A decade's worth of style can be easily defined by a poignant image. If the 1980s and 1990s belonged to the generous cuts of the Armani power suits worn by Richard Gere in American Gigolo, the shrunken silhouettes that have dominated menswear for the last two decades originate from the work of Hedi Slimane, who at the turn of the millennium took the reins of Dior Homme and revolutionised the staid world of male wardrobes with his rock-and-roll vibe and lean, mean aesthetic. His influence is evident to this day, with skinny ties, sharp suits and skin-tight biker jackets still the bread and butter of men's labels.
Although Slimane parted ways with Dior Homme in 2007, the brand has managed to stay relevant, thanks to the stewardship of Slimane's former right-hand man, Kris Van Assche, a Belgian who's called Paris home for the last 16 years and who has been creative director of Dior Homme since his former boss's departure.
Van Assche is a man of understated words and even more understated gestures. Low-key and soft-spoken, the 38-year-old, who also runs an eponymous independent men's brand, never planned to take the top job at the house where his career began.
After assisting Slimane, he had decided to leave Dior to found his own company, before being called back to replace him two years later. Despite the daunting challenge and the possible backlash from the many acolytes who had been following Slimane's work with almost religious fervour, Van Assche decided to accept the offer and had only a couple of months to design his debut collection. “My bosses at Dior and I agreed that there wasn't enough time to have a fashion show so I was basically supposed to make sure that there was a collection to be presented to buyers. But in the end, I was sufficiently happy with the result and we had a intimate presentation,” reminisces Van Assche when we meet at the Dior Homme headquarters in Paris's eighth arrondissement a few days after the Spring/Summer 2015 show.
“But it's not so much what I did for the first collection; it's the process that I started the day I got here. The day that I was offered the position, I started thinking: What is a men's division of a couture house meant to be like? What does it mean in 2010? What's the right answer in order to make it relevant when things get copied all over and the idea of a catwalk can be bought on the high street? It's been an ongoing process of making luxury relevant, making sure it's worth the effort and that people understand what is exactly the difference between what we do and what they can buy as a copy. So it was obvious the centre of my work would become the ateliers, explaining the know-how, which then became turning jackets inside out, showing what goes on the inside, the technical side of male fashion. I was very much aware of what I inherited here: The allure, the silhouette that had become so mainstream, that was already copied everywhere.”
The house of Dior had never produced menswear consistently before Slimane, so Van Assche only had his predecessor's collections to look back to. His first efforts weren't a complete departure from the brand's signatures but Van Assche has gradually forged his mark, introducing more forgiving cuts and playful elements such as the all-over polka dots and flower prints of Autumn/Winter 2014, which came from one of Monsieur Christian Dior's good-luck charms, the lily of the valley.
That was the first time Van Assche referenced the work or character of Christian Dior, who never designed men's garments and is still remembered as the inventor of the post-war New Look that came to define the 1950s.
Van Assche's most recent effort, his Spring/Summer 2015 collection unveiled in Paris last June, is also an homage to the man, with a letter written by Christian Dior that Van Assche discovered in the archives reproduced as a pattern on jackets and shirts. “In my early collections, I was kind of working on one single message because I wanted it to be about a very strong point of view. So the 45 or 46 outfits of the show would basically be about one idea, one look, one silhouette because I felt that for a big house, it was important to have a very strong, identifiable message,” he explains.
“But I got bored with that and felt luxury also had to be about choice and individuality, so I started thinking about these 45 men not being one single man but 45 different types of men. Which is kind of what Dior is about because we're not just stressing one type, but many. Some of them are very traditional; some of them are looking for more adventurous pieces. And who was a better start than Christian Dior himself to begin working on an individual — to really put something more human within this line-up? That's when I started looking at Mr Dior himself, who obviously didn't do menswear and so it's never been about using parts of his work on dresses in menswear. It's more about him as a person because that's where he becomes very human. It's him loving traditional tailoring or him loving certain fabrics and then it did go all the way to finding some prints or embroideries that he used, but treating them in a very masculine way. And now for the last season, using a handwritten letter. It's him the man rather than him the work.”
This embrace of a more human element is a welcome change in Van Assche's oeuvre, which had heretofore tended to skew to an austere kind of look that was intentionally forbidding and sober. As Van Assche admits: “At one point, it got really minimal and there weren't even any buttons any more. That was a way of finding a blank page and letting the work of the atelier and the fabric talk. Then I got to that blank page, where I felt that we reached the level of luxury and quality that I wanted to offer with almost nothing, with no decoration, because I felt that sometimes fashion was not so honest. It was not so much about good fabrication, but about decoration, fooling people so they wouldn't notice. I started to take off all these elements so people would actually pay attention to the structure but little by little, the embellishments sneaked in again. I allowed for them to sneak in again, in a controlled way, though.”
As Van Assche reflects on this change of heart and the way he's still building Dior Homme, it's clear that he's given a lot of thought to what contemporary menswear stands for. Despite the buzz about men's new-found love for fashion, with figures pointing to the growth of the men's market, he's clearly not resting on his laurels or being complacent about the cult status that Dior Homme enjoys. As for why guys nowadays are becoming as demanding as their girlfriends when it comes to their wardrobe choices, he has some interesting thoughts on the matter.
“There's something that I think is a sociological observation worldwide, which is basically that 30 years ago and even a little less — and this to an extent is a cliché, but to make a point, you have to use clichés — most women didn't work and were dependent on men, so men were really in a strong position. They didn't need to take care of themselves so much because women needed somebody to survive,” says Van Assche. “Now women are totally independent, so men need to take better care. You could say that a woman can survive perfectly well without a man now, so I think it's thanks to women that menswear got huge.”
His cerebral tendency makes him stand apart in the trend-driven and fickle world of fashion, something that he suggests has always been part of his outlook, even while growing up. “I remember at a very young age — I must have been six or seven — I questioned the choice of clothes my mother wanted me to wear,” reveals Van Assche. “Obviously she used to dress me for school and I would be thinking: Why this sweater? And it was at that point I realised that those clothes were in my closet because my mother had bought them. Why did she choose them? Why didn't I buy them?”
He clearly found the answers to those questions through his singular and considered approach to the craft of making clothes.