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The Open Dior

As Kris Van Assche prepared to make his debut as creative director of Dior Homme, the Belgian designer faced a great number of choices.

PARIS — As Kris Van Assche prepared to make his debut as creative director of Dior Homme on July 1, during the spring collections here, the Belgian designer faced a great number of choices. But they ultimately boiled down to two:

Should he attempt to advance the patented razor-sharp aesthetic of his predecessor and onetime boss, Hedi Slimane? Or should he develop a new image for the storied French house?

It’s a dilemma that has famously afflicted designers at other brands, from Gucci and Jil Sander to Calvin Klein. And the answer has never been easy. If a designer stays too close to his forerunner’s imprint, he’s inevitably dismissed as a poor facsimile. If he redefines the label, he’s criticized for betraying its DNA.

In an inspired move, Van Assche, 31, opted not to risk being dismissed as Hedi Lite. Instead, he approached Dior Homme strictly from his point of view, a modernist interpretation of couture for men’s wear.

In doing so, the Belgian designer threw down a new style gauntlet on behalf of Dior. He staged a static presentation in an 18th-century chateau, with several vignettes of well-coifed men in white shirts with delicate embroidery and voluminous pleated pants. The graceful collage may have lacked the excitement of past Dior Homme shows—which used to draw the likes of Mick Jagger, Karl Lagerfeld and Catherine Deneuve—but it succeeded in making a clean and distinct break from the past.

“The question was not so much how I’m going to make things different from what Hedi used to do. It was how am I going to make things different from what I do at my own company,” Van Assche said at Dior Homme’s atelier just days before his first collection for the house and hours before his eponymous runway show.

“It basically came down to one question: What is Dior to me today? What is the house of Dior in Paris? What is it to the world? What is it to fashion?”

All right, several questions, but for Van Assche there was one single-word answer: couture. Looking to Christian Dior the couturier rather than Dior Homme the brand, Van Assche cast a new era for Dior men’s wear.

Just as upon his arrival he literally painted the atelier’s entrance white, Van Assche erased the rock & roll, streetwise edge that had become synonymous with Slimane’s Dior Homme. He stuck to a stark palette of black and white, with an occasional hint of gray, and focused on cut, fabrics and construction. The cascading pleats on trousers, at times a bit too indulgent, and the discreet details on pure white shirts nicely proposed a new kind of elegance.

“It’s another volume. It’s another way of looking at details. It’s another way of looking at masculinity,” Van Assche said of the focused collection, which counted 23 looks ranging from morning to day to evening. “What I want to do is linked to the atelier.”

As such, Van Assche not only had to change the physical outcome of the collection—his silhouettes are much more forgiving than those of Slimane—but the thought process behind it as well.

When Dior named the former Slimane assistant to the post of creative director in April, Van Assche had 2 1/2 months to put together a collection. The atelier had remained idle since Slimane’s quiet departure following his last show in January, and everyone was eager to get to work.

On his first day Van Assche met with the atelier—the same team he had known during his days as a design assistant. On his second day he began to hang portraits of Christian Dior throughout Dior Homme’s studio and offices.

“I said, ‘We need to put Monsieur Dior where he belongs,’” Van Assche recalled, motioning to a blown-up black-and-white image of the couturier propped up against the studio’s wall. “I wanted the people here to see Monsieur Dior every day.”

With little time to sketch out his first ideas, Van Assche retreated to his parents’ home in Belgium, turned off his cell phone and immersed himself in all things Dior. While rereading the autobiography Christian Dior et moi, one passage had a particular resonance for Van Assche. In it, Dior wrote how he was surprised that people viewed him as radical, because all he wanted to do was make women look as beautiful as possible. “That idea really helped put things in perspective for me,” Van Assche said. “In my modest way, it is also what I try to do for men’s wear.”

After that first week, Van Assche returned to Paris with his first sketches of the spring collection. Significantly, he changed the Dior Homme tag to white from black and reintroduced a script logo that Dior used himself during the ’50s. “We needed a fresh start. Even for the people in the atelier, they needed to switch,” Van Assche said. “I didn’t want to lose myself in big concepts and big themes and a big production for a show. I was just like, ‘Let’s try to make some beautiful clothes. That would be a good start.’”

Talk to the soft-spoken Van Assche long enough and he keeps returning to the themes of beauty and elegance. “I have one overall message, which is I try to make men look more beautiful,” he said, “but there are different ways of doing that.”

In his first season, Van Assche reconciled the challenges that come with designing two lines. Dior Homme unquestionably had a look independent of Van Assche’s signature collection.

The jury is certainly still out on his premiere. Some observers lamented the loss of the Slimane vibe, while others praised the new direction.

“The clothes, the presentation and that atmosphere were all beautiful,” said Tommy Fazio, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “The future looks very promising.”

Of course, success will ultimately depend on the final consumer. But a brand usually carries more weight than any single designer.

“It is a kind of transition,” said Sidney Toledano, president of Christian Dior, on the sidelines of the Dior Homme spring presentation. “Kris is an excellent designer and has a very ‘couture’ approach…. From the very first minute he arrived and began to work with the team, we were in a new phase of development for the company.”

That arrival marked a completely new phase for Van Assche as well, even though he had worked at Dior Homme in the past. “It didn’t feel like home in the beginning,” the designer said of his return. “But it’s getting there.”>