Van Beirendonck studied fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, before showing his first collection in 1983, as part of the ‘Antwerp six’ along with Dirk Van Saene, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester and Marina Yee. What set Van Beirendonck’s work apart, not just from that of his fellow Belgian designers, but also from the prevailing moods in fashion at the time (the over the top glamour of Parisian couture, and the dark deconstructivism of the emerging Japanese school) was its light-heartedness and humour, combined with the designer’s bold visual statements and judicious use of colour and pattern. Van Beirendonck’s collections played on political messages about the environment, society and safe sex, while remaining optimistic, joyous and unerringly upbeat. If Rei Kawakubo’s counter-culture approach was to make everything dark, and perturbing, and semi-abstract, Van Beirendonck’s was quite the opposite: dress it up and pump it full of unstoppable energy almost to the point of madness. Everything screamed of youthful vitality – anarchy almost – and the postmodern mash-up of (youth) subcultures, from punks to acid house ravers to gay ‘bears,’ would come to frame a whole new attitude in menswear which persists today, with designers taking inspiration from further afield, including from womenswear, while pushing social boundaries with their work.
From 1993 to 1999, Van Beirendonck worked under the label W. & L.T. (Wild & Lethal Trash – or ‘Walt’ as it was known), staging elaborate fashion shows which often resembled huge warehouse parties more than anything else, featuring clothes with a distinctly futuristic vibe: ‘talking’ voice boxes, flashing lights, and holographic appliqués were common additions to the garments, many of which were constructed from high-tech synthetic materials. If brands like Boy London and BodyMap were espousing the vibe in a rough-and-ready way in London, while the likes of Moschino and Castelbajac were interpreting it with couture refinement in Milan and Paris respectively, Van Beirendonck occupied a unique position, blending high-end with ‘trash’ and cutting-edge with elements of mainstream pop culture. WVB’s work frequently blurs the boundaries between fashion and art (indeed, the designer has collaborated with the Austrian artist Erwin Wurm on several collections), and his ‘anti-fashion’ approach always provides an interesting meta-view of the haute couture world.
When designers embrace a particularly ebullient aesthetic, there is often a danger than their true talent for making clothes (mastering the elements of material, cut, proportion, and so on) gets overshadowed by the overall aesthetic and energy. I wouldn’t call this a failure on the part of the designer, but it does mean a trained eye and some knowledge of the context is required. For the layman, the easiest response to much of Van Beirendonck’s work is to lay it off as mere absurdity – evidence of the ridiculousness of high fashion. What most people don’t know is that Van Beirendonck is a director of the fashion course at the Royal Academy in Antwerp, where he has helped now-famous designers including Kris Van Assche and Bernhard Willhelm on their way. A whole generation of young designers have been influenced by Van Beirendonck’s work too, from Jeremy Scott to Henrik Vibskov to Cassette Playa’s Carri Munden. And if any further explanation is needed for why I’m a huge Walter fan, consider this: he was partly responsible for turning to Raf Simons, a former intern of his, away from industrial design and towards fashion.
FALL/WINTER 1986: Bad Baby Boys collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 1988: Un Autre Monde collection —
FALL/WINTER 1988: Shoot the Sun, Shoot the Moon, Be a Star collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 1989: King Kongs Kooks collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 1990: Fashion is Dead! collection, the show invite —
SPRING/SUMMER 1991: Fuel for the Fire! collection
SPRING/SUMMER 1993: The debut Wild & Lethal Trash! collection —
FALL/WINTER 1993: Souvenirs of the World collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 1994: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star collection —
FALL/WINTER 1994: Cosmic Culture Clash collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 1995: Over the Rainbow collection —
FALL/WINTER 1995: Paradise Pleasure Productions collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 1996: Killer / Astral / 4D-Hi-D collection —
"Couriers of the year 2013, gliding through the obsessive race of any multiracial metropolis on their superzappy atomic bikes, at a silent but aggressive pace, their lustrous bodies revealed in all their strength, their gazes hidden behind protective screens, their heads covered in spectacularly sculptured wigs. Their ‘Dress to kill-look’ has one universal icon: the omnipresent shark rising from the abyss with the impact of many lethally dangerous designs." - contemporaryfashion.net
Wild & Lethal Trash! was one of the first fashion brands to have a website, and to distribute interactive look book CDs to the press:
SPRING/SUMMER 1997: Welcome Little Stranger collection —
FALL/WINTER 1997: Avatar collection, with hats by Stephen Jones —
In 1997, WVB designed the costumes for U2's Popmart tour:
1998: The Mutilate flip-book, published by Imschoot, designed by Walter and his close collaborator Paul Boudens:
SPRING/SUMMER 1998: A Fetish for Beauty collection, with hats by Stephen Jones —
Some of the models walked on prosthetic stilts: from the front, covered by trousers or a skirt, the idealised tall, ultra-lean fashion silhouette, subverted in side view by the flash of mechanical limb.
FALL/WINTER 1998: Believe collection —
I really like this collection, with its moments of space age minimalism. From the fluffy mohair in bright orange (Prada, FW07) to the tailored metallic pieces (Helmut Lang, FW99), to the fluorescent tailoring (Calvin Klein, SS09) to the long apron silhoutte (Raf Simons, FW11), it's not hard to draw comparisons between this collection and later ones by other designers. That's by no means to say any of the aforementioned labels 'ripped off' Walter (part of fashion is the constant and unavoidable self-referencing) - it's just interesting how prescient some of the things he showed were.
Fall/Winter 1999: No References collection —
I love the sleek modernity of this collection. It makes me think of Raf Simons' FW04 collection, and some of the shapes bring to mind Balenciaga's current menswear.
Details on pieces from a various of collections, predominantly from W. & L.T., among them numerous battery-powered T-shirts, and appearances by Puk-Puk, W. & L.T.'s cartoon mascot:
SPRING/SUMMER 2000: Gender? collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 2001: Starship Earth collection —
FALL/WINTER 2001: Revolution! collection —
FALL/WINTER 2003: Pixydust collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 2004: Futureday collection —
FALL/WINTER 2005: Weird collection —
FALL/WINTER 2006: Stop Terrorising our World collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 2008: Sexclown collection —
"Each collection has something in particular about it, based on what I see happening in the world, but all my ingredients are similar. The ethnic inspiration, different types of tribes and rituals, are always there, as is changing the boundaries of men's fashion and gender: I like tension, and I try to provoke tension." - Walter Van Beirendock
Phallic symbolism runs throughout WVB's work, as the designer explores gender and body politics, and aims to make something desirable from the unacceptable.
FALL/WINTER 2008: Skin King collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 2009: eXplicit collection —
FALL/WINTER 2009: Glow collection —
SPRING/SUMMER 2010: Wonde® collection —
FALL/WINTER 2010: Take a W-ride collection, with hats by Stephen Jones —
SPRING/SUMMER 2011: Read my Skin collection —
FALL/WINTER 2011: Hand on Heart collection —
"My AW 11 collection’s message was indeed that “Something big is coming”. I do believe we’re at a pivotal point in history. So many things are happening. Not just in fashion but in general. You can sense the tension building up with all the environmental disasters and social aggression. 2012 can be the time to re-evaluate things. You can choose to ignore the Maya prediction – but it’s undeniable that the world is in transformation." - Walter Van Beirendonck
SPRING/SUMMER 2012: Cloud #9 collection, with outfits in collaboration with Erwin Wurm —
Double T-shirt in collaboration with Erwin Wurm:
Van Beirendonck often creates tensions by toying with notions of sexuality and fetishism. Here a butch male model is dressed in figure-hugging leggings and long gloves from the SS 96 collection:
Scans from a brilliant editorial in the latest issue of GQ Style (UK) featuring WVB clothes from the past 25 years, shot by Nick Knight:
Antwerp Modemuseum: Walter Van Beirendonck, Dream the World Awake, 14/09/2011 - 19/02/2012
Scans of early WALT collections are from cotonblanc