Maison Ullens announced on Monday the appointment of its new creative director: Christian Wijnants. On learning of the announcement, FashionUnited set up a video interview with the Belgian designer, who spoke on his collaboration with Maison Ullens, and shared his vision of Belgian fashion, luxury and collaborative work.
You have just been appointed artistic director of Maison Ullens and will work alongside Myriam Ullens, the founder. What will the creative process be?
In fact, we've been working together for a season. I had already started the summer season eight months ago, then I did some consulting for the winter and now I've completely helped with the collection. It's going very smoothly. Myriam and I talk at the beginning about our desires, about the themes we would like to wear, I design the collections and then it's with the creative and production team at Maison Ullens.
I go to the studio once a week, more or less, and Myriam comes to the office from time to time to watch the evolution of the collection with me. It's really a collaboration in which Myriam gives me a bit of input and talks to me a lot about her travels. As the collection evolves, we change things a little according to the mood of the times and her own experiences. But in principle I work on a moodboard at the beginning of the season, I design the collections, choose the materials, colours, etc. and I present them to her. She guides me by showing me the shops and the clientele, but afterwards I bring her new ideas and creations.
Collaborations at the head of major fashion houses are becoming more frequent. What is your take on this?
It definitely amplifies a brand. Even within my own brand [note: Christian Wijnants launched his eponymous label in 2003], working with people is important to me. That is to say that on the collection, on the shoes, on the accessories, I try to surround myself with people with whom I communicate. I think every creative person likes to have a second look, a third look, to have another perspective, etc. I think it's always an enrichment and I don't understand why it didn't happen 10 or 15 years ago. It's enriching for the different parties. It can bring a lot of new things.
Why did you say yes to Maison Ullens?
I already knew Maison Ullens well because in Belgium it was quite well known. And then I really like knitwear, I work with it alot in my collections. Maison Ullens is a beautiful house because it makes very beautiful knits, the quality is extremely high, and there are many beautiful factories that we work with. You can't say no to a collaboration with a beautiful house like that, which works with factories that are all in Europe, almost all in Italy, with machines and techniques that are really top notch. It's a very nice collaboration. I'm really happy to be able to do it.
In the press release announcing your appointment, Maison Ullens stated its desire to "further affirm the Belgian character of the house". What is fashion design in Belgium today?
It's quite difficult to describe because I'm Belgian myself and it's sometimes easier to see the similarities from the outside. I think it's quite diverse. There are Belgian designers who have very different styles. I don't think we're necessarily talking about a style but rather a way of working, a sense of humour, a freedom in the sense that Belgian fashion is not very old. It's not like in Paris or Milan where there is a hierarchy in fashion, a sometimes heavy history in certain houses. In Belgium, people have been doing fashion for not very long, so there is a kind of freedom to work. When I worked in a Parisian fashion house, it was a bit old-fashioned, there was a lot of history, a lot of past. This can sometimes be a bit of a burden and I think that in Belgium, designers are perhaps freer with regard to history, etc.
I think there are also a lot of Belgian designers who have an authentic style, everyone does a bit of what they want and doesn't look to the left or right, doesn't necessarily try to follow diktats or trends, etc. In general, perhaps there is also this humble side. We're not necessarily designers who go after celebrities, red carpets, etc. But we really make clothes to be worn in everyday life. All the Belgian designers I admire are designers who dress real women, it's not just a silhouette you see at a fashion show and never see again. There is this very realistic, pragmatic side.
"I like to think of Maison Ullens as a house that invests in the future."
This ties in with a certain definition of luxury today. For you, what is a luxury piece in 2023?
For me, luxury is associated with comfort, with pleasing oneself. It's a mixture. Luxury at Maison Ullens is having beautiful products. The quality is extremely high. The products are so beautiful, yet you can even wear them indoors or outdoors, there are many reversible pieces. That's what luxury is. It's having magnificent qualities, which come from Italy, which are made in beautiful workshops where things are done by hand, the old-fashioned way. And the idea of having timeless pieces, I think that's what defines luxury, pieces that are an investment, that you want for 20, 30 years, or even longer, that you want to give to the next generation, that don't go out of fashion after one season. I like to think of the Maison Ullens as a house that invests in the future.
Could you describe a piece that you particularly like or that could become a bestseller at Maison Ullens?
It already has bestsellers that are repeated from season to season. This season, I tried to present several of them. We also worked on pieces called ‘Travel Kit’ which are reversible. They are very fine gauges, an 18 gauge. The knitting time is very long. There is one colour on top and the other underneath, so you can wear the pieces by turning them inside out. In particular, there is a large cardigan that we made in two colours, very loose, with straight sleeves, no buttons, which is relatively thin, fluid and feminine, something very pure, very easy. It's a piece I'd like to spend my whole life in. A cardigan that you can snuggle up in. It's this idea of comfort, of a cocoon, that I like very much... For when you take a plane or when you're on your sofa on Sunday afternoon watching a film, or in the street. There's also this elegance when you're walking, this slightly dramatic side when the cardigan opens up because it's very long. I love this kind of very simple, almost obvious, piece that makes you think: "I had to have that". These are pieces that we're going to carry forward into the future.
What will the flow of collections be?
That’s two collections, or themes, per year. But it's true that we're going to work a bit with capsules, meaning that there will be a first delivery, a second delivery... Depending on the requests, on what is going to be delivered to the boutiques. But we're not going to go back to the pre-collection system. It will be spring/summer, autumn/winter.
What is your relationship with social media networks?
It's a bit of a love and hate thing I've had from the beginning. I may have taken a little too long to like social networks for the positives. At the beginning, I was very critical and now I think that there is something wonderful, which is to say that everyone can talk about what they want, show their ideas, this creative side. Someone who has a job that might be a bit boring can become a super influential person on Instagram, with creative ideas in many different sectors. It took me a while but I think it's amazing to be able to say that it's not necessarily only fashion people who talk about fashion and that, at the end of the day, 10, 15 or 20 years ago, you could only see a very specific overview of fashion, from only the professionals, journalists or stylists. But today we can bring another view. I find it enriching.
Which account(s) do you follow on Instagram?
I don't follow many influencers. But I do follow magazines, GentleWoman for example, WWD or FashionUnited, etc. It's a mix between informative stuff and in-depth stuff. And obviously there are some influencers I follow because their style inspires me. I'm not on social media all day but from time to time. There is a freedom and a lightness and this kind of democratisation of information which, at the beginning, bothered me because I found that everything was disclosed, everything moved very quickly. I always loved Martin Margiela because he didn't show his face, because the label didn't show his name, there was a discretion. I've always appreciated that in fashion, when there's mystery and you have to look for it.
But now some designers and brands even imagine pieces based on how they will look visually on Instagram...
What's amazing is that 15 years ago I had no idea about the life of my clothes after creation. I would do a show, I would sell the collection, the collections would be sent all over the world. And then I had no idea what happened afterwards. Now, I see the client doing posts in New Zealand, Japan, Hawaii, New York, or the boutique showing their windows. I see the influencer using my clothes at a festival. I actually see the life of the garment that I didn't see before. It's incredible to know what happens afterwards, to know that the dress was worn to a barbecue in Texas like this.
Before, you'd see the occasional actress wearing a dress to a festival and that was it. Now, to see my collections come to life, to see them evolve, it's a fascinating thing that brings me a lot. I don't spend my life looking at it, but it's still nice to see how people interpret it. Because I make suggestions, a certain look, but then the clients do what they want. They define the style they want to give to the clothes. It's very exciting as a designer to see the clothes you've created in a completely different context.
Your eponymous brand is celebrating its 20th anniversary. What are your plans for the future?
We just opened a second boutique in Berlin. It's true that the idea of opening boutiques is something that is close to my heart because I love the retail experience, the experience of going into a boutique, shopping, seeing the products. Even if the online business is also successful, I would like to open a third, fourth or fifth shop in the next two or three years. And maybe also develop the human element again in the future. We put it aside a bit during the covid.
And a shop opening in Paris perhaps?
We're not necessarily in a hurry. Opening a boutique is really a matter of opportunity, you have to fall in love with a place. But we really want to open in Paris in the next two or three years.
To finish, what is it that particularly inspires you at the moment?
What has inspired me a lot recently is an exhibition on the artist Urs Fischer in Mexico City.This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.FR. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.