The Big Interview

Christian Wijnants

We sat down with Belgian designer Christian Wijnants, an aficionado of all things creative, colourful and real.

photography by Lee Wei Swee
interview by Chloé Bauwens
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His graduation collection won the Dries Van Noten Award for best collection in 2000 and took home the Grand Prix at the Festival d'Hyères. After starting his eponymous label in 2003, he won the Swiss Textiles Award in 2005, the ANDAM Awards in 2006 and the International Woolmark Prize in 2013. Two years later, he opened his first flagship store in Antwerp. Christian Wijnants' curriculum vitae reads like an intimidating express train with a fast track route towards success. But however daunting his résumé may seem, the young Belgian designer is anything but. His soft-spoken and kind demeanour immediately makes anyone who sets foot in his design studio feel at ease, opening the conversation and allowing every question to be asked and answered with careful precision. 
We meet with Wijnants on a hot summer day at his Antwerp studio, before the rush of September's never-ending parade of fashion weeks and showroom presentations. Wijnants and his team appear unworried and excited about things to come, and this feeling translates into a welcoming vibe, both in atmosphere and conversation. In an almost empty room, we take a seat with a glass of water – sweltering summer weather has the downside of making one extremely thirsty – and focus solely on the subject at hand: Wijnants' incredible career track and his realistic vision on his journey as a designer. 'When I first started my label, everything seemed to be moving at a relatively slow pace', Wijnants admits. 'The first two or three seasons, we only had a showroom, and that turned into a presentation and again into an even bigger presentation. It took two or three years before we had a 'real' show at fashion week. Those things don't magically happen overnight. It's a natural growth process, one that takes time, hard work, dedication and patience.' It's this down-to-earth approach towards his career, that makes Wijnants so accessible as a designer and enables a natural flow towards an otherwise strict and pre-set conversation. 

I heart Antwerp

With a fashion degree from Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts, a first job at Dries Van Noten – one of the designers of the notorious Antwerp Six – and a studio and flagship store in Antwerp, it's not hard to notice that Wijnants is extremely fond of Antwerp. The designer's roots are to be found in Brussels where he was born, but even that would be too restricting a focal point to explore Wijnants' early beginnings. 'I've never felt particularly Belgian, Flemish or Walloon. I'm a mixture of those things', he explains. 'My dad was bilingual, and the French and Dutch speaking parts of Belgium are, in fact, two very different cultures. The upbringing my father gave me became a natural mix of those divergent cultures. My mother on the other side is Swiss, and she raised us with those traditions and values in the back of her mind. Aside from my parents, Brussels in itself is an international and cosmopolitan city with a lot of influences. It's interesting to see how all of those different aspects of my youth changed me and my ideas of the world.' 

It wasn't until Antwerp was named as the cultural capital of Europe in 1993 that Wijnants got a taste of fashion and the Antwerp Six during an exhibition. 'I was fourteen or fifteen at the time, and that exhibition made a profound impact on me. I immediately became fascinated by fashion and what you could accomplish with clothing and styling. If you were to ask me where the foundation for my passion and career path lies, it all comes down to Antwerp and the Antwerp Six.' After finding his fascination, it became apparent to Wijnants that Antwerp and its Academy was the place to be for him. Aside from its connection to the Antwerp Six, the creativity and freedom that the Academy offers its students was an alluring aspect. 'It's a unique opportunity to have as much freedom as students are allowed to in Antwerp. Some schools focus more on the technical or business aspects, and that limits the possibility to create an entire collection, early on in your academic career. It's tough though. Not the way of teaching, but the daily confrontations with yourself that come hand in hand with being granted complete creative freedom. Teachers aren't always there to offer solutions, they will point out a problem in your design, and then it's up to you to figure out how to tackle it. It's hard, but it teaches you to keep questioning your every move, to second guess your initial decisions, to stay critical and keep searching for perfection. This way of teaching keeps you on your toes constantly. You need to have the guts to tear everything down, start over, improve yourself and work harder. It's a hard process, but it's an amazing way to learn.'

In fashion, you need a lot of talent and ideas, but you also need the persistence to power through when things get rough and to keep working hard every day.
This learning curve has proven to be a challenge for a lot of students that start at Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts. While they can start with up to eighty students in the first year, they'll end their master's usually with eight to twelve remaining designers. 'The fact that people drop out each year stimulated me to work even harder to survive. In fashion, you need a lot of talent and ideas, but you also need the persistence to power through when things get rough and to keep working hard every day. In the end, Antwerp was the ultimate preparation for a career as a designer in the actual industry.' Having survived his four years at Antwerp and being awarded the Dries Van Noten Award for best collection, one might think that Wijnants immediately set out to build his label. Instead, he accepted a job to go and work for his big example and the man behind his first award, Dries Van Noten. 'I would recommend this to everyone who graduates, get some real experience, work for an existing designer or fashion house and get a taste of what life out there is really like. At the Academy, you witness one aspect of the job: the creativity, but when it comes to starting your own label, you need to have a sense of the commercial aspect as well. My best advice to any young, budding designer is to go and work for someone else and get that priceless experience.' 

Slow but steady

After gaining experience at Dries Van Noten, Wijnants decided it was time to set out on his own. Naturally, he didn't leave without some welcome advice from his trusted mentor. 'When I informed everyone at Dries Van Noten that I had the intention to start my label, they told me not to underestimate the process, the commercial aspects and building strong and lasting relationships with my clients. At the time there were a few young designers like Olivier Theyskens and Jeremy Scott who immediately showed at Paris Fashion Week which resulted in an instant boom. Dries gave me the advice to start slow and to build everything slow but steady. The structure of the company, the people you work with, the clients. A lot of young designers launch a collection without having the right structure to support it. There are a lot of great ideas out there, but you need to be able to translate them into reality. That was Dries' advice. It's a good thing for upcoming and even for established designers - to stay grounded. Don't start dreaming of glamour and shows from the get-go. Make sure you understand the business you're in first.'

Experiencing the emotions of the people witnessing your clothing at Fashion Week and receiving their feedback afterwards, it's a luxury when you're able to have that.
Slowly building the 'Christian Wijnants' brand, the first show at Paris Fashion Week, after two to three years of gaining experience, felt anything but rushed or hasty. 'I felt incredibly proud and happy afterwards. The show didn't happen overnight, so we had managed to build a strong vision and idea of what Christian Wijnants was, before presenting it as a show at Paris Fashion Week. As a designer, it's incredibly thrilling to be able to showcase your vision in a show. Of course, you can translate it into look books and presentation, but that's not the same feeling. Seeing your clothing moving down a runway, with models, make-up, the right hair and music... Experiencing the emotions of the people witnessing your collection and receiving their feedback afterwards ... it's a luxury when you're able to have that as a designer.' While showcasing a collection during fashion week is a luxury, it's also an extremely hectic experience and sometimes even an exhausting one. Due to fashion's overflowing calendar, designers are now expected to create more collections than ever before. Spring/summer, cruise, pre-collections... Finding the right rhythm and staying inspired for each season, can result in a painful struggle. 'If I'm honest, we didn't believe that we could keep up with the pace of four collections each year at first. But you get used to anything. It all comes down to having the right structure and being organised. For Christian Wijnants, we develop four collections per year: the seasonal collections and the pre-collections which are titled pre-fall and resort. As of recently, we are trying to envision it as one collection. The pre and main collection is a whole, divided into two parts. That helps us because we don't have to start from scratch every time. We stick to a single theme, a feeling. It also makes sense, as the pre-collection is in stores before summer and resort lands in December. A little less than two months later, summer hits the shelves. If those collections aren't linked in any way, it creates problems for boutiques and even the client is at a loss. By changing this way of working, we hope that everyone gets a clear understanding of our vision and what we hope to portray.'

There's no I in team

Talking to Wijnants, it quickly becomes apparent how often he uses the word 'we' to describe the things he's focusing on. The label Christian Wijnants isn't narrowed down to one single designer and founder at the helm, Wijnants himself, but is supported by an entire team of creatives. 'When we're looking at inspiration for the following season, everyone is allowed input. It's a team effort. I urge everyone to bring ideas to the table. This inspiration can result out of things you witness on the street, in a book or museum, but can even generate out of a feeling or emotion. Inspiration comes to life when it devours you completely.' When all the inspiration is discussed and reviewed, Wijnants and his team put together a mood board for future reference. 'Those mood boards need to be accurate and precise; they are of great significance to me. It needs to work in an inspiring way, set a mood from the moment you enter the room. When images aren't helpful, I'd rather take them off than have them distract me. While this mood can be limited to three strong images during one season, it can be a collage the next. The principal goal is to remind me of where we're going in a single glance. Besides that, it's an easy tool to help communicate a vision towards the entire team and have everyone's vision aligned and focused.' Having a team with such a strong voice and allowing them an enormous amount of creative input, stresses the significance of chemistry between the team members and Wijnants himself. 'Just like a piece of clothing, it needs to fit. Personality is important, but also coping with stress, being sociable, communicative, friendly, relaxed and structured are on the list of necessary qualities. We work as a team, not as each man for himself.'

It's good to have a signature to your label, to have something people rely on you for.
Aside from this team effort of continuous search for innovation and inspiration, Wijnants stresses the importance of doing his own thing. 'There's a demand for us to tackle things differently, to steer away from fashion's overly commercial and general view. That independence and authenticity is important for every designer, but I feel like people expect it even more from Belgian designers. It's also what I learned at the Antwerp Academy. Be you, do you.' It's hard to dispute that the designer managed to stay true to his own vision and identity as a designer. Wijnants has become almost synonymous with colourful knitwear, but also manages to offer his clients new, refreshing and unexpected designs season after season, all in line with the existing vibe that is connected to the label. 'People come to us for knitwear, dresses, prints, fluid draping and so on. They won't seek us out for tailored pieces, that's not what we're known for, it's not what sells to our existing client base. It's good to have a signature to a label, to have something people rely on you for. If I'm honest, that surprised me a little at first, the fact that people will always return to established values, to what they like. It means that you don't have to change every cut and silhouette each season. If it works, it can stay. And if it works, it works for years to come.'

What the future has in store

Even designers like Wijnants, who have built their label slow and steadily, manage to keep their eyes on the future. After opening his first flagship store in Antwerp in 2015, we curiously wonder what he might be up to next. 'I'm very pleased with this one flagship store in Antwerp. Right now, it's not my intention to open more. I like the idea of pop-up shops though, like we previously did in Tokyo and Hong Kong. That's a concept we're trying to develop even further. Aside from that, online is the future. So we're investing a lot of time and energy into that, instead of focusing on physical shops. We always need to keep evolving.' On that strong note, Wijnants parted ways with us, leaving us wondering about what he will surprise us with for spring/summer 2018 during Paris Fashion Week. 
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