FLORENCE — “I do not like timeless: it is such a misleading concept,” says Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester. “Sometimes it is just a way to hide banal, bland designs, or things that do not have temper. I am fond of Le Corbusier, for instance, in particular what he did in the 1920s. Well, that work for me is not timeless, but definitely of the 20s, and yet it still matters.”
Demeulemeester has achieved the same kind of enduring modernity in clothing. Indeed, as we speak the evidence is before our eyes in the form of a retrospective titled “Curious Wishes Feathered the Air’’ that opens today at Stazione Leopolda in Florence. It consists of 46 silhouettes shown in the dark under glaring spotlights to a compelling mash-up of tracks from rockers and poets including Nico, Nick Cave, Patti Smith and PJ Harvey. The spare romance of the exhibition’s staging is signature Demeulemeester. And despite featuring looks from 1993 to 2013, its contents look like a collection that’s ready to hit the catwalk here and now. Everything appears to be both of its time and yet completely modern. Everything has a soul.
Demeulemeester — both Ann of Antwerp and the label that bears her name, which in 2020 was acquired by New Guards Group co-founder Claudio Antonioli through his Dreamers Factory moniker — is a guest of honour at the latest instalment of trade show Pitti Uomo. Ann retired from the brand in 2013, but her work still resonates today, for its intensity, its authenticity and its craft. “All through my career, I have worked with my hands, in infinite perfectionism,” she says, eyes bright but calm. “I do porcelain and furniture now, just like I did fashion. But I recall every single dart, every single cut on the pieces shown here, as I worked on the patterns myself.”
What comes across in the exhibition is both the continuity of her vision and the subtle but relentless change she brought to her work over the years. Certainly there is consistency: a monochromatic palette of black and white, slouchy shapes, tails, monasticism, romance. But if Ann’s work can look monotonous to untrained eyes, at closer inspection it glistens with engaging contradictions: the mixture of romance and abrasion; a contemporary spirit laden with history; the layering of evanescence and sharpness; the androgyny, not in the sense of a woman looking like a man, or vice versa, but in the sense of true genderless-ness.
As a designer, Demeulemeester has always explored the undefined power of spirit rather than the narrow constrictions of sharp definition. She talks a lot about the importance of soul. “It is what gives life to a piece,” she says. “I came to fashion completely by chance,” she recalls. “I have always been interested in drawing, portraiture in particular. When you paint a portrait, you pay attention to what your subject is wearing. To me, clothes are tools of self-representation.” This is apparent in the Pitti installation. The room is filled with personalities, not just clothes.
The exhibition comes as the Ann Demeulemeester label is attempting a turnaround. When Claudio Antonioli acquired it, seven years after Ann stepped back, the brand was not doing well. The quality of its products had plunged. And while Sébastien Meunier’s creative direction kept the brand on track, it added little that was remarkable. “What I did was bring most of the production back to Italy and the style back to the codes,” explains Antonioli, who has thus far avoided naming a new designer, preferring to work with an anonymous studio team. Though he allows that, in due course, he might appoint a creative director.
The Pitti exhibition is an exercise in heritage, but it also serves as a kind of warning to Antonioli not to reduce the brand to a code but rather make its soul relevant for today’s moment. Demeulemeester cannot be reduced to a formula, and Antonioli knows that.
Ann herself is not involved in the revamp, apart from advising on special projects, such as the brand’s first perfume. “My motto? Never look back,” she says. I am reminded of a slogan that was printed on one of Demeulemeester’s T-shirts back in 2006: “What remains, is the future.”