Having succeeded his former boss Hedi Slimane in the job, the Belgian designer initially focused on refining the razor-sharp tailoring that made the brand a favorite with celebrities from David Beckham to John Legend. In parallel, he channeled the edgy club culture of his youth into his eponymous label.
Two years ago, Van Assche shuttered his own line because — in his own words — juggling the two “was really no fun anymore.” Since then, he has been injecting more of his personal affinity with streetwear into the Dior aesthetic, bringing back a sense of youthful energy with show sets including a skatepark and a funfair.
With this change of direction — reflected in the brand’s fall 2017 advertising campaign starring Depeche Mode singer Dave Gahan and American actor Lucas Hedges — Van Assche believes that Dior can speak to more than one type of customer.
“People like to put things in boxes. Men dress in a certain way, they like to belong to a certain group, whether it’s music or sports or a social group — of bankers, bikers, skaters or whatever. They all have their codes and they stick to these codes,” he said at his office on Rue de Marignan, a stone’s throw from the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
“And people sometimes want to put the house of Dior and men’s wear at Dior in a box. Is it supposed to be just luxury, so it should be showing just impeccable suits? Or is it supposed to be this young, underground brand that I inherited 10 years ago with only fashion kids? And I always refused to choose,” he explained.
“I think we should definitely enjoy being both. We are fashion, we love fashion, but we also love tailoring and we also make a good suit, and so that contrast has always been extremely inspiring to me and it keeps on inspiring me,” Van Assche continued. “It’s about taking things out of those boxes.”
His spring collection epitomizes that contrast, with sharp black tailoring — featuring a new Christian Dior Atelier label — coexisting with a more casual wardrobe inspired by school uniforms.
In an interview with WWD, Van Assche discusses taking risks, the power of collaborations, and how he secretly dreams of designing women’s wear:
WWD: What has been the biggest change since you joined Dior Homme 10 years ago?
Kris Van Assche: I guess the biggest recent change would probably be the fact that I put my own label on hold, which I thought would give me a little free time to concentrate on my own stuff, which is such a dream scenario, and which ended up just [meaning] spending more time here. I mean, Dior has always been a full-time job, but it’s been officially a full-time job ever since I stopped my own label, and that came together with a real push from the house to really put more effort on men.
It came with more expectations and it also came with this fact that I felt more free to put much more of my personal identity in Dior, because I no longer have to split my head in two. So I would say that’s the biggest change, the fact that I’m fully 100 percent at Dior now, without having to split my mind, my time, my brain, my life.
WWD: Do you regret the fact that fashion requires its designers to be ever more present and available for work?
K.V.A.: I don’t regret it, no. I always compare fashion to the Olympic Games: If you want the medal, you have to train every day. I don’t really regret it, I actually feel we’re pretty lucky. But, I mean, it is intense, that’s for sure. There is no such thing as spare time.
WWD: You spoke before your show last season about predictions of the demise of the suit. When you look back on your decade at Dior Homme, what is your analysis of how the men’s wear market has changed with that greater influence of casualwear we’re seeing?
K.V.A.: That’s a huge question. Do I believe suiting is over? No. I really don’t believe so, because I just feel like you have to keep on questioning the suit and how do we present it, what trouser is it worn with, what is the context that it’s worn in? When I started my own label in 2005, it was already about three-piece suits and baggy trousers and sneakers. It was already about breaking up that suit, and in a way, it still is. The last January show was about these sportswear trousers with very tailored jackets. Summer is another take on that. It’s about contrast and finding the right balance, and there is also no such thing as just one type of client. Some of our clients come to us for exquisite tailoring, for know-how, the savoir faire, and that very much exists and it’s really not a dying aspect of what I do, on the contrary. But I’m also convinced that suits still have their place within fashion, and you’d be surprised how many of those young kids I get over [to model the clothes] who really love the tailoring side. I feel like since everybody is so much concentrating on sportswear — which I also do and which is probably the more Kris Van Assche part that I brought to Dior — I feel that Dior is actually quite fortunate to have the tailoring as the central piece of what we do, because since nobody is paying so much attention, it leaves much more room for me to play.
WWD: Why do you think these young kids like tailoring?
K.V.A.: Because I think they are definitely aware of the power of seduction of clothes, for sure. I have this huge mirror in my fitting room and you’d be amazed how much they look at themselves, these boys.
They are very much aware of what they look like and how the suit changes them. I think they kind of also like the idea of the exceptional, what they are not used to wearing. They’re very much attracted to what is not their world, basically. I feel like men who have spent the last 10, 20 years in suits probably are more tempted by the more casualwear, but for them, it’s the opposite. They grew up in jeans and sneakers, they like a nice jacket.
There is another interesting thing to say about this big question of how men’s wear has evolved, because as I said, when I started my own brand and even when I started here 10 years ago at Dior, men’s wear was basically dominated by the big traditional houses and then you had some young designers. Today, it’s actually quite the opposite going on, and I’m actually quite surprised. I mean, the fashion week is now dominated by new designers, young designers — there’s so much energy going on in men’s wear coming from new designers who, I would assume, feel confident enough to launch their brands, while what you see in the established brands, a lot of established brands around us are actually slowing down on men’s, are actually more and more concentrating on women’s, which I’m very happy to say is not the case at Dior. So it’s a really interesting time for that.
WWD: It’s interesting also how established brands are linking up with brands that have a lot of street cred, like Vuitton and Supreme. Is that something one could ever imagine happening at Dior?
K.V.A.: Sure. We get asked quite a lot. I was also used to doing that at my label. I did a few of those collaborations and they can be very interesting. The thing is, there has been so much going on, so the real question is, what would be interesting for us to do. Do we have the opportunity? Yes. Do I refuse a lot? Yes.
WWD: It could also be a collaboration with an artist, which you’ve done in the past.
K.V.A.: And I’m doing it again for this summer with a French painter called François Bard, who is somebody whose work I have followed on a personal level, and who makes total sense with the mood of the collection, so in that case, there is no question about it. It reinforces the message, but we should not collaborate on [just] anything. I really don’t feel that is right.
WWD: Your new advertising campaign reflects a departure in terms of the recent aesthetic of the brand. What can you tell me about it?
K.V.A.: As I said, two years ago, I put my own label on hold, I started putting more of myself in Dior Homme, in the shows – more of the youth energy. Basically, there was this moment where I felt I needed to have more fun with fashion. I’ve been here for a while and it’s a big house and there are big expectations. I mean, it is a business and I’ve always liked the fact that it’s a business, but you can also maybe at certain points get caught up a little bit in that game.
I felt that I needed to translate this new energy also within a new advertising communication. It’s not at all as if I’d gotten bored of what we used to do, far from that.
But there is also this point where you need to put yourself at risk, and it’s always best to change on a high. I had put myself at risk for the shows a year before, and I felt like the right time had come to just take a deep breath and jump into this new adventure and start something totally new. I felt like I needed to do that, just to scare myself.
WWD: When you arrived, the house’s men’s wear identity was so strong. How did you approach stepping into those shoes and making your mark?
K.V.A.: I did it in a respectful way. I mean, I didn’t have to burn everything, throw everything out of the window, because I was already expressing myself through my own label. That’s a huge difference when you take over an existing house. It didn’t have to become Kris Van Assche. That was not the point. I’m more of the evolution kind than the revolution kind. But I think from Day One I was very conscious that I wanted to focus on the ateliers, on the know-how, on the tailoring, because obviously I knew the people because I had been an assistant here, and I also knew what I didn’t have at my own label. The way we worked at my label was much more street-oriented by definition, because I didn’t have tailors at my company. So here it was from Day One for me much more about know-how, about what I like to call technical beauty — the beauty of the technique, of the construction, the beauty of the inside of the garment.
It just grew naturally from that and I think little by little, more and more of Kris Van Assche did sneak in, and I guess the final step was obviously two years ago. None of all that was obviously calculated and I would have loved keeping my own brand. It’s just that it was really no fun anymore. But it did make for a good evolution.
WWD: When you started, we were seeing some gender fluidity on the catwalk. Now that phenomenon has hit the mainstream. I can tell from your facial reaction that you have some strong opinions on the subject.
K.V.A.: It’s not that I mind it. I love how it just gets rediscovered every three seasons. That’s why I made this funny face.
WWD: What is your take on it?
K.V.A.: Honestly, I really don’t feel it’s a new thing. The best answer I could give to that was having Boy George as a character in my campaign. I mean, that was when I was a young kid. That’s one of the moments that it started, and it didn’t even start with him, because David Bowie was way before. So what else is new? That’s what I feel like saying. Boy George, when I grew up, he was really saying out loud that difference was OK and self-expression was super important, and don’t let anybody put you in a box.
I felt it was the right moment to look back at that. Did we evolve in a good way? I’m not sure. So that’s how I feel about it. But honestly, I love a girl in a men’s suit. I totally love that, but it’s not something that influences me on a creative level. I would love to do women’s wear, but that is something else.
K.V.A.: Well, I did some at my own label and I enjoyed it. I’m a women’s wear fashion student.
WWD: I suppose you would have to revive your own label to do that.
K.V.A.: I guess so. I’m not looking for a hobby right now.
WWD: Tell me about Dior’s 70th anniversary. Are there any special initiatives planned on the men’s side to commemorate that?
K.V.A.: I did this little homage in the project we did in Japan.
I found the show notes of his very first collection — show notes existed in 1947 — and one of the colors he called “screaming red” in English, which I thought was so rock ‘n’ roll of him, way back. So I took this notion of screaming red and I made some screaming red outfits and it became this Scream capsule, which was a little nod of myself to these 70 years. But apart from that, no, I think I will just enjoy the moment. But I’ve always been referencing Mr. Dior, through his handwriting, through his personal style, through the Prince of Wales, through the flowers, obviously the lily of the valley, so it’s not a new thing for me. I didn’t reinforce it either for next summer.
WWD: What can you tell me about the spring collection?
K.V.A.: The first part is about this idea of atelier, the know-how, and I actually came up with this new logo, Christian Dior Atelier, which is obviously a little link to the 70 years.
I always like to start look one with a new proposal of that black suit. It’s as tailored as you can go, and then the trousers are really sporty and fluid. So there is something very contrasted within the top, which is very chic, and the lower part of the body, which is really sporty, which is reinforced by these sneakers.
I called the show Late Night Summer because I very much like this idea of young kids getting to stay out for the first time in August, and they drink their first beers and they meet their first girls, and they realize that the power of seduction also comes through their clothes. So they cut off the sleeves of their school uniforms, they steal their father’s jacket and they play around with these clothes in order to seduce.
It’s always about contrast. If it’s a suit, I’ll try to make it sport. If it’s sportswear, I’ll try to make it more couture, so it’s always this tension between the two.