Maison Ullens announced on Monday the appointment of its new creative director: Christian Wijnants. The agreement with the Belgian designer was quickly made. The new creative director tells FashionUnited about his collaboration with Maison Ullens and shares his vision of Belgian fashion, luxury and collaboration.
FashionUnited: You have just been appointed artistic director of Maison Ullens and will work with Myriam Ullens, the founder. What does the creative process look like?
Christian Wijnants: “We have actually worked together for one season. I already started the summer season eight months ago. After that I gave some advice for the winter and now I completely help with the collection. It goes very smoothly. At the start, Myriam and I talk about our wishes, about the themes we want to use. I design the collections, and then it goes to the creative teams at Maison Ullens for production.”
“I go to the studio more or less weekly, and Myriam occasionally comes to the office to see the development of the collection with me. It really is a collaboration where Myriam gives me input and talks a lot with me about her travels. As the collection evolves, we change things up a bit to match the zeitgeist and her own experiences. But basically I work on a mood board at the start of the season, I design the collections, choose materials, colors and present them to her. Myriam follows me through the shops and shows me the customers, but I then come up with new ideas and creativity.”
Collaborations at the head of major fashion houses are becoming more and more common. What do you think about this?
“It definitely strengthens a brand. Even within my own brand [noot van de redactie: Christian Wijnants lanceerde zijn gelijknamige label in 2003] Working with people is important to me. This means that with the collection, with the shoes, with the accessories, I try to surround myself with people with whom I communicate. I think every creative likes to have a second look, a third look, a different perspective. I think it’s always enriching and I don’t understand why it didn’t happen 10 or 15 years ago. It is enriching for the various parties. It can bring many new things.”
Why did you say yes to Maison Ullens?
“I already knew Maison Ullens well because it is quite well known in Belgium. And I really like knitwear, I work with that a lot in my collections. Maison Ullens is a beautiful fashion house because it makes beautiful knitwear, the quality is extremely high. There are many beautiful factories we cooperate with. You can’t say no to a collaboration with such a beautiful brand, which works with factories that are all in Europe – almost all in Italy – with machines and techniques that are really top notch. I’m really glad I can do it.”
In the press release about your appointment, Maison Ullens states that it “wishes to further confirm 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 sometimes it’s easier to see the similarities from the outside. I think it is very different. There are Belgian designers who have very different styles. I don’t think we’re talking about one style per se, but rather a way of working, a sense of humor, a freedom in the sense that Belgian fashion is not very old. It is not like in Paris or Milan, where there is a hierarchy in fashion, a sometimes heavy history in certain fashion houses. In Belgium, fashion has not been cultivated for so long, so there is a kind of freedom to work. When I worked in a fashion house in Paris, it was old fashioned, there was a lot of history, a lot of the past. This can sometimes be a burden and I think that in Belgium the designers can be more free in terms of the story.”
“I also think there are many Belgian designers who have an authentic style. Everyone does what he or she wants and doesn’t look left or right, doesn’t necessarily try to follow dictates or trends. In general, they are humble. We are not necessarily celebrity or red carpet chasing designers. We really make clothes to wear in everyday life. All the Belgian designers I admire are designers who dress real women. It’s not just a silhouette you pick up at a fashion show and never see again. There’s the very realistic, pragmatic side.”
This is a definite definition of luxury today. What exactly is a luxury item in 2023 for you?
“For me, luxury is associated with comfort, with pleasing yourself. It’s a mix. Luxury at Maison Ullens means beautiful products. The quality is extremely high. The products are so beautiful, you can even wear them inside out, there are many reversible pieces. That’s what luxury is – it’s having beautiful qualities that come from Italy, that are made in beautiful workshops, where things are done by hand, the old-fashioned way.”
“And the idea of timeless pieces, I think that’s the definition of luxury. Pieces that are an investment that you want to have for 20, 30 years or even longer, that you want to pass on to the next generation, which does not go out of fashion after one season. I like to see Maison Ullens as a fashion house that invests in the future.”
Can you describe an item that particularly appeals to you, or that could become a bestseller at Maison Ullens?
“There are already bestsellers that are repeated season after season. This season I tried to bring more. We have also been working on pieces called “Travel Kit” which are reversible. They are very finely woven – the knitting takes a very long time. There is one color 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 have made in two colors, very loose, with straight sleeves, without buttons, which is relatively thin, flowing and feminine. Something very clean, very easy. It’s a piece that I want to spend my whole life in. A cardigan that you can snuggle up in. It’s this idea of comfort, of cocoon, that I really like. When you take a plane, or when you sit on the couch and watch a movie on a Sunday afternoon, or on the street. There’s also that elegance when you walk – the slightly dramatic side when the vest opens because it’s very long. I like the kind of very simple, almost obvious pieces that make you think “I have to have that”. These are pieces that we will take with us into the future.”
What is the rhythm in the collections?
“There are two collections or themes per year. But it is true that we will work with capsules, which means that there will be a first delivery, a second delivery. It depends on the demand, what is delivered in the stores. But we are not going back to the system of preliminary collections. It will be spring-summer, autumn-winter.”
What is your relationship with social media?
“I’ve had a love-hate relationship with social media from the start. Maybe I’ve spent a little too long liking social networks for the positive. In the beginning I was very critical, and now I think there is something big. After all, everyone can talk about what they want, show their ideas – a creative side. Someone who has a job that might be a little boring can become a super influencer on Instagram, with creative ideas in many different industries. It’s taken me a while, but I’m excited to say that it’s not necessarily just fashion people who talk about fashion. 10, 15 or 20 years ago, you could only see a very specific overview of fashion, accessible only to professionals, journalists or stylists. Today we can have a different view. I find it enriching.”
Which account(s) do you follow on Instagram?
“I don’t follow many influencers. But I follow magazines, GentleWoman for example, WWD or FashionUnited etc. It’s a mix between informative stuff and deep stuff. And of course there are influencers that I follow because their style inspires me. I’m not on social media all day, but from time to time. There’s a freedom and an ease and this kind of democratization of information that I struggled with at first because I felt like everything was published. Everything went very quickly. I always loved Martin Margiela because he didn’t show his face, because the label didn’t show his name, that was a beauty. I’ve always appreciated that in fashion when there’s mystery and you have to look for it.”
But now some designers are designing and even branding pieces based on how they want to look on Instagram…
“The amazing thing is that 15 years ago I had no idea what my clothes would look like after creation. I wanted to do a show, I wanted to sell the collection, the collections would be sent all over the world. And then I had no idea what happened next. Now I see the customer to post in New Zealand, Japan, Hawaii, New York or the store that displays their windows. I see the influencer wearing my clothes at a festival. I see the life of the clothes that I didn’t see before. It’s amazing to know what happens next, to know that the dress was worn to a barbecue in Texas. You used to occasionally see an actress in a dress at a festival and that was it. Now, to see my collections come to life, to see them develop – it’s a fascinating thing that brings me a lot. I don’t watch it all my life, but it’s still fun to see how people interpret it. Because I make suggestions, a certain look, but then the customers do what they want. They decide for themselves what style they want to give to the clothes. It is very exciting as a designer to see the clothes you have made in a completely different context.”
Your eponymous brand is celebrating its 20th anniversary. what are your plans for the future?
“We just opened another store in Berlin. It’s true that the idea of opening stores is close to my heart, because I like the experience of going into a store, shopping, seeing the products. Although online- business is also successful, I want to open a third, fourth or fifth store in the next two or three years. And maybe develop the human element again in the future. We put that aside a bit during the pandemic.”
Maybe open a store in Paris?
“We are not necessarily in a hurry. Opening a store 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 to three years.”
Finally, what inspires you the most right now?
“What really inspired me recently was an exhibition about the artist Urs Fischer in Mexico City.”
This article was previously published on FashionUnited FR. Translation and editing into Dutch by Caitlyn Terra.