But doesn’t the fact that you’re not responsible to shareholders and such allow you a certain amount of freedom?
Look at it the other way. It’s also very difficult because I feel very responsible. I have to do embroidery every season one way or another because the production is in India and we have nearly 3,000 people in India doing embroidery. So as a designer, I can say, “Okay, I don’t want to do embroidery this season.” But then they’re affected and those people who have worked for us for so long might start to look for other jobs and then the season I want to do embroidery again it will be difficult. I can say, “I want to make a white collection,” but [my sense of responsibility] affects everything. So then I have to do white-on-white embroidery.
In the new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, Impressionism and Fashion, we see that the artists didn’t deliberately set out to paint clothes. But as a designer, your references to art are more intentional.
For Winter 2009, I did the collection with colours from Francis Bacon, which I still consider one of my best collections ever. It didn’t sell very well. I think if we were to make it now – maybe it was just the wrong thing at the wrong moment.
It was also a weird time – the first season after the economy tanked.
Yeah, but it was a very interesting collection to make. I just wanted to combine those colours and recreate the emotions when I came out of that exhibition. I was shocked; it was just so horribly beautiful. And that’s one of the reasons why it maybe didn’t sell so well because I pushed boundaries which were about my aesthetic taste. The first five silhouettes were a trip. Who buys a gabardine raincoat in shrimp [pink]?
What do you feel when you consider that you’ve been in the business for 25 years?
I have just as much energy as when I was starting my career. And now I have [the advantages that come with] the luggage – the baggage – of my past, which I can easily go back to. But then I’ll say that something was from 1994 and an assistant will say, “In that year, I was not even born.” And that reminds me that I’m old.
Your father had clothing shops all over Belgium. Did he support your career choice?
When I was 18, I had to choose between business and fashion studies. So I chose the fashion school, which was more exciting. And I told him, “You know, I don’t think I will take over the stores. I will become a fashion designer.” And he said, “If you want to do that, it’s okay, but I’m not paying for your studies. Out you can go.” It was a big clash. So I had to work to pay for my studies and build up my company. In the later years, he started to understand maybe it was not such a stupid idea. And now he’s too old to realize what’s happening.
What pushes you out of bed in the morning?
It’s not as easy as saying I really want to go to the office or I really want to go to the garden. What’s exciting is when you can do it well – not too much of one or the other. With fashion, you know there are going to be difficult moments. I am fascinated by the struggle to create something, which is sometimes hurting and sometimes fun. Sometimes when you’re getting there, it’s like, yes, we did it and found the right balance. Sometime it’s sleepless nights about how high does the heel have to be. When it’s too high, it’s slutty; when it’s not high enough, it’s mumsy. So all these things. And the garden, too.
Do you think there’s still newness in fashion?
Maybe new is the wrong thing. The 20th century was about invention and next-next-next, all before an idea was fully explored. This was in art, fashion, industry – it was all changing so fast. Now, in the beginning of the 21st century, it’s not always bad to go back to the past and review. In art, people are rediscovering painting and drawing, whereas before they couldn’t get enough of video and installations. For me, it’s the same thing – back to embroidery and beautiful clothes. Definitely no plastic.
This interview and has been edited and condensed.