Kris Van Assche on reaching two decades in Paris

These days, designers are considered extremely lucky to remain in charge of any house for a decade. Last week, Kris Van Assche wrapped up his 11th year in one of the industry’s most watched labels, Dior Homme. Doing so with panache – a blend of tailoring and street sport style – presented in the Grand Palais before Karl Lagerfeld and Robert Pattinson.

Kris Van Assche - Dior Homme

Bella Hadid even showed up in a mannish Kris pantsuit and naughty bra; Big Sean in a baseball jacket with safety pin decoration – both wearing matching calfskin sneakers. While Josh Hartnett, Jhené Aiko and Future had paparazzi in a feeding frenzy.
Van Assche has been a very savvy design helmsman for Dior Homme. Last year, the division racked up a double digit increase in annual sales of some €350 million. Back when Van Assche was named artistic director in April 2007, replacing design legend Hedi Slimane, Dior Homme’s annual sales were barely €100 million. Van Assche has also gone on to dress Grammy, Oscar and César winners and nominees; and this latest show highlighted his tailoring skills; with five famed mature male models in versions of Monsieur Dior’s legendary Bar Jacket. Plus, he invented a whole new wardrobe category – Black Carpet. And tried his hand at everything from BMX bikes to skateboards – not something, perhaps, one associates with Monsieur Dior.
Van Assche first came to Paris two decades ago in November 1998, when he was hired by Slimane, then designing menswear at Yves Saint Laurent. When Hedi moved over to Dior Homme, Kris followed him.
Next, after Slimane hightailed out of Paris for photographic exile in Berlin, Van Assche – who in the meantime had launched his own house – was picked to succeed his former boss as menswear designer at Dior.

Van Assche is, above all, resilient. From his very first season when he replaced Slimane, the first modern menswear designer to achieve rock star status.
“Today people are used to continual change at fashion houses. There are five moves every season.  But back then it didn’t really happen. It was more about brands being revived. Taking over a brand that was at the top of the hype was very rare. And people really gave me a shitty time. Nobody gets that today,” he concedes over coffee in his rue de Marignan studio.
 “It was an impossible thing – nobody wanted me to copy Hedi, but nobody really wanted to change. There was no way I could win,” laughs the 41-year-old.
Gradually, however, the reviews improved, as business grew. And, by his fifth show when he managed to “Belgianize the atelier, by turning tailoring inside out,” Van Assche gained real momentum. The rest, they say, is history.
Nothing in background suggested he would be a Paris design hero. He grew up in the obscure Belgium city of Londerzeel, the only son of a dad who worked in the car industry, and his mum a secretary.
“When I was 10, I decided I really wanted to become a fashion designer, when I learned about extreme French fashion like Mugler or Gaultier. Then I discovered Antwerp – literally half an hour’s drive. While Paris, when you are 12, seems like going to Mars. So, from 12, I was basically waiting to study there, even if my parents expected me to learn the error of my ways and after two years become a banker!” he laughs.
“The academy was super tough. You start out with 200 students at first, but in the end only seven might graduate. But if you are one of the seven you believe that you can conquer the world!” he chuckles.
From the beginning, Van Assche’s fashion has been a churning encounter between France and Belgium.
“I was 22, thinking that Antwerp was the center of the world. I had all the baggage of Martin Margiela on my shoulders – dark, rough, intense. Whereas at Saint Laurent my first meeting was with a hat maker! That meeting of very rough Belgium and very luxe Paris is still with me,” stresses Van Assche.

Dior Homme Winter 18-19 - Photo: Patrice Stable

Three years ago, Van Assche’s work at Dior suddenly accelerated two gears, when he put his own brand on hold. A move that coincided with the appointment of Serge Brunschwig as CEO of Dior Homme.
“Since Serge has been president we are much more ambitious, opening many new stores. Now I am somebody’s priority. Before we were just the men’s divisions of a big couture house,” he argues.
A key development has been the launch of Black Carpet; a concept he invented, which is a meeting of red carpet and stage wear: a capsule element of 10 looks in each pre-collection.
“Certain actors wanted something more. When one star called and asked for a black sequined jacket – I didn’t have one. That’s too easy, I thought. But as I really admire him I realized I had to think about taking an exercise I don’t like and making something interesting of it. Now, I am very proud of Black Carpet,” expounds Van Assche, who lives nearby in an Haussmann apartment with a terrace of roses – which he posts on Instagram.
He’s also amassed a following of cool musicians, almost effortlessly. “There is something too easy about looking at a number of Instagram followers and putting them in the campaign. Instead, what happened was A$AP Rocky came to my shows and I got all this feedback. He really is a fashion geek and knows about Antwerp, Japanese designers and collections of 20 years ago!” he insists. 
Dior Homme is noted for its dual ad campaigns: half shot by Karl Lagerfeld, half by Kris’ pal Willy Vanderperre. The latter making cross generational images featuring Larry Clark, Boy George, Dave Gahan or Pet Shop Boys. “They represent such freedom of thought, liberty and action… The people who made me who I am have a role to play!” says the multi-faceted Van Assche.
Whose other surprise successes are his Dior skateboards and Dior BMX bike: “I live my unexplored fantasies through my fashion. The first BMX I got was the nicest present ever from my parents. But Dior’s version had to be very high-end French. In my view, when you work in fashion you have no right to be unhappy. Suffering in fashion is pathetic!”

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