FLORENCE — Belgian designer Jan-Jan Van Essche is an unconventional choice for guest designer at Pitti Uomo, the semi-annual menswear trade show that kicked off yesterday. Pitti’s organizers are good at spotting new talent, but rarely have they lent their platform to a designer so left-field.
Van Essche has remained firmly underground since launching his eponymous, quiet luxury label twelve years ago. Although he has a following among several menswear editors and is stocked in 40 retailers, including Dover Street Market and Ssense, his brand has never been part of the fashion mainstream and today’s Pitti Uomo show will be his first.
At the heart of Van Essche’s work is what he calls “inverse multiculturalism.” His clothes draw inspiration from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where traditional clothing often offers a sense of relaxation and concealment not usually found in commercial fashion.
“What fascinates me is how you can find similar garments in many cultures; for example, there are methods of clothing construction that you can find from Turkey to Asia and Africa, and what really moves me is that these same things were invented in different places at the same time, which for me indicates their intrinsic humanity,” says Van Essche .
The results are minimalist though simple. Van Essche favors silhouette and texture over decoration and motifs, an approach that no doubt helped him avoid accusations of “cultural appropriation.” He removes unnecessary seams and lets the drapery shape the garment. He keeps the color palette muted, and many of the fabrics he uses—80 percent of which come from Japan—come undyed or even straight off the loom, untreated.
While today’s fashion is fast, Van Essche’s approach is deliberately slow. From the beginning of his line, Van Essche eschewed seasonal collections, opting instead to present a “yearly wardrobe”. His first collection was called “Yukkuri”, which means “calm down” in Japanese.
“Not only do Jan-Jan’s clothes look like nothing else, they’re made like nothing else,” says Noah Johnson, global style director at GQ. “I was amazed by his skill and his unique aesthetic vision. And of course, all of this is done outside the traditional fashion system: truly independent.”
With his partner Piëtro Celestin, Van Essche runs Atelier Solarshop, a store in Antwerp’s Seefhoek district, a predominantly immigrant neighborhood, where his own clothing is displayed alongside a selection of other slow fashion brands such as Cosmic Wonder and Mittan, and travel-acquired homewares steam to distant parts of the world.
Van Essche, 42, was born in Antwerp. He graduated from the prestigious fashion department at the Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp in 2003. Before starting his own brand, he worked with his father and three brothers on set design for the Belgian television and film industry, as well as mass market fashion. “It’s important to know what you don’t want to do,” says Van Essche.
Although Van Escche began his fashion career in menswear—”I don’t pretend to know how a woman feels in clothes,” he says—he’s slowly built a loyal clientele of women and now creates clothes he sees as genderless. “The construction of men’s and women’s pieces is the same. The proportions may vary and the surface may vary in terms of drawing or size. I don’t like the word, but ethnic clothing doesn’t have darts on the chest or cinched in at the waist. The way you drape it around your body makes it more feminine or masculine. And that’s something you can easily do with my clothes,” says Van Essche.
Tonight’s show is a kind of party. “Doing a show was never possible as a small independent brand. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a dream,” says Van Essche. The fluidity of his clothes almost demands to be seen in motion. “We were trying to capture the movement by making movies, and a lot of the team that worked on our movies is working on the show.”
Whether the exposure will give Van Essche’s business a boost remains to be seen. There are no big plans to expand the label. “Being a small independent brand can be quite intimidating,” says Van Essche. “If we could continue what we’re doing in a more sustainable way that would give us a little more stability and freedom, that would be great. I don’t want to become a manager; I want to continue making my patterns. But it would be amazing if the brand could reach more people without us having to change what we do.”