The Big Interview

Wouters & Hendrix

For 33 years, Katrin Wouters and Karen Hendrix have reaped the joyous rewards of creative collaboration. The jewellery designers, who met at the legendary Antwerp Academy, talk to us about the path they’ve taken.

by Siska Lyssens

SHOP The collection

The Wouters & Hendrix HQ is located in a former Elixir d’Anvers factory – a local spirit –, tucked away in an Antwerp suburb. It’s a light and airy place to work for the 40 employees, all bar one is female. The atelier, showroom and upstairs offices are abuzz with peaceful activity. ‘An atelier like this would be impossible to find in a city like Paris or London’, says Karen. ‘Antwerp always had a strong attraction for us’, adds Katrin, in that typical relaxed way long-term friends finish each other's thoughts. ‘It’s like a village – everyone knows everyone – but there’s just so much creativity. Its size was never an issue for us.’

‘An atelier like this would be impossible to find in a city like Paris or London’, says Karen. ‘Antwerp always had a strong attraction for us’, adds Katrin, in that typical relaxed way long-term friends finish each other's thoughts. ‘It’s like a village – everyone knows everyone – but there’s just so much creativity. Its size was never an issue for us.’

It’s a stance heard regularly among creatives in the Flemish city, especially those from the generation of the Antwerp Six, of which Wouters & Hendrix are a part. But make no mistake, the pair has had an international outlook from day one. ‘We always said to ourselves that we would sell internationally’, stresses Karen, ‘because it was important to us to be able to evaluate to what extent we could play a role on a global level.’


Their first brush with international audiences occurred when Katrin joined a fellow Academy student on a trip to New York when she was in her third year. ‘He had told me to take my jewellery along. I wasn't used to opening myself up like that so early, but in the States, the mentality is different.’ She continues: ‘until then, I wasn’t aware that the fashion world was beginning to collaborate with jewellery designers. Calvin Klein, for example, came to jewellery galleries to lend pieces for their fashion styling. Those galleries started to enquire if I had considered putting my pieces into production.’

The process of creation

Before that, the two designers viewed their work purely as artistic pièces uniques, but upon her return, Katrin spoke to Karen about it, and things all suddenly clicked into place. ‘It seemed very cool to create our own jewellery, put the pieces into production, and make a living from it.’ Karen adds: ‘It was especially exciting that this allowed us to find a way to retain the artistic aspect and create accessible jewellery at the same time. It’s easy to make fantastical designs, but it has to be technically feasible, too.’

After graduation, Katrin and Karen took to Paris for the International Fashion Fair and to London for the British Designer Show. Slowly but surely, things progressed, and the company grew – they evolved from doing everything themselves to hiring CEOs and goldsmiths. ‘It’s interesting to have done every task there is to do in the company’, tells Katrin. ‘It gives you the insight to have an understanding for the employees who take on specific roles.’

Studio Coffeeklatch
 
The designer duo emphasises that the fact that they decided to start a business together had less to do with friendship than with mutual respect. ‘We were both studying at the Academy, I one year higher up than Katrin’, explains Karen. ‘It was our work that brought us together and made us decide to take that step. Not because we knew each other well, but because we admired each other’s work. I believe that starting point was the key to the success of our partnership. It allowed us to accept each other’s criticism.’ 

It’s interesting to have done every task there is to do in the company

This interaction means that each Wouters & Hendrix piece of jewellery is a collaborative effort. ‘It’s impossible to attribute one design to one person because each design comes about via inspiration or improvement by one to the other', they say. 

In the 33 years that they’ve designed together, they’ve developed a solid working routine. Usually, their starting point is an atmosphere or a feeling of the sense they think the new collection should take, which they thoroughly discuss. Then, they explore links with art history they feel translate that atmosphere. Once those ideas are delineated, they each take to their workbenches to start drawing. ‘After a day or two, three, we put our heads together again and start to exchange our ideas and designs – almost like judging’, says Katrin. ‘This way the other person always impacts your design.’

After this many years, Karen and Katrin can simply sense what the other is thinking. Karen laughs: ‘for other people, it’s the worst – it’s really hard to get in between us! You’re together all day, and there’s no more need to talk. But it is necessary to get to know each other and each other’s reactions.’

There’s no doubt that the two women did just that. Their friendship has only grown exponentially. ‘We learned so much about friendship, feeling, collaboration and communication’, continues Katrin. ‘As in a marriage, you have to be able to talk about things that bother you, to be open.’ Karen agrees. ‘You share the happy moments, but also the hard ones. That’s the beauty of it.’

Studio Coffeeklatch

Stories behind stories

The act of creating jewellery in itself is a profession they consider wonderful and gratifying. ‘The most beautiful thing about jewellery is that you contribute to someone else’s being. People almost never wear jewellery for no reason. Often there’s a background, a story’, says Karen. ‘We’ve noticed lots of our customers are very loyal to us and to the pieces they wear.’

But what’s really striking is how the customers' stories seem to merge with the stories behind Wouters & Hendrix pieces’ conception. ‘We don’t design with ourselves in mind’ explains Karen. ‘We also don’t own a lot of the jewellery we’ve made over the years – although we can feel regret about not taking some for ourselves sometimes!’

Often, the narratives that Karen and Katrin try to weave into pieces have more to do with themes like romanticism and humour. ‘The romance of recuperating old techniques is something we love’ beams Katrin. ‘Going to visit old factories or craftspeople and creating something new within these settings. Or the romance of old artefacts like medals – objects that inspire reminiscences.’

‘What’s important too is the sense of surprise’, adds Karen. ‘The unrecognisable, surreal element. Making people wonder “how on earth did they think of that?”’ The bird’s feet brooches of their fine jewellery collection combine these elements beautifully, as do the gourmet chainrings. The unexpectedness of the designs in combination with the precious materials is a Wouters & Hendrix trademark, a part of the universe they’ve built from their Academy days onwards.

Studio Coffeeklatch

‘It was at the Academy that we really learned to conceptualise themes and perhaps that is why the thought processes behind our pieces are not always obvious’, says Karen. ‘But that’s what makes them distinctive.’ Katrin continues: ‘From the beginning we’ve put in a lot of effort into the entire image, the feel that surrounds a collection and that defines our brand. We care about presentation – it’s an extra creative outlet for us.’

These days, what with their stand-alone stores in Antwerp, Knokke, Brussels and Amsterdam, in addition to multi-brand shops that carry their collections, Karen and Katrin have more free reign to present their collections as they wish. ‘It’s so much fun to be able to tell your own story your way and see how customers interact with our collection.’

Funnily enough, they never even thought they would open their own store at first. ‘We’re very impulsive and follow our gut feeling’, they say. ‘We always said we’re never going to open our own store, and now we have four!’, Karen laughs. ‘Perhaps the right question is not what we’ll do next but what we won’t do!’

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