Studio Visit
Christian Wijnants, Fashion Designer

Christian Wijnants attended the fashion program at Antwerp’s prestigious Royal Academy, and upon graduating, won the Hyéres prize, the Dries Van Noten prize, and a coveted assistant spot in Van Noten’s atelier. Then, two years after starting his own line in 2003, he banked 100,000 euros as the winner of the Swiss Textile Award, beating out Giles Deacon and Charles Anastase. “I never thought I would even be nominated,” Wijnants told <I>i-D</I> magazine at the time, before proceeding to watch his collection trickle into all of the world’s most respected boutiques and department stores. He was just being modest, of course — the man has unmistakable talent, especially when it comes to his imaginative textiles and knits — but there is something surprising about his success, when you think about it: In a country whose fashion scene skews towards all things experimental, nonconformist, androgynous, and/or dark, the cherub-faced designer is known for both his colorful, feminine aesthetic and his charming geniality. He’s almost too perfect to be cool.

Consider his background: Growing up in Brussels, Wijnants’s artistically inclined family made a habit of exposing him to great art and architecture around Europe, which laid a neat foundation for his discovery of fashion as a teenager. He took a trip to Antwerp at 14 — just as the hype surrounding the Antwerp Six was reaching a fever pitch — and attended an eye-opening catwalk show at the Royal Academy. It was love at first sight. He applied, passed the entrance exam, and enrolled after high school, proving himself an especially eager student even before classes began: “I remember going to the Academy with my parents and asking them if it would be better for me to learn how to stitch and all that before I got there,” Wijnants says. “And they told me no, it’s better that you come with an empty brain because then you’ll have more freedom to experiment and try new things.” Later, after discovering a forgotten knitting machine in his parents’ basement — once used by his mother to make sweaters for the family — he put the Academy’s wisdom to use, teaching himself how to work the machine and eventually ending up with a specialization in knitwear, which he now presides over at his alma mater.

To find Wijnants’s edge, you have to look closer: at the unique cuts of his garments, and at the way he’s still constantly experimenting with both prints and knitting methods. The latter is no small feat. “Everything has been done already somehow in knitwear, so it’s impossible to really invent new things,” he says. “It’s all in your own interpretation of color, composition, and technique.” Sight Unseen visited his Antwerp studio to learn more about that process, and true to his reputation, Wijnants spent an hour cheerfully answering our questions and showing us around, even though he was slammed with less than three weeks until his fall presentation at Paris fashion week. He’s since unveiled his latest creations, and you can read more about how they were made in the slideshow at right.

 

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A selection of looks from the spring/summer 2010 collection of Christian Wijnants, whose clothes have been called “aggressively feminine.” While he does use premade silks and wools in custom-dyed colors, he designs all his own prints and knits at his Antwerp studio before having them produced in Belgium, Italy, and Holland. “I was just at the fabric fair in Paris, and I saw some things that I liked, but at the end I had the impression that in the last few years the producers are experimenting less,” he says. “It was a bit like what you see every season. Personalization is a big part of what we do.”

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In the studio's development room, Wijnants’s inspiration board is the starting point for the mood and color palette of each season. Our visit was the first time he’d really talked about his ideas for fall/winter, even though the presentation was less than three weeks away. “I have a team but I don’t have a team of designers,” he says. “If I were the head of a house with 15 assistants, I would need to make it clear early on what the collection is about, but I can keep it secret, in a way. So I get a nice period of time to do research and look for inspiration. On the other hand it’s a bit scary, because sometimes you think: What am I going to do this season? Oh God, it’s just a white page, I can do anything!”

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A close-up of some of the imagery that inspired the fall/winter collection, including a photograph of an African child taken by Wijnants’s friend Viviane Sassen. “Usually I have a specific theme in mind when I create a collection, inspired by a book or a movie I’ve seen or a trip I’ve taken,” says Wijnants, who's cited Africa and Tristan and Isolde in the recent past. “But this season not so much. Sometimes it’s more just starting from shapes, or colors, or a mood. It’s not always something that you can visually show on a wall, it’s more like the feeling of a cocoon, or of warmth, or of freshness, or the feeling of something long and fluid. At the end of the day it’s about expressing your feelings or your emotions. But you never really know in advance how the collection will look — sometimes it ends up quite far from where you started.”

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In general, though, the inspiration process is crucial for Wijnants because of the two-month lead time involved in creating and manufacturing his custom textiles; the system demands that he choose the colors and fabrics of any given collection first, long before he even begins sketching his actual looks. Images like these help him hone that vision as early on as possible, so he doesn’t have any regrets later in the process. “You have to order a couple of meters or a whole roll of fabric, so it’s not easy to make those decisions,” he notes.

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Some of the final prints (and knits) for fall pinned to two mannequins. Wijnants identified animal skins, “warm and winterish” colors, and lots of layered prints as his main touchpoints for the season's textiles. “I also like to have a link with the summer collection, and summer was very much inspired by central Africa. Even though you don’t clearly see it, I wanted something ethnic, something a bit voodoo-y and mysterious that I couldn’t quite identify. I also wanted these dark neutrals mixed with very bright colors.”

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The source material for Wijnants’s prints may be a painting, drawing, photograph, or even a scan of another fabric, but everything needs to be processed digitally before it reaches the producer, and often the Photoshop work can be extensive. This collections patterns were created by scanning in some of the knits and wools and remixing them, or overlaying them with animal skins and other textures. “It’s a mix of a lot of things,” he says. “At the end of the day I don’t even remember where it came from because we work with the print so much and so hard that it keeps changing and changing. It’s also a nightmare because the designs really react differently on fabric than on the screen or on paper. You may go through a lot of tests. But it’s your own fabric, so it’s enjoyable to do this type of testing.”

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“It also helps when you can see the links between one fabric and the next, because the difficult thing is always making sure there’s a harmony among all the pieces in the collection,” Wijnants says. Pictured is one of the final looks from the fall/winter 2011 collection Wijnants presented in Paris last week, whose skirt is made from one of the prints in the previous frame.

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Concurrent with print development, Wijnants spends the early part of his design process experimenting with knitting techniques on this machine, one of two he keeps in the studio. His passion for knitting started (not unlike the previously featured artist Jim Drain’s) when he discovered his mother’s old machine in the basement of his family home, then taught himself how to use it. This one is similar. “It’s a domestic machine; they were big in the ’70s and ’80s and now not many people have them anymore,” he says. “They weren’t meant for big productions, just for making a couple of sweaters. But they’re ideal for experimentation because you can make things you can’t necessarily do by hand.”

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Wijnants is constantly messing around on the machine, testing out new ideas and looking for mistakes (particularly those of his interns) that may somehow lead to a novel approach. “You start the machine, put the yarn in, and you never know in advance how the yarn will react,” he explains. “You start making a design and you change the tension and the yarn thickness — you try this and that. And ideas arise during the process, so that’s nice.”

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“The great thing about it is that you start from a fret, and you end up making a whole material, and the same yarn can produce something heavy or light,” he continues. “This sweater is the same yarn but a different stitch, and here I put five yarns together. And then you can cook it in the washing machine and change the texture. So with the same yarn you can create so many effects — the possibilities are endless. I have boxes full of these experiments.”

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When Wijnants talks about “cooking” a knit in the washing machine, pictured here, he’s referring to felting them by washing them at various temperatures and for various lengths of time. It’s another way of manipulating their texture before he sends the final samples off to the producer. “When we know exactly what we want, we go to the producers and show them the samples and they try to make it again,” he says. “Sometimes it’s too flat, or they wash it too much and have to try again to achieve that freshness.”

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“And of course sometimes you try things with the machine and then you go to the producers and they tell you well, this was done by hand and it’s something we can’t do, technically,” Wijnants says. He finds that knowledge of these limitations can sometimes impede his creativity, which goes back to what the Royal Academy cautioned him and his parents about so many years ago. “My students are more free to create and find solutions when they don’t know the techniques. People who are too technically talented restrain themselves; I’ve noticed that sometimes I don’t try new things anymore when I know my producers will tell me they’re too complicated.” Pictured: Post-production swatches from the fall collection.

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Of course, it was Wijnants’s innovative way with knits — exemplified in the fall look pictured here — that endeared him to local fashion legend Dries Van Noten, who gave him a job upon graduation specializing in knitwear and encouraged him to push boundaries. It was a formative experience. “I remember for days and days I would be working with machines and I could just experiment all day long trying out things,” he recalls. “And Dries was really promoting that. I’d use five colors and they’d say, ‘No, use 10!’ Or I’d do something with a few sequins and they’d say, ‘Now put them everwhere!’ You never felt like he’d tell you to try to reduce your creativity and make your work more commercial, or cheaper.”

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Sketches for some of the other fall looks, most of which were still only partially constructed when Sight Unseen visited his studio. “The season is so much shorter between October and March. You don’t have much time to think and to experiment. You just have to do, do, do as quickly as possible to finish in time. And the days are shorter, so it seems like all you’re doing is working. Plus, it’s actually quicker to make the collection in the summer sometimes, because you’re making dresses, whereas in the winter you’re making coats. It’s really stressful.”

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Spring is also when Wijnants can really exploit the look he’s best at, or at least that he sells the most of: Loose, flowy, printed-silk or knit dresses. There’s always some printed silk in the fall as well, though, and this year he pursued shapes that aren’t too far from his spring aesthetic: “I wanted very long skirts, long coats, and long white pants,” he says. “I especially like to have this in the winter, this wide, long, and very flowing silhouette.”

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The other half of the studio is devoted to a spacious work room, where fabrics that come back from the producer can be cut and constructed into garment samples. This is another big testing ground for Wijnants, who tends to make pieces over and over again until he’s satisfied. “You always put question marks on everything you’re doing — that’s the way it should be,” he says. “The Academy always encourages you to question you work, and whether you’ve taken it far enough, to be really critical. You make a two, three, five, even ten different trials for the same jacket. You’ll change it 10 or 20 times until it's really good. You have to be a perfectionist.”

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“I must say the studies here in Antwerp are quite tough because you’re criticized all the time,” he continues. “It’s mentally very tough. And there are lots of students who have nervous breakdowns, or who are very talented and yet they stop because it’s too much just too hard. There’s a lot of competition between the students because not everyone can make it to the fourth year. But it’s good preperation — the fashion business is very competitive.”

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Eight years after he founded his label, Wijnants finds himself thinking more and more about that business side of fashion. "Maybe I’m a little bit more grown up than I was, more serious and mature,” he says. “Now more than eight years ago, I know that it doesn’t make sense to make clothes for no reason. You need to sell them and people need to buy them, and to survive you need to keep selling more and more and more. It does make you question whether a piece is too special, too exquisite, too difficult, too expensive. On the other hand, it’s always been my goal to make things that are really wearable. There’s a delicate balance, and you feel that more with age.” Pictured: Wijnants’s brightly painted sewing chair, which he found at a flea market.

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A stash of leftover fabrics from Wijnants’s past collections, most of which are stored in another room of the studio. “Looking at my old work, sometimes I wonder what I had in mind, it’s horrible,” he laughs. “But one of my favorite collections was a long time ago when I did dresses with very fine fringes all over them. It captured exactly what I wanted to express at that time.”

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Small animal figurines in the windowsill of the office, which Wijnants’s sister brought back from Madagascar for him.

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One of Wijnants’s shelves is packed with inspirational reading material, including books on Gerhard Richter, Rachel Whiteread, and the African artists Wangechi Mutu and Zwelethu Mthethwa, plus AnOther Magazine and Self Service.

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An illustrated thank you note pinned to a bulletin board in Wijnants's entryway, along with a vintage Swiss postcard.

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Wijnants, his studio manager Loes Nabuurs, and their team of freelancers take turns cooking a daily communal lunch in the studio’s kitchen, hence the Jamie Oliver cookbook perched on one of the kitchen shelves.

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Inside the kitchen, a photo from Wijnants’s spring/summer 2010 collection is mounted on the wall.

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A portrait of Wijnants, also shot by his friend Viviane Sassen. Despite all of his success so far, “I’m really lucky, because honestly I still feel like I have freedom,” he says. “Tomorrow if I say I want to make five dresses or whatever, I can do it. I can put it in my catalog or show it to the press. There’s nothing that forbids me to just make crazy things. I know my customers and they know what we stand for.”