My idea of valeur and elegance is so hard to find,” says menswear designer Kris Van Assche, with a wistful sigh. A very beautiful boy has just dropped his pants to reveal a loud and hideous tattoo on his calf, and it is clear from Van Assche’s disappointed face that, despite his Grecian good looks, this boy just won’t do.
Van Assche is in final fittings for his next fashion show on a drizzly Wednesday morning. His small, clean office is bright, white, and filled with the revolving cast of handsome teenage boys (some 600, in fact, one every two minutes) who will show off his odd, sometimes-pleated suiting that, this season, has taken its cues from the quirky, nostalgic photographs of August Sander. Menswear shows in Milan have just ended, and Van Assche has been disappointed by the funny haircuts and new tattoos that have been arriving in Paris all week. Also: Too much muscle is not, for Van Assche, a good thing, and he struggles to button a jacket across an especially strapping chest. “La bonne tête, la bonne démarche,” he says sadly, “mais c’est pas la bonne veste.”
Van Assche is tall, handsome, Belgian. His pristine white shirt is quite carefully tucked half in, half out, his jeans are dark, and he is full of designer-y thoughts. “I don’t know if it’s inspired by clowns or old people, but I guess that’s the point. They are both kind of sad,” he says of Sander’s work. He likes the awkwardness of it, the formality of people from the working classes dressed up for formal portraits. “When you get old,” he says, “your neck gets skinny. And your wedding suit, it has been hanging for twenty years and it is stretched out.” He’s nostalgic for these moments, for a lot of moments, really, and has named his show “Souvenir.” It’s all very sweet and somewhat sentimental, and on each seat at his show, he will place a small lavender sachet. “He’s a romantic,” says Michael Macko, the mens fashion director at Saks. “It’s all, like, about some people in some country sewing clothes in, like, some little house.”
It’s not the typical mad fuss 24 hours before a women’s fashion show. Van Assche is organized and well prepared: Each outfit hangs on a rack beside a plastic bag of accessories (tiny clown hats, for example, that he will snap under the models’ chins and onto their foreheads, wingtips woven in silver braid). Each look has been photographed on its model several times: plainly, for the record, and then beautifully, by Van Assche himself.
It’s all very civilized in here. As one men’s editor comments, “Men’s fashion is very ladylike.”
But beneath the calm, fastidious organization, one detects a well-controlled panic in Van Assche, a slight raising of voice, darting of eyes; on Friday morning, he’ll show his own, privately backed, eponymous line in a sadly beautiful, grease-stained garage near the Bastille. On Sunday, though, he’ll be in a fancy Belle Époque mansion in the Sixteenth Arrondissement to make his debut as the designer of Dior Homme, a brand that’s been, for seven years, synonymous with the name of Hedi Slimane, Van Assche’s former boss, who left Dior just months earlier in a flurry of angry Web posts.
There has never been a menswear designer with the influence of Hedi Slimane. In his seven years at Dior (and his two years before that at YSL), Slimane created a world of super-skinny, teenage-sexy, breathless rock and roll that defined a moment, at least in fashion terms. He was anomalous as a menswear designer because he treated men’s fashion with the same urgency and lust as a women’s designer: It changed from season to season; it was an unattainable yet buyable fantasy. It was old David Bowie, it was Kate Moss and Pete Doherty, and it was endlessly, epically cool. It was not heroin chic, exactly, but not not heroin chic, either. The Slimane look was razor-sharp Parisian tailorings seen through a scrim of carefully executed rock-star grime. He found his models not only in agency-driven castings but on the street and at sweaty rock shows, and they had zits on their cheeks (sometimes) and tiny waists (always). Women wanted, and wore, Hedi. Even men who are neither gay nor Japanese (men’s capital-F fashion’s two biggest markets) wanted something by Hedi Slimane. Karl Lagerfeld lost almost 100 pounds in order to fit into a pair of Hedi Slimane pants.
But in April, a year of contract negotiations between Dior and Slimane ended. “I tried to make things work for about a year,” Slimane wrote on his Website. “Perhaps [at] another time in my life, under other circumstances, my name, and the management of a company under my own label, would be considered differently.”
What he meant, presumably, was that LVMH was not giving him enough autonomy. That the company was not going to back his own line in conjunction with a continuation of his contract at Dior (an arrangement similar to Marc Jacobs’s with Louis Vuitton).
And so Dior let him go and turned to Van Assche, who had worked for Slimane at both YSL and Dior. Van Assche had not, in fact, ever worked for anyone else, and had left Dior only to start his own label. “I wanted my own collection, my own baby,” he says. “I needed to develop my own identity.” Which he has, and it’s an identity as diametrically opposed to that of his former boss as possible. He describes it as “a grown-up man who doesn’t want to be too classic, but also is not a fashion kid,” by which he means clothes that are not stuffy but not for a rock show or a boy hustler, either.
“What is the point of coming to Paris and doing fashion,” Van Assche wonders one morning in the gilt lobby of the Plaza Athénée, “if it is not to make life more beautiful?” So what did he think of Slimane’s skinny, zitty kids? “That is not a vision of elegance,” he says carefully. “That is not what I put onstage, that is not what I relate to.”