The topic of succession is one that is hotly debated at most luxury brands these days as many houses struggle to find new talent that will bring their brand to the next generation. In the past few years we have witnessed an intense game of musical chairs at established names like Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Dior as top positions have become vacant. Rumours, speculation and controversy usually follow, as everyone from the media to industry insiders weigh in on who they think should take on the coveted role.
Therefore it came as a surprise when Sebastien Meunier’s debut at Belgian brand Ann Demeulemeester went practically unnoticed during Paris Fashion Week in March. The show reviews were published the next day as usual, but there were no interviews or intimate profiles about the newly appointed creative director who seemed to have materialised out of thin air.
“Being in the spotlight doesn’t excite me. Certain aspects are interesting but I am a private person, much like Ann herself. I don’t want to be seen everywhere, I want the garments and our shows to be seen by everyone. It’s not about me,” says the 40-year-old-designer.
We are sitting in the middle of The Puli Hotel lobby in Shanghai, and Meunier has decided to give a few interviews for the first time since he took over the reins from Demeulemeester. He reveals that he’s been to the city before when he was invited as a young designer to showcase his own fashion label 11 years ago. This time round however the circumstances are different as is here to celebrate the opening of the brand’s first free-standing store in China. It’s all the more important because Demeulemeester herself has also travelled to Shanghai to make a rare appearance at the event, a gesture that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Meunier.
“I don’t work for my name, I work for her name. It has a strong importance; her influence will always be there,” he says earnestly.
Ann Demeulemeester first appeared on the international fashion scene in London in 1986, as part of the group that later became known as the Antwerp Six. Although they found immediate fame with their experimental style, Demeulemeester carved her own niche with her moody yet romantic collections featuring layered, architectural silhouettes and a mostly monochromatic palette. Rather than follow trends, she remained faithful to this style season after season, from the tightly cut Edwardian jackets and slim black trousers to the billowing romantic blouses and chunky biker boots. Her fans meanwhile were as faithful and passionate as the designer herself, who remained fiercely independent while building her brand into a global success.
In November last year however she shocked everyone when she sent a handwritten letter to friends and colleagues announcing that she was parting ways with the label she founded. “Ann Demeulemeester is an adult brand now with its own identity and legacy that is able to continue growing without me,” she wrote. She didn’t name a successor and it wasn’t until a few months later that Meunier was revealed to be the chosen one.
“I prefer to keep [how this happened] a secret,” he says with a smile. “What I can say? I took it as a big honour and responsibility without thinking too much about the challenge that it is. I take problems, possibilities and luck day by day. It’s the way Ann, her husband, we all work. The way we think is quiet,” he says.
Born in France, Meunier says he studied law first before even contemplating a career in fashion.
“When you decide what to study, you are searching for who you want to be. When I thought of it that way, I realised who I wanted to be is also [about] what I want to wear. I felt who I was related to my garments. It was a very personal and simple connection,” he says.
He went on to study at the famed Esmod school in Paris before launching his eponymous label in 1999. To make ends meet he also took on a role as head designer for women’s and then men’s wear at cult fashion house Martin Margiela, which was known for its cerebral and conceptual creations. Meunier had the opportunity to learn and work alongside Margiela himself, an experience which would later define him as a designer.
“I learnt freedom – to think, to live in stories, also not to be frightened by giving new stories. The conceptual side was important but it wasn’t exactly my own personality.
I learnt that there was an instinctive part to designing but that you also need to keep in mind what a brand is. You need to give something true,” he says.
In 1998 he was awarded a prize for his own label at famed fashion festival Hyeres, where he exhibited his clothes alongside Demeulemeester’s. Interestingly the two never met and it was only in 2010 that they would reconnect when he went in for a job interview. Demeulemeester offered him the role of head designer for men’s wear 30 minutes after their meeting.
“The romanticism of the brand was very important to me. As a man, the dandy experience you felt in each of her garments was a very big starting point for me. Of course the brand is really related to her personality and after meeting her I immediately liked the person I was speaking with. Before I was an admirer, but that changed when I got to know her,” he says.
When it came time for him to take on his new role as creative director for the entire brand, Meunier was well familiar with the brand’s DNA. So for his first collection for autumn/winter 2014, he decided to bring the men’s wear and women’s wear together again in one show (Demeulemeester always showed both collections together until they evolved into two complete separate lines). This was done in particular to show the connection between the two lines rather than being a direct homage to the past.
“For Ann, men and women are together in the street and in life. It was a nice moment to show the androgynous part of the brand, which is very much something I wanted to express. I speak a lot about being body conscious with my designs and it’s also related to that. A woman who wears an Ann garment feels more powerful while a man is not frightened to show his fragility,” he says.
This aesthetic was clearly reflected in the collection which features soft tailoring in the form of romantic drapes and folds which are deconstructed to create a look that is urban and minimalist. The mostly black collection featured double breasted cape-like jackets and one shoulder maxi dresses with asymmetrical hems and trailing ribbons (an Ann signature). A handful of all-white styles hinted at the future which a more refined and languid silhouette consisting of oversized draped tunic tops worn over wide legged trousers. The men’s wear looks followed a similar palette, although a metallic bronze fabric added a jolt of colour on jackets, trousers and button down shirts.
“I didn’t want to do a crazy new show or do a retrospective of the past. This was not an archive collection. I wanted a new story. We chose the black mostly for the show, but the collection is colourful for the shops. I wanted to show the architecture of the garments while the white garments added a different dimension,” he says.
Interestingly Meunier says he designed the collection without consulting his predecessor. Although Demeulemeester still retains ownership of the brand with her husband Patrick, their meetings are resigned to informal lunches and dinners with the rest of the Ann Demeulemeester “family.”
“When you have this new responsibility you have to handle more. It was the moment to be by myself, to be independent. I think you have to do it like this if you want to enter a new period. If I keep on speaking about themes with them, I am still a head designer not a creative director.
“[Ann] knows I have my own personality and way of thinking. When she appointed me she accepted this and maybe that’s why she chose me. This brand is my family and I continue to work with the same people. In certain ways there is continuity,” he says.
Looking ahead Meunier says he hasn’t mapped out the future of the brand, as he prefers to take a more instinctive approach to designing the collections.
“As I look into the future, I look into myself. I will make the changes slowly and discreetly. This is not a house about big changes. I don’t want to disappoint our customers or Ann. It’s not even about disappointment, because I love the brand for what it is. I wouldn’t accept the role if I was to change everything. It would signify that I wasn’t respecting the brand, or trust in this brand. I entered in this family and I am a part of it, I speak for it and [our team] work together. That is our strength,” he says.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post, April 2014.