martin

Ricky: I was going to show you, Kris, some crazy pictures that I found on the internet of me and my fashion, back in the ’80s. I’ve tried it all, my friend. I had Lycra shiny pants. Back then, I was just following orders ’cause I was part of this band. I was part of a concept, and they were telling me what to wear and even what to say and what to sing. But it was kind of revolutionary if you think about it, in the sense of the brightness and the colors. What were you wearing in the ’80s? I would love to see it now.

Kris: I’m in this happy generation where there are no images of me, either on Google or Instagram, before I was twentysomething. Which I think is a pretty nice place to be. Because I did some very wrong looks for sure.

Ricky: It’s really interesting, back in the ’80s everyone wanted to look like the celebrities. Every girl wanted to look like Madonna with her bows and her bracelets, or George Michael with leather pointy boots, or Michael Jackson with his leather jacket. Now it’s completely different. Tell me if I’m wrong, but now kids look at celebrities differently. It’s almost like instead of the fan wanting to look like the artist, it’s more like the fan saying, ‘He looks like us. I think he can hang with us.’

Kris: Obviously, the internet and Instagram totally changed our lives. Now everything is out there, billions of people posting pictures all the time. It’s a nice evolution because all information is accessible to everybody, but there was actually also something quite nice about having to make an effort to learn about stuff. When I was a young kid and I wanted to learn about fashion, it would take an effort to find an Italian Vogue or something in my hometown in Belgium. Now everything is out there, so it loses some of its value. I feel in the same way when I was looking up to stars, like Madonna, you mentioned, but even like you.

Ricky: Oh, thank you.

Ricky Martin photographed by Pat Martin in Los Angeles. Ricky Martin’s Stylist Consultant: Douglas VanLaningham. Groomer Joey Nieves at The Only Agency. Photo Assistant Walker Lewis.

Kris: There was something quite nice about the fact of not being able to approach. Now everything seems at hand. It’s the same with fashion: It used to be something quite distanced, which would actually make people dream a lot. Now it’s all about mass production and mass collaborations, and everything is at hand for everybody.

Aaron: This seems like an interesting place to introduce the concept of a counterculture because it used to be something you had to discover. It was always on the margins. But the margins seem to be everything now, like we’re all in this big space together.

Ricky: Counterculture has become kind of mainstream, right? It’s funny because you tell me ‘counterculture,’ and I go to so many places. I am a Latino gay man married to an Arab living in Trump’s America. Is that counterculture? Well, maybe it is. It is. We pretty much check all the boxes as a family.

Kris: Even though everything is accessible and all information is out there, it doesn’t mean that people have become more tolerant. So I do feel that standing up for what you believe in, being yourself, whatever social background you come from, that is the absolute counterculture. Allowing yourself to be judged and to be different is the ultimate counterculture of today, because literally everybody who has a phone has become a judge.

Ricky: I keep talking about women in my life that have given me strength. Of course, my mother, but what about the surrogate mothers that have carried my babies? Everybody told me, ‘Ricky, that is crazy, that is so not Christian, how dare you do that?’ And I’m like, ‘Well thanks to Christianity and thanks to surrogacy, Jesus came to this world, right? I mean wasn’t Maria an incredible surrogate mother?’ It’s this constant battle and struggle of people trying to bring me down when I have done nothing but just be.

We need to be strong, and we need to be honest with who we are. For fashion and for music, this is what people are looking for. People are tired of the act. They just want to sense the raw vulnerability that’s on the other side of the screen.

Aaron: As someone who’s a mainstream pop star as you are Ricky, when you take a stand about anything—whether it’s your sexual orientation, about deciding to be a father, or to participate in a political rally, as you did in Puerto Rico last year—how does that change you? How are you a different person from the person you were 20 years ago, before all of this?

Ricky: Well, 20 years ago I was so ignorant. I had no idea the power that I had in my hands. It was a lot of work, but it was also a game for me. I think it was a defense mechanism until I couldn’t take it anymore. The way I see it is if you have the opportunity to talk to millions of people through social media, you have to take a stand. This is your duty. I didn’t know this in my teen years and in my 20s, even though I became a [Goodwill] Ambassador for UNICEF at the age of 12, so I was exposed to different realities than mine. But obviously, when I went to Puerto Rico and I saw the tyranny, and I saw the desperation of the people, I couldn’t hold back. I had to be aggressive, I had to be strong, I had to fight for people’s rights. They were trying to get rid of my basic human rights, and I was not going to allow that to happen. The amount of love I received after that was incredible. When I stood up in that truck with that humongous rainbow flag, I said, ‘This picture will stay with me forever.’

Every artist should take a stand. I started fighting human trafficking many years ago, but every issue is interconnected. Within the octopus of human trafficking, we find the LGBTQ community unfortunately being forced into prostitution and into pornography. That is something that I don’t like, especially with kids. So I will use my music and my social media to talk about these things that I am really concerned about.

Aaron: Kris, how does that relate to you in terms of what’s changed perhaps in the way that you see your role and your position?

Kris: It’s on a much more humble level because I’m not such a public figure, but it’s always been about accepting the fact that I felt different. I grew up in a very traditional family where the main rule was don’t stand out. My family had nothing to do with arts, with creativity, with homosexuality. So my life was all set out for me: I would have a beautiful wife, two kids, a beautiful garden, a dog, two cars, and be an accountant or something.

It took courage to stand up to that. Fashion has its icons, has its rules, has its champions, and it’s quite a challenge to stay faithful to what you actually believe in because the power of the masses is very big.

Aaron: In what ways is style a manifestation of who we are—of our ideals and our beliefs? How do the clothes we wear reflect the way we want to present in the world?

Kris: I remember being 10 and all my friends, everybody, was wearing jeans. I asked my grandmother, who was very close to me, to sew me classical trousers. Pleated pinstripe trousers, that is. So it was already about trying to express something: I was a little different, at least clothes-wise. Clothes are definitely something that you express your personality with. Even when I was 15, 18, I was already dressing in all black, and that has kind of stuck with me, so there is something very personal about it.

I guess at a very early stage I, like any other kid, was trying to blend in. But for other reasons, I just didn’t. I didn’t like playing football; I didn’t want to talk about cars all day. I mean at seven to ten years old, I was interested in things that boys are usually not interested in—basically, fashion—and most of my friends were girls. This happens to a lot of young gay kids. Once I realized that I didn’t fit in, what saved me or what gave me strength was to actually make the difference even bigger, to stand out in that sense. Counterculture is to actually remain faithful to yourself when there’s so much pressure to blend in. I can’t even imagine how much pressure was on Ricky’s shoulders not to reveal his homosexuality. To then really stand for what you are, that has all my respect.

Ricky: It was really interesting in that sense because they had to slap me once so that I could talk, and then they had to slap me twice for me to shut up. I really needed to talk about everything, all the emotions that I was dealing with. I could only think about my career and the hits and the music and the next sound and the next concert, because I did not want to think about me, about my nature and my identity. I always loved fashion; I was always ready to try new things. I wanted to let everybody know that I was gay, but I didn’t want to use that word because of the internalized homophobia. So let’s do it with fashion. I always took risks. I will always give a lot of credit to all those designers and stylists that were constantly, ‘C’mon, Ricky! You can pull this off, you can try it, do it, do it.’ They’ve impacted my life in a very beautiful way.

Today, when age-appropriate, I still take risks. I need to. I don’t know if it’s my star sign, I’m a Capricorn, I like challenges. Now, it’s about my kids. It’s me telling them, ‘Be free. Be who you are. Wear whatever you want.’ My child the other day said, ‘Dad, I want my hair pink,’ and I’m like, ‘Get the dye, let’s make it happen!’ Because that is freedom, that is liberty. To eventually say, ‘My dad allowed me to be.’

“Once I realized that I didn’t fit in, what saved me or what gave me strength was to actually make the difference even bigger, to stand out.”—Kris Van Assche

Aaron: To go back to counterculture, can having those values coexist while working in a corporate industrial complex like the music or fashion industries? 

Kris: I try not to bring politics into my work, but every so often really horrible things happen or are said, and I just can’t stick to that rule. That’s when I will take a very clear position in what I think. It’s very often, in my case, linked to homophobia and racism. Some things you just can’t let people get away with, so I will stand up. It’s a very brutal world we live in, and it’s not enough to just be a nice person. You also need to be clear about the fact that you don’t agree with that brutality.

Ricky: In my case, it was crazy because I had two managers that were like, ‘You cannot say that. It’s gonna be the end of your career.’ My record company was like, ‘Are you sure you’re going to say that, be careful.’ At the end of the day, people respect when you have a point and you defend your point. My personal life, which is most important, has gained so much out of me being able to be honest about my needs, my rights. When my priority was to please everyone around me, I swear I was going insane. When you take care of yourself, it’s not egotistical at all, it’s self-esteem.

Aaron: Who were the people who inspired you and gave you a sense of values when you were teenagers?

Kris: I remember spending a lot of my time in my bedroom listening to music, going through music and fashion magazines. I was a bit of a Madonna fan. That did help me get through certain moments in life, because at that point she was surrounded by so many gay dancers, and Jean Paul Gaultier was there, and it felt like such a creative and free environment. It was a celebration of being different. Being different was not supposed to be a problem, it was supposed to be an advantage in life. In a weird way, I got into fashion because Jean Paul Gaultier became such a big presence within that world. My mom, who I was very close to, is the total opposite; very discreet, very humble. She taught me that two things are very important in life: Work hard and don’t get noticed. But then in my bedroom, it was all about Madonna and the celebration and the self-expression of difference.

Shirt, pants and belt by Berluti. Necklace by Wilfredo Rosado.

Ricky: Yeah, same here. I remember when Madonna released her book, her Sex book. I was like, ‘Wah!’

Kris: I remember when my mom found Madonna’s book in my bedroom…That was a problem.

Ricky: She was telling us to be comfortable in our skin, to be loud, and she was talking about things that no one was daring to talk about. Just like you, I was very influenced by her and her music. I know every choreography of Madonna.

I also go to José Feliciano, who is a Puerto Rican singer. I was always fascinated with his music, and he came to the United States and he made so many statements. Then we had Roberto Clemente, who was an amazing Major League Baseball player. He was talking back in the ’70s about racism in America and the importance of attacking this as soon as possible because the snowball effect was evident. And look what we’re dealing with at the moment.

We have to honor those incredible leaders in our community that opened our hearts and our minds to not only be who we are, but to campaign for everyone that follows us to be who they are with dignity and self-love.

Aaron: As artists, as people who work in fashion and music, two industries that are very central to our lives, where do you see your responsibility in terms of speaking truth to power?

Kris: I’m still a Belgian designer; my big example in life is Martin Margiela, who is a totally invisible designer. So I’m always attracted to letting the work do the talking and not being obligated to take a stand on everything. My heart always balances. But as I mentioned before, when certain messages out there are too brutal or too [targeted at] certain groups of people, then I will take a stand, for sure. I will do it when it becomes intuitive to really react. I think it’s definitely important.

Ricky: Oh, man, at this point in my life, I think that every time I show up. I am #Resistance because of everything that I am, because of everything I represent. It’s evident that I kind of just go against the tide always. Some people are like, ‘Ricky, stick to music.’ Now, I’m going to talk even more because you just said that.