Kris Van Assche is all but counting down the minutes until a rare vacation.
Following our interview, he will meet with his boss, Christian Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano, and then he will escape to Mykonos, where he will spend three weeks with a group of friends.
This story first appeared in the September 22, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The 38-year-old Van Assche, who has been the artistic director of Dior Homme since 2007, acknowledges the importance of removing himself from the fashion whirl. If Monsieur Dior were alive today, he would surely agree: Van Assche discovered as much when he looked through the company’s extensive archives, which include the founder’s travel albums, handwritten letters, and even his recipes. “He loved to leave Paris and meet friends at the seaside or in the countryside—to recharge the batteries and surround himself with artist friends,” VanAssche says. “I’m not sure mine is going to be such an artistic experience.”
The August break is Van Assche’s only respite in his relentless calendar year. He oversees four collections annually (two pre-collections in addition to the Fall and Spring lines) for Dior Homme, as well as two each year for the namesake label he launched in 2005.
Sunlight floods almost every inch of the space where he meets me at the new Dior Homme offices, on Rue Marignan. Rather than start at the beginning—Van Assche grew up in the Flemish municipality of Londerzeel (pop. 17,435)—we revisit his most recent Dior Homme collection. Specifically, the suiting covered with words in the handwriting of Christian Dior himself. While going through the archives, Van Assche was so taken with a certain letter written by Dior that he decided to turn it into a print motif. “I had never seen his handwriting and didn’t know it was so beautiful,” Van Assche says. “So I decided to use it as a poetic element, as if he had caressed each outfit of the show.”
“Traditions have to be maintained,” Mr. Dior wrote. “In troubled times like ours, we must maintain these traditions, which are our luxury and the flower of our civilization.”
By now, Van Assche has gained the confidence to merge glimpses of the brand’s illustrious founder—a man who never designed men’s clothing himself—with the rigorous construction that is the couturier’s calling card. At the same time, he has introduced sportier elements, which were barely explored during the years Hedi Slimane ran the Dior men’s line (2000 to 2007).
Slimane’s notion of the Dior homme required the body of a garçon; Van Assche, conversely, welcomes volume in a way that works for well-proportioned men. This was evident early on: His debut Spring 2008 collection included roomy black pants and double-breasted jackets. Since then, he has modulated his designs, returning on occasion to the slim lines that remain synonymous with the brand, while preserving vaguely eighties shapes that appear to be his soft spot. More important, he has risen to the challenge imposed on designers wrestling with outsize expectations: how to make all the effort look effortless. A criticism sometimes lobbed at Van Assche is that he needs to “relax,” that he is a perfectionist to a fault. Little by little, though, he has softened the strictness of his timeless, colorless suiting with surface details that reveal glimpses of the label’s founder.
Consider, for example, the lily of the valley, which appears staggered across trousers in the 2014 collection. This design element, introduced by Dior himself, has long been a signature of the brand; but in Van Assche’s latest work, it blends in almost seamlessly with the designer’s experimental stripe permutations.
“In the last few collections, Mr. Dior was present in a more conceptual way,” Van Assche says, stirring a mug of hot green tea. “They were very much about beauty and elegance and trying to redefine an idea of French luxury—not right after the war but now. It was never literal; he never touched menswear, and that kind of limits it a lot.”
Fashion has been Van Assche’s focus since his boyhood days. “There was no such thing as a second option,” he says. He remembers watching his grandmother as she made her own clothes; then she began making pieces for him, too. “It was all cute and exciting, but it was not an artistic environment at home at all,” Van Assche says. His creative instincts were fired by eighties pop culture and fashion, especially the work of
Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier. “Mugler’s and Gaultier’s fashion shows were almost like pop concerts back then,” he recalls.
Notably, Van Assche did not have much menswear experience until the years following his graduation from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. (The school counts among its alumni Dries Van Noten and Vincent van Gogh.)
The academy, he says, readied him for real life—to a point. “There was no such thing as assistance, so you would really have to figure things out for yourself.” But when he graduated, in 1998, going solo seemed like a Sisyphean task. “I was 22 and kind of, happily, mature enough to know I wasn’t ready for that,” he says. Along came the opportunity to intern under Slimane, who was still relatively fresh into his tenure at Yves Saint Laurent, designing menswear, and Van Assche was quick to accept.
Does he ever wonder how his career would have panned out had he stuck to womenswear? “Would I like doing womenswear? Yes. But am I frustrated? No, because I don’t really see the difference so much.”
He followed Slimane to Dior Homme in 2000 and worked under him until 2004, when Van Assche left to launch his own label; so, his cumulative years with the house now number eleven. Over that time, he has reached the conclusion that Dior’s famed precision is as fundamental to a suit as it is to a ball gown. “If I were a girl, I’d probably wear his dresses inside out, because they’re so technical; they’re really so impressive,” Van Assche says. “And menswear is all about construction, so there you find these links.”
Like all designers, Van Assche has his influences—but they are tough to discern, and he seems to like it that way. “I guess that’s the first thing I learned at the Antwerp academy,” he says. “When you see too clearly where things come from, you’ve only done half of the job. I’m supposed to take a reference and then rethink it, rework it, digest it, remold it, and then make it into something for 2014 or 2015. That’s what I call fashion design. If not, it’s costume design.
“Sometimes, I’m working for five months with a clear reference in my head, and then, with the result, I’m the only one who still sees it. People then think I’m really superficial about these references. But it’s actually the opposite. The first of those five months, it is all really first degree. But it kind of then evolves and becomes much less referential, and that’s what I like. I’m not sure that people should actually know how I got the idea. Is that really necessary?”
Well, for what it’s worth, the crisp white, short-sleeve shirt, generously cut black
trousers, and white sneakers (which appeared on the Dior Homme runway as part of the Spring 2015 collection) add up to a statement against subtext. But the large floral tattoos coiling around Van Assche’s inner forearms demand further inquiry. On his right arm is an inky blue-black tulip, which, he says, represents the north; on the left is an orchid in the same hue, symbolizing the south. “There is something quite similar between flowers and fashion—they’re ephemeral but essential,” he says. “It’s not a first need, but it does make all the difference.”
The designer, meanwhile, seems acutely aware of his own needs—namely, structure in both his professional and private lives. “I’m an organization freak,” he says by way of stressing that one cannot have a chaotic existence and execute six collections per year. Two assistants manage his schedule, and he is adamant about sticking to it: “It’s a very strict rhythm, a very strict program. I am rarely late, and I don’t like people to be late, because it throws me off for, like, the rest of the year.”
Such discipline allows Van Assche to set the boundaries that preserve his well-being. Lunch is a must, even when things are busy. “It needs to be like that,” he says. He is convinced this semblance of regularity has saved him from “nervous breakdowns,” which, he hastens to add, would be the least productive use of his time. After the show season, he is able to bounce back relatively quickly. “I’m exhausted, I’m empty, I don’t want to talk about anything; it’s almost like baby blues. But then,” he says, snapping his fingers, “ten days after, I’m going again. It’s a very healthy way of working.”
A reserved fellow in a world of peacocks, Van Assche does not make himself highly visible on social media. His 27,000-plus Instagram followers are more likely to find a photo of a jacket juxtaposed with art from John Baldessari or, at his most personal, a sweet photo of a friend’s child, kitted out in Baby Dior.
A new apartment, in the comparatively sleepy seventeenth arrondissement, gives him a good excuse to head home around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. “I have very close friends here in Paris, and we have quiet dinners,” he says. “I’m not the party type, not the cocktail type. I don’t get so much into the scene, and I try to avoid it. I have kind of a double feeling: I like it and hate it,” he says, articulating a sentiment shared—just not often openly—by many in the industry.
Such measured candor comes across as characteristic Van Assche. When asked why, after his seven years in charge, Dior Homme is only now moving into new offices (located just off Avenue Montaigne and a few strides from the historic Dior headquarters), he says, “It seemed weird to certain people [that I would] just take over a job and keep 90 percent of the team and keep the building and blah, blah, blah. And I’m not saying that it was so easy. I wouldn’t have minded having a new office and a new team, and I wouldn’t have minded having nine months to think about the first collection, instead of two. But that’s what you get when you take over a business that is actually already an economical reality. This was not a dead house; this was not a dying division. And it sounds cheesy, but the show had to go on.”
The runway shows, incidentally, are not the climax of the creative process for Van Assche. For him, the final fitting and styling sessions at Dior’s in-house atelier are the most rewarding. “There’s something quite scary about the working process. When you do all these fittings with atelier, you constantly see the clothes but don’t necessarily see them in the right fabric—or you never see the right jacket with the right pants. Even if everything is very well organized and I have a lot of tools and a lot of assistance, it does just all come together ten days before the show. So, when the jacket and shirt and shoes that you’ve been thinking about for two to three months all work, it’s like, ‘Yes!’ ” he says, drawing out the word. “That’s the most beautiful moment.”
Which would suggest that success for Van Assche is not wholly contingent on praise from others—not that external validation is immaterial. “In a really strange way, with everyone hating what I did in the beginning, it was kind of easy to do better,” he concedes. “Now that these last seasons have been well received, it kind of makes pressure bigger. But, I mean, it’s positive pressure. There’s also a big difference between negative pressure and positive pressure.”
Ultimately, he believes this keeps him sharp. “There’s no such thing as a comfort zone in fashion, and that’s really the point,” he says. “Am I happy working here? Am I happy with the way things are going? Very much so. Am I sure the next collection is going to be a success? No. Am I going to work really hard to make it a success? Yes.”
At this moment, though, his mind is projecting ahead to some downtime in the Mediterranean. He sheepishly divulges his passion for any activity that involves being pulled around by a boat at high speeds—as in, waterskiing or tubing. “My friends all make fun of me because it’s my childish side coming out,” he says. “But I didn’t do it then, so I do it now.” Or, viewed another way, Van Assche can’t help but do everything full throttle.