Paris is not revolting. Despite fears of ruin and rampage, the election of the right-wing Nicholas Sarkozy to the French presidency has sparked only small displays of dissent, and these quickly dissipate. But even if the Paris mob had run riot through rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Kris Van Assche might not have noticed. He has his own succession issues to think about.
Van Assche, the designer behind a highly regarded eponymous menswear collection, has just been named artistic director of Dior Homme, inheriting the mantle of Hedi Slimane, who put the French fashion house at the vanguard of a new movement in menswear that accented a severe silhouette, sharply tailored angles, and rock-and-roll styling. It made Slimane a star, not just in fashion circles but also in the world beyond.
On the day Sarkozy assumes his new post, Van Assche is just five weeks into his new job and has two months left to prepare his first Dior Homme collection as well as his own line for the Paris menswear shows. He spends his days crossing the Marais on his motorbike, bouncing between the Dior studio and the atelier of the smaller team that makes up the Kris Van Assche operation.
As Van Assche and I sit in a bland restaurant in an almost deserted part of the 8th arrondissement, it’s gray, muggy, and oppressive outside. We are only five minutes from the tourist crowds on the Champs-Elysées, from avenue Montaigne with its concentration of luxury-goods stores, and from the Plaza Athénée hotel, one of the fashion world’s favorite Paris hangouts. But here it is quiet and discreet.
The industry has had Van Assche marked for greatness for some time, so it’s no surprise to many that the designer’s rise has been so dramatic. Jeffrey Kallinsky, founder and CEO of Jeffrey New York and Jeffrey Atlanta, says, “New talents don’t come along often in menswear, and Kris is definitely a new talent.”
Van Assche, 31, grew up in the Belgian town of Londerzeel, between Brussels and Antwerp. “It was a small town with nothing much going on,” he says. “The less you stood out, the better it was.”
He was an only child, a loner who “spent a lot of time in my room drawing.” At 12, he had something like a divine revelation, which he explains this way: “I was confronted by the power of fashion.” It was the late eighties and the first wave of designer mania: Jean Paul Gaultier was turning fashion into street theater and Comme des Garçons was creating bold new shapes. “When I actually realized that was a job, making clothes, there was no doubt in my mind that that was what I wanted to do,” he says.
His father worked at a car dealership and his mother was a secretary; neither was prepared to foster their son’s interest in fashion. It was left to Van Assche’s grandmother to understand where he was coming from.