“My grandmother is a very elegant lady,” he explains. “She started making clothes for me when I was 15. She was a huge influence on me.”
At 18, and in a hurry to leave Londerzeel, Van Assche applied to study fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. RAFA instilled in designers a dark, brooding style and a distaste for the conventional architecture of clothing. On graduation, 10 years ago, Van Assche had no intention of working in stuffy old Paris, and certainly no intention of designing menswear, which in the rarefied atmosphere of fashion is considered dull and staid. But Slimane, who had recently been given control of the Yves Saint Laurent menswear line, saw Van Assche’s portfolio and offered him an internship.
Yves Saint Laurent, Paris, and menswear were all about to go through some big changes, and in 2000 Van Assche found himself in the middle of the action as Slimane, having reinvigorated YSL, moved to Dior Homme to become its chief designer and took Van Assche with him.
And there was more to Van Assche’s education than Slimane’s influence. At YSL there were legions of cutters and sewers and craftsmen to work with and learn from. “To go from Antwerp, where the look was still quite gothic and all about heroin chic, to Yves Saint Laurent, which was still doing haute couture on the women’s side, was quite a shock,” he says. “One of the first meetings I had there was with the hatmaker, who was this really old man who could hardly walk. He needed assistants to carry the hats.” But he had been haberdashing for 50 years and he knew his craft. “I thought that Antwerp was the center of the world, and then you meet a man who has made hats for everybody. It’s then that you realize there is something else going on.”
During the two years he was away from Dior, Van Assche continued his aesthetic journey with his own collection. Young designers often indulge in theatricality and crowd-pleasing affectations, but Van Assche places an emphasis on wearability. “I have never been interested in just making clothes for the runway,” he says. “If I design something that is only loved by the press, then I didn’t get it right.
“When I design clothes I always think about the occasion when a guy could wear them, or I think about friends wearing them. People can call that commercial, but for me it is much more of a challenge.”
Even with this kind of ruthless self-editing, Van Assche is confident he has enough creative gas in the tank to handle both design assignments. “Of course I have to find a balance, but people have done it before and people do it now,” he says. Indeed, Van Assche is following the very modern model for the star designerfrom Marc Jacobs to Raf Simonswho produces his own line while also in the profitable employ of a great fashion house.