A little over two years ago Ann Demeulemeester announced her retirement from her signature label. After the initial shock subsided, the question of succession inevitably followed. That's when Sebastian Meunier, a Parisian designer with a long tenure at Margiela under his belt, stepped out of the shadows.
Meunier spent two years quietly working under Demeulemeester before her departure. Even so, hers were no small shoes to fill: as a designer whose style was incredibly clear and who was inextricably linked to her label, it was hard for the fashion world to imagine Ann Demeulemeester without, well, Ann Demeulemeester.
Perhaps that's why Meunier's take-over seemed seamless at first - but now he's showing signs he's clearly comfortable in the driver's seat. His recent men's show was the boldest departure from Demeulemeester's signature monochrome, rock'n'roll-infused designs - full of colour, plaid and silhouettes that indicated a definitive break with Demeulemeester's aesthetic. Many fans were not amused. And yet, it is clear to Meunier that the label needs to find new fans, even if that risks alienating some of his current clientele. Realising his own creative vision was on Meunier's mind as we spoke at Café Charlot, a favourite Parisian fashion crowd haunt, a couple of days after his men's show. Here's what he had to say.
Let's start at the beginning. How did you get into fashion?
I'm originally from Versailles, and I studied fashion at ESMOD in Paris. My work has been selected by the Hyeres festival, where I won the main prize in 1998. After the festival, Parisian designer Jean Colonna asked me to work for him. I didn't stay long there, because I wanted to do my own collection, which I showed in Paris for a year. In the meantime, in 2000, I was hired by Martin Margiela to work as a knitwear designer for his women's line. I ended up spending 10 years there. I started on the women's and then moved over to men's.
And how did the move to Ann Demeulemeester happen?
It was in 2010, so it has been five years that I am here. At the time Ann Demeulemeester was looking for a designer to help her with the men's line, and she was familiar with my work at Margiela, so she contacted me. I met with her and her husband in Antwerp and we spent the whole day together. I was still in Antwerp, waiting for my train back to Paris, half an hour after our interview, when Ann called and said they would like to hire me. I immediately said yes.
Was it scary for you to step out of Ann's shadow?
It was both exciting but also very... quiet. I try not to think too much about it. I work day-by-day, do my own thing - designing is what I concentrate my mind on. If I start thinking about all the people waiting behind the curtain, I get frightened. I would rather block it out.
Ann Demeulemeester is a clearly defined label aesthetically, and it has a hardcore following. Did you feel the weight of responsibility to stay true to Ann's vision?
That's a very tricky thing, for sure. The brand's fans want it to always stay the same. Honestly, I think today it's quite impossible. You cannot constantly redo what was done by someone else. That's really hard. What unites Ann and me is that we're both romantics. But, I have to think about what I want as a designer. I still do some romantic clothes, but I design them my way, and the elements are not the same. The dark, black poet, it's not me.
The first two seasons after I took over the women's line I started quietly. I respect Ann a lot, so I began to make changes step by step. But I also have to show that I am here and that I have my own artistic vision.
What is your creative process like?
I always start with fabric. I draw ideas from my own life, from love and lovers, from friends. I don't have lasting influences, the way Ann does. I love some artists, of course, and I reference them, but I am not a fan. It's about my own thinking and living. Inspiration is in my gut feeling, and it can come at any moment. I start to investigate a certain story, a certain piece of art or whatever. When I have that down, I see how I can use the fabrics. That is when a collection starts to become concrete. Then, keeping the fabric in mind, I quickly start to sketch. I am very specific about that because I can sketch the collection in one week. I become obsessed.
How did the idea for the men's collection you just showed come about?
It was inspired by the Bernini statue of Apollo and Daphne. I was with my friend at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, and we were right in front of the statue and that's when it hit me that I wanted to do a collection about that myth. It's such a beautiful and tragic story. Apollo is in love with Daphne because he is pierced by Cupid's arrow. Daphne does not want his love, because she is pierced by an arrow with an opposite effect. It's not their fault. And again, it reminded me of my own life. I don't fall in love easily, but when I'm in love, I am deeply in love. In the end, I like to express romanticism, regardless of whether it concerns men or women.