Interview by Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Johan Sandberg
After famed couturier Christian Dior passed away in 1957, a 21-year-old Yves Saint Laurent took the creative helm of the Dior fashion house. Three years later, Saint Laurent was conscripted to serve in the French army, lost his job at the company, and subsequently sued for breach of contract. (He won.) He and his partner, Pierre Bergé, then launched the now-global Yves Saint Laurent brand. Nearly four decades later, in 1998, a young Belgian designer, Kris Van Assche, would become part of the Saint Laurent legacy when he was hired as an assistant for then creative director Hedi Slimane. In 2000, Slimane and Van Assche decamped from YSL to launch the Dior Homme menswear line, thus creating a full circle between the two brands and the career arcs of the four designers.
In 2004, Van Assche left Dior to establish his own brand, which in the past 10 years has grown significantly; it’s now available in 150 stores in more than 30 countries. He returned to Dior Homme in 2007 to replace Slimane as creative director. At 38, the designer is on the rise with both Dior Homme—where he’ll release his 20th collection in November—and his namesake label, which last year unveiled its first standalone shop, in Paris, and launched an e-commerce site. Surface met with Van Assche in the lobby of New York’s Mercer Hotel to discuss how he’s charting a new course for Dior while leading his own brand with equal determination.
You run two major fashion brands. It must be impossible to have an average day.
I’m not sure there’s such a thing as an average day. I guess it’s all about a certain routine—“routine” not being a bad word. Switching between two full-time jobs has really become an art of organization. I always try to start my day at the same time. Three times a week, I go to the gym first. Then I come to the office, whether it’s at Dior or Kris Van Assche. Who I see, how long I see them, and what I see is all programmed in advance. It’s all strictly organized, and I’m rarely late. I hate people who are late—it makes me very nervous. This schedule allows for everybody to know what we’re doing and when we’re doing it.
How do you balance your work between your own brand and Dior Homme? Do you find it difficult to switch gears from one to the next?
Because both of the brands are in Paris, my life is easy. I don’t lose too much time traveling. Basically, I spend at least three days a week at Dior and two at my label; it’s just a half-hour drive from one office to the other. My mindset is very much linked to the building I’m in and my assistants. Once I see the front door and my assistant, I know which collection I’m working on that day. I always try to give a whole day to each brand. Otherwise it gets really tough.
You grew up in Belgium and studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. How has that experience informed your work?
I always feel it’s a bit of a cliché. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a Belgian designer. I’m Belgian and I’m a designer, but is my fashion Belgian if I’m working for a French couture house? It’s kind of a weird thing. But many fashion designers are Belgian, so there must be a link. I don’t like to put a definition on it myself. I don’t feel like that’s my role.
Your approach to fashion is pretty accessible; it’s about creating clothes meant to be worn, not just high-minded concepts.
Which doesn’t mean it lacks creativity—that has nothing to do with it.
After finishing school, you went straight to Paris to work for Hedi Slimane at YSL. How did that opportunity come about?
It was a very weird situation. I had studied womenswear as a student, and I was very worried about not finding a job after school. I was very conscious about that, because at the Royal Academy you tend to believe you’re a star. But that lasts for about a week. I sent out hundreds of CVs. The opportunity came along for a four-month internship in menswear at YSL. I was somewhat disappointed because I thought it would be all about ties and socks and weird licensees. But I took it as an opportunity to move to Paris and stay there for four months. I was like, “Okay, this will give me a chance to find a real job.” Obviously, it turned out very differently. I really ended up doing menswear by accident.
What was it like working under Slimane?
I always say I was a fashion student for four years and a professional assistant for six. It was 10 years of tough education. That’s all I have to say about it.
You transitioned to Dior with Slimane. What was it like going from YSL to Dior Homme?
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start from scratch a brand at that level. I learned a lot from it.
You later left Dior Homme, only to eventually return and replace Slimane as creative director.
That was a tough cookie. Usually, when you take over a brand, the house is dying or dead or really unpopular, which was not the case at Dior Homme. It was even tougher because I was already doing my own label, and Dior Homme was not supposed to be KVA at Dior. It was a weird situation. I didn’t want to do what I was already doing at my label, and people didn’t really want me to change Dior. They didn’t want me to do the same thing as Hedi, either. They would have hated me for it. It was a mission impossible. But I was very much aware of that.
My close friends all suggested I shouldn’t take the job. They would all say: “Settle with your label, it’s doing fine. This is going to be a nightmare.” But it’s one of those offers you can’t refuse. I went there and had a profound realization about what I thought a men’s division at a couture house should be. The answer to that was a redefinition of luxury. A long evolution started. It was not a revolution; it was not about burning everything or throwing everything out the window. It was about taking things slowly but surely in a new, more high-end direction. More of a KVA-for-Dior direction, I guess.
What would you say makes up that KVA touch at Dior Homme?
It’s been seven years since I took over. People tend to understand revolutions more than evolutions, because evolutions are subtler. But look at my last show and look at what I inherited when I got to Dior—you see it’s a totally different attitude. Today I’m convinced that it was the only possible way forward. It already had an economic reality, and you cannot forget about that. Dior Homme’s about a lot of people. Many things are at stake. It’s been a very interesting ride.
This reflection on what luxury should be got me into this very minimalist mood. I realized pretty soon that menswear was not so much about ornamentation, but more about fit, finishing, quality, structure, and deconstruction. That got me going for quite a few seasons, and it made for a very minimalist approach because it was all about the essentials. It was about getting back to a sort of blank page. At one point, there weren’t even any buttons on jackets; it was all just about how each garment would embrace the body. Once I felt like tailoring was going well, I started approaching sportswear the same way. I guess it got me to these last seasons in which no ornamentation gets in because all the basics are right. At Dior, the suit I inherited was so tiny and stiff that you could almost stand it up without a body in it. A lot of work went into making it more comfortable and wearable without losing its allure, its attitude, its silhouette.
Is this approach to the brand also something you practice in your personal life? Do you view your life as an evolution?
Everything I’ve learned and experienced is going to influence the work. Of course, I sure hope I’m a much better designer than I was seven years ago. It would be a nightmare if that weren’t the case.
For more of the interview with Kris Van Assche, order your copy of the August issue here.