The Big Interview

A.F. Vandevorst

We spoke with Filip Arickx, the husband of An Vandevorst and male counterpart of the Belgian designer duo that is A.F. Vandevorst.

by Chloé Bauwens

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 On September 22nd, 2017, the last Friday before Paris Fashion Week's spring/summer 2018 schedule broke loose, Filip Arickx and An Vandevorst communicated that their – now twenty-year-old – label, A.F. Vandevorst, would stop its prêt-à-porter collection. The press release explained that the fashionable couple wanted to dedicate themselves to what they do best and love the most: creating shoes and limitless designs. In Belgium, the news regarding the famous label's change of direction naturally spread like wildfire, from raising questions about what would happen to the flagship boutique in Antwerp to analysing the motivation behind the pair's decision. For Filip, the reason is clear-cut. 'We want to be able to focus on the creativity that lies behind a collection, to put an end to the dependence on existing deadlines and pre-set rules', Filip explained consciously. 'By doing this, we will automatically regain freedom as designers, something that in its turn will spark new creativity and ideas.' 

As raconteurs within the fashion industry, telling a story with their collection has always carried great significance for Filip and An. Whimsical ideas like garbage bags as clothing are turned into skilful fashion designs as they proved with their autumn 2017 couture debut. These visual stories will still be a big part of A.F. Vandevorst going forward, even if the focus turns to accessories. 'Telling and presenting a story will remain essential to us, also in our shoe designs', Filip elaborates on the subject. 'It's not because we are terminating the prêt-à-porter collection in its current form, that it will cease to exist completely. We will still design and produce clothing. Just not in the way or by the deadlines that are being used at the moment.' When explained like this, Filip and An's choice to 'end their prêt-à-porter collection' sounds a lot less daunting. It's a business decision, a new path that allows them to explore what they've been doing from the start: being creative and finding a balance between style and success.

A love story

When talking to Filip (or An), it's impossible not to bring up Antwerp. Not only is this the city where they both studied at the Fashion Academy, but Antwerp is also the place they first met, where A.F. Vandevorst is now based and where their first and only flagship store opened in 2014. 'We ran into each other in the hallway at the Academy in our first year', Filip recalls. 'We started talking and immediately felt an attraction to one another. Afterwards, we ended up in the same class, and that's when our friendship became more profound. Another year later, we started a relationship. We've now been married for twenty years.' The same – dare we say unbreakable? – chemistry that Filip and An share on a personal level translated into their love for fashion and their careers. While An went to work for Belgian designer Dries Van Noten after graduating, Filip worked as a freelance stylist and designer for Dirk Bikkembergs. After seven years of gaining experience, the couple decided that the time was right to share their personal ideas and take on fashion. In 1997 the pair launched their label and their first autumn/winter 1998 collection. 

Personal adventures and professional events merge into one life, a life that we share on a day-to-day basis.
 While some might question the statistical probability of success when working together as a couple, Filip and An have proven that for them keeping their work and personal life separated hasn't been an issue. 'We don't keep our private life disconnected from our work', Filip tells us. 'That would be impossible. Everything we do comes forth from experiences we enjoy together. Personal adventures and professional events merge into one life, a life that we share on a day-to-day basis.' This tandem-like movement behind A.F. Vandevorst might raise some eyebrows but certainly isn't unique in fashion. 'Even designers that set out on this journey on their own, have a sounding board to rely on', Filip explains. 'Ann Demeulemeester had her husband helping out behind the scenes, Dries Van Noten has his partner Patrick Vangheluwe, Walter Van Beirendonck and Dirk Van Saene work together. Those are all Belgian examples, but the same trend can also be spotted abroad. Just think of Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole or Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Every designer needs a sounding board, a partner to touch base with, to bounce ideas off of. That partner can stand alongside you on stage, as we do, or be more behind the scenes. But you can rest assured that there's someone there.' 

Room for discussion

  When a pair has been working together for as long as An and Filip, it's understandable that numerous interviews have already discussed the synergy between the two of them. While fashion is the obvious common denominator, there's also their obsession with hospital stuff and the fact that both wanted to be a dancer as a child. Aside from these analyses of who the people behind A.F. Vandevorst are, time also allowed An and Filip to create clear duties for themselves. 'Anneke', Filip says endearingly, 'usually focuses on designing and sketching the collections while my part entails our visibility to the outside world. The creative input for the runway, the images, styling, the boutique. Those are my responsibilities. Both of these roles are creative in nature, and both are equally important regarding the name and identity behind our label.' While An is responsible for the designs behind the collections, the inspiration behind each story is split fifty-fifty. 'We get our inspiration from the countries we visit together, the concerts we watch, the books we read and the films we see', Filip says. 'That's where everything starts, that's where the discussions start, and the collection takes form.' 
Two different opinions search each other, see each other and meet somewhere. That's when we can start being creative.
The word 'discussion' doesn't come with a negative undertone when Filip utters it. For the pair, discussions are an essential and decisive element behind their design process. 'Everything results from a discussion', Filip explains. 'There's no use in being creative within a negative discussion, but our discussions are constructive. Maybe we should use the word dialogue instead. To us, it's pivotal to evaluate and analyse everything we do together. The fact that these conversations result in a collection isn't because our opinions collide, but because two different opinions search each other, see each other and meet somewhere. That's when we can start being creative.' This way of working together by starting a dialogue isn't only used when Filip is working with An, but also when the couple collaborates with other designers like the milliner Stephen Jones. It's also in line with the need for a soundboard when working in fashion. 'Maybe that's my biggest piece of advice for emerging designers', Filip decides. 'Make sure you have someone to talk to. Surround yourself with a strong team, with people from different disciplines and work together with them to come to one concrete entity.'

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