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 hasbeen 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.
It takes the Zürich-based fashion duo Ikou Tschüss a full week to hand-knit the blankets from their winter collection — each ringed with dangling sleeves to appear as though it’s hugging the bed — and maybe a day to knit one of their bulky sweater dresses. Even silk shifts are hand-printed and edged with rows of crochet, the pair's signature trope. Add to all that labor the fact that Carmen D'Apollonio spends the majority of her time in New York, where she’s been the right-hand-woman to Swiss artist Urs Fischer for the past eight years, and it’s a good thing she and partner Guya Marini have help. “Most of our knitting is done by Swiss grandmothers now,” says Marini.
At 22, Alexandra Verschueren has interned for Preen, Proenza Schouler, and Derek Lam. She’s been honored by a jury that included former Rochas creative director Olivier Theyskens and the International Herald Tribune’s fashion critic Suzy Menkes. And in the last six months, her graduate collection Medium has been fêted by Wallpaper magazine and the Mode Museum in her hometown of Antwerp. So why, when she applied to that city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts straight out of high school, did no one expect she’d get in?
Heaven Tanudiredja didn’t have a chance to tidy up the day I visited his Antwerp studio in early February, leaving his desk a maelstrom of beads, tools, and findings, punctuated by the odd Marlboro package. “Cigarettes and Red Bull — this is the real me,” he joked, apologizing for the mess. But to the uninitiated visitor, of course, it was a fascinating sight, a glimpse at the primordial soup that would soon be transformed into Tanudiredja’s ever-more-elaborate fall jewelry collection, which he’ll show this week in Paris. Because everything is made by hand in the studio, his desk is actually a production hub; with his line Heaven now in its ninth season, and his elaborate bead-encrusted necklaces selling for $5,000 at the likes of Barneys New York, Tanudiredja and his three-person team are responsible for churning out upwards of 300 pieces every six months, each of which takes 48 hours of exacting beadwork to construct. Hence the stimulants — not to mention the thick-rimmed glasses he has to wear while working as a consequence of his failing eyesight.