KJELL DE MEERSMAN
Written by Karina Zharmukhambetova
Kjell & his graduate collection from the Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp
Already for a while we were planning to do this interview but time got ahead of us. Finally, we made it happen at Kjell’s apartment near Montmartre in Paris, along with some tea and protein shakes on a Saturday noon. We discussed our paths after meeting each other at the Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp where I would be a fitting model and Kjell would be laying out his journey of becoming a future designer. We hit it off immediately and had tons of fun together throughout the years. We saw each other go through career changes, move to different places and so much more. We would call each other for advice and most of all celebrate life while navigating through this, at times, crazy fashion world.
In this interview we discuss Kjell's growing up in East-Flanders in Belgium, his dreams and ambitions as a kid and his professional growth. After his graduation from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in 2018, he went on to his first job in Paris at Poiret as an assistant of renowned Belgian designer Patrick Van Ommeslaeghe. Hereafter he spent time at Givenchy, Mugler and Marine Serre to name a few. At this present moment Kjell is at the start of yet another new adventure and I am beyond happy to finally share this conversation with designer Kjell De Meersman—but above all, a good friend.
How are you doing?
I’m doing great, always hustling though. I feel like this will always be my answer. Hustling comes first. I'm always onto new projects… The fashion season started now as well, just as my new job so I’m in full focus but also very excited. Above all I’m blessed to be able to do what I always wanted to do since I was so young.
And how's the hustling going?
Very well. You know that I've been doing a lot of different jobs and I switched a lot of times in my career. Headhunters would ask me for example why I changed jobs so many times. But I realized that it allowed me to grow very fast in many ways, such as agreeing on my job title, negotiating my pay and so on. When you're stuck or committed somewhere for a long time, I feel like you can't compare as much. So it's going well because I just stepped into a new adventure—after my time at Marine Serre. I was designing there for 1 year but also there I took a lot of lessons with me and I'm thrilled about this new step!
We had to keep your next step secret for a while but now it's out there. Could you tell us a bit more about your new chapter?
Absolutely, I just started a new job as a designer with the brand—drums—Coperni. I am very excited about joining this team and their vision is one that always spoke to me for many reasons. The futuristic and minimalistic approach to fashion and beauty is something I value. And not only am I able to work with an amazing team, I also get to be part of a very exciting journey of growth and innovation.
That’s great, a good energy in the working environment is key. Let’s go a little bit back in time before we continue. You are living in Paris now for a while, but you are originally from Aalst In Belgium. How was your hometown like and how it was for you to grow up there?
Well, both my parents are from Aalst. Because of this I grew up knowing a lot about the city and its history which made me grow up with a certain type of respect for the place. I come from a quite big family and everybody is still living there. The people there are very proud as well, even though it's a small city in Flanders. It's not really on the map, so growing up there was basic for me because it’s not the most open-minded or stimulating environment. But it did teach me to be proud of where I come from.
You could also say that there was a sense of community: taking care of each other, knowing your neighbors and helping each other out. So this was a pleasant surrounding to grow up in of course and it was comfortable there, but I always felt like there was something bigger for me. Was it city-wise or even country-wise. This was very clear, especially thanks to media like TV and movies. I just knew that I was going to move somewhere else later on, somewhere where it would be more inspiring to me.
Was there a place at that time you were dreaming of specifically?
Not really… But of course Antwerp caught my eye, being in Belgium. I knew that Antwerp would be the most creative city for me. I knew about Ghent as well, but it was not my vibe so much even though it's still very creative and dynamic. Brussels I never really considered because it was a bit rougher, even though I was familiar with it. Then Antwerp, I think we can say that it has a bit more of a posh feeling to it, compared to other cities in Belgium. So for me it was the opposite of where I was in Aalst and I remember thinking: “Wow, it's so chic and elegant.”
Was going into fashion a natural decision for you? Or did you have any other ambitions at first?
I was a very creative kid, always drawing. I knew that I wanted to do something with this but it took me a long time to realize that I could translate it into a real profession, let alone become a fashion designer! I think it took me around 10 years. I recall seeing shows like Project Runway and many other fashion design competitions. Those definitely enlightened a spark in me.
Then there’s my mom. She’s a very fashionable woman who inspired me in so many ways, but she didn't really know anything about the fashion industry, so I was not educated in that sense. Fast forward: Instagram came and it was like a whole new world had opened up to me. (laughs) As soon as I knew that this was something I could do professionally, I had to go for it and it became a very obvious path to pursue.
Something else I was interested in before, was plastic surgery. I loved the idea of building a career in beauty and cosmetic surgery. When I was watching Fashion TV—the channel with reporting of every possible fashion show and backstage stories—there were also channels with all kinds of makeovers, like The Swan amongst others, and I was always incredibly fascinated by this concept of transformation.
Interesting! So you chose for fashion in the end and decided to go study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. How did you end up there?
Once I decided that I wanted to study fashion design, I started to research where I could possibly do this. I knew that you could go abroad but my quest showed me quickly that we have a top notch school in Belgium, as a matter of fact. There is La Cambre in Brussels and the Academy of Sint-Niklaas, but the one that stood out for me was in Antwerp. It had a very prestige background with all these remarkable designers that graduated from there, so obviously I was intrigued. I was also so young, only 18 years old and coming straight from high school. So I was like: "Okay, let's just try and go to the—in my opinion—best school".
Kjell on the beach in Belgium
Kjell's work at Marine Serre
Graduation collection from 2018, a hyper-feminine approach with a wink to corporate attire and formal dressing
How did that application process go for you?
It went well and it was a very interesting process too. Because I never went to a real art high school or anything like that and I assumed that you would need an own determined style to get in. Because personally, I didn't have a super specific aesthetic yet at that time but it was great to see that there was room to fill that in for myself. So I learned a lot during the application process because you have to invest a lot of time and energy in it and prepare a strong portfolio. I had a lot of fun making it and it was the most creative project I ever worked on, up until then.
That’s great to hear, do you feel that the school contributed a lot to who you became as a designer and a creative today?
I definitely think so. It influenced me a lot in terms of my personality, major actually: who I became, how I handle stress, how I communicate. It marks you because it's so intense, you get to know so much about yourself. And again, I was still so young and at a time in my life where I was developing my own personality. So it’s fair to say that it did have an impact on me.
I’m sure that I would've been completely different if not for these studies. Even when looking at my friends, so many international people that I've met and every single close friend that I have today—even you—is from that era. I have no contact with my old friends from Aalst today for example. It was really a huge new life and I wanted to take it all in.
True, we've really made lifetime friends and meaningful connections during that time. Do you feel like there was a fashion scene in Antwerp where you were a part of?
Yes, there was definitely a scene and it was quite a golden era if you ask me. There were all the students from the Fashion Department and then it spread out into other disciplines as well, other people that are connected to them and so on.
It was also a big circle, or at least in comparison to the scale of the city. I always felt like: “We’re having a real impact here.”, also through the parties. It was a big creative presence and energy. I feel like people also knew: “This is the fashion crowd.”
It was definitely a moment!
Right! Big group, always. And we had people coming together from everywhere and I loved that so much.
These days the Royal Academy of Fine Arts is trying to make more crossovers between the different disciplines, going from graphic design to sculpture, fashion etc. In this way they are looking to stimulate more exchange between the departments because otherwise students tend to stay in their bubble. Do you feel like that was the case during your time at the Academy?
Most definitely, I also always refer to it as the Fashion Academy. A lot of people do this by the way and then when talking about the other departments we refer to the Royal Academy. But it's all the same school. However, it's true that back then we were all very much focused on our own thing. The Fashion Department is also in a separate building. The system was not really built accordingly I guess, it was not really aligned and you have to keep in mind that it was very heavy in terms of workload. Most of us had no time to go to our theory classes for example—which are at the other departments' building—exactly there where you could meet people from painting, sculpture and so on.
I can imagine and I remember how hard the workload would be for some students. You need to have thick skin to take the feedback while also being able to make your own creative choices. How did you handle all these opinions on your designs, and the stress in general?
I think I just handled it step by step because it was all very new to me. I learned it the hard way, but quickly.
I was happy that I was finally allowed to be very opinionated and that people were listening to that, but it was also challenging to find my balance because I was a little bit of a rebel. In the sense that I was not just there to please or solely get good grades. I was very much aware that this was a big investment of my time, but especially of my family's money. So I always knew very well what I wanted to get out of it for myself.
I'm very happy that I had figured that out for myself, because I would see people quitting because they realized that they didn't want to pursue this journey. Some because it was just too much to handle and others were trying too hard to please and be submissive to the feedback of the teachers. At the same time that would made the group smaller and create a more intimate class, which also had its benefits. But how I exactly I did it, I don't know... I always feel like it was meant to be because in the end I managed. (laughs)
What's your perspective on fashion schools today? Do you feel that there are new ways of teaching or that there's being put a focus on different things?
I do see a difference, compared to when I started—what is it, like ten years ago? Already! I feel like back then it was still kind of niche to go to a fashion school. Back then I heard things like: "Oh, really? Are you going to be a fashion student? Are you sure about that?"
There were a lot of things unknown about the industry: about what it encompasses, what the opportunities are etc. Now, I feel like so much has happened in the past few years. Only to see the awareness grow about the size of the industry and the impact of fast fashion. So it started to attract a whole new wave of creators, but also investors and technology play a big role today. Fashion is now bigger, more powerful and more mainstream of course.
Coming back to your question, I feel that fashion schools are more approachable nowadays but it remains prestigious in a sense because it's still expensive! Plus it comes with a lot of work and commitment. Not just everybody can move around like that. It's a privileged situation for most of the people. But it also became a bit more respectable to study fashion because it’s obvious that it’s a real industry with real careers. People are aware of that, fashion pays the bills for so many people now. Everybody wants to have a piece of it and that means that there's also much more competition of course.
I also see this when I hire interns or assistants for my job by the amount of applications coming in. It's a lot of them and there are more diverse profiles which makes it more interesting. So yeah, it became more mainstream but the opportunities are also bigger because of that. You can study it, but then you can still go in so many directions with that diploma. You don't have to become a fashion designer perse.
Absolutely. I feel like it's important to let students know that there are many other paths possible apart from becoming a fashion designer. Do you think that it's still important nowadays to go to a fashion school to pursue a career in fashion? Also since it can be a privileged situation like you said, but what if you don't have these privileges?
I don't think you need to study fashion necessarily to work in fashion. But I'm sure it doesn't hurt to try if you have the possibility. Because you're still surrounded by professionals and they’re there to help you in the process of becoming one yourself. But there's other ways for sure. When you have a vision, you have vision. It's about surrounding yourself with the right people and staying true to that vision. And a bit of luck always helps of course.
Most definitely. What's your perspective on today's creative directors that don’t always have this technical background?
It depends which title they carry. But for me it's difficult to understand when the technical background is lacking. The creative vision is absolutely not to be underestimated, but times have changed. Back then—in the whole history of fashion—a creative director would be the person who also designed the clothes. Now there's an army of designers ready to help you out with any kind of idea. And of course if the creative director has a clear technical vision and knowledge about garments, it will obviously help to have a more precise direction.
Then again, when this person does not have the technical ability, it can also create more limitless thinking. It can create more challenges for the rest of the team and more freedom to propose their own ideas and ways. Like this they get a shot at making it their own. Because for me, my role as a designer—when I'm working for a company—is to bring the ideas that the creative directors have in mind, to life. Or even more so, to show them what they want. To read their mind, to listen to them and be able to translate that and be like: ”I think this is what you're looking for.” And from there you build together, so it can be a powerful exchange. But me being very passionate about fashion and that being the base of my interest, it's about the clothes. So for me, a good creative director, is somebody that has as much knowledge as possible about garments as well.
Fair enough. Looking back on your own graduate collection at the Academy, you focused a lot on the hyper-feminine body, working mainly with latex and tailoring. What made you go into that direction?
As I mentioned, I was rebelling a little bit in school because I was not excited about a lot of the work that was being delivered or I couldn't necessarily relate to it. So I wanted to do the opposite, I thought: "Okay, let's do something different." On top of that I was very attracted to a more dark, sensual side of fashion. I was more into this archetype kind of thinking instead of being super creative and innovating in shape.
I also wanted to make a statement about corporate femininity with these latex outfits, being inspired by the clothes of my mother as a banker. "I remember being amazed that, even within formal dressing, she always found a way to look very feminine", hence the latex which obviously gives sexy. But aside from that, I added tailored elements to my looks as a wink to corporate life. My graduate collection was the perfect opportunity to bring this vision to life. Plus, all the designers that I loved when growing up, had had a major impact on me. They all had this hyper-feminine approach. I always loved Thierry Mugler, Alaïa, Claude Montana,... All the old shows, you know how they used to be!
Finally, it was important to me to make woman feel sexy and strong. It was also a time with many social changes like the me-too movement. So I wanted to shift that negative energy and focus on women their power. To celebrate their femininity and sexuality as an antidote. I wanted to provoke, I wanted to have this extreme moment and I knew that it would be impactful because not everybody was ready for that. Even though it was nothing new, just a very sexy show in my way. I'm also very happy that it reached so many different people and still does to this day. Last time Arca wore one of my latex suites in her videoclip, what a moment!
When it comes to inspiration, do you find yourself going back to certain types of books, music etc.?
I would say that music was the biggest one for me, especially at school. I was partying a lot back then and music would be so inspiring to me. Now, that's less the case. Because the way I design today, became much more of an automatism since I started working for big companies. But during my studies it was really about finding something inside of yourself and music always helped me bringing into that certain state of mind.
Today I tend to go more to books, museums, movies, and so on. Things that not necessarily have anything to do with fashion inspire me very often too. I like to combine them with a garment or something that's already existing and then kind of melt it together. But culture in general is the main inspiration. I take a lot of pictures with my phone from things that I encounter on the street or random silly, little things. It's everywhere. I feel like anything can inspire you if you're only willing to see it.
If we talk about a recent fashion moment, was there a piece or event of which you were in awe? Can you think of something like that or is it more of a hard find?
Hmm... I would say it's a hard find because most of the iconic, beautiful moments, are moments from the past. We've seen so many things and I think that made us very spoiled. So every time something else comes out, everybody is watching with a very critical eye. There's also new collections being released every other day, so you always expect more and think: "Oh, this was good, but let's see what's next." We're expecting it to grow all the time. It's a hard question to answer honestly.
Of course, there's brands who's work I like. Balenciaga has changed the fashion landscape for example, their shows are very intense, which gives a bit of a wow moment. Saint Laurent also always manages to deliver in terms of shows. The fact that technology is becoming so infiltrated into fashion does bring more opportunity for shows to be more innovating or at least to create an interactive experience rather than just a 20 minute up and down walk. So I feel like we're going towards this entertaining, fashion moment. And for me personally that creates more of a lasting memory, rather than seeing an amazing, well made garment because we've seen it done by high quality brands and they are the best in what they do. The wow moments are more in the spectacle part of it all: the videos, the shows, the castings,...
Do you feel that due to this approach there's a part of quality that's being sacrificed? Because all the focus and/or money is going to creating that moment.
Yes, a lot of brands focus more on their image and consequently sell their best sellers thanks to this image. Hereafter they're good to go for another season, but all these new pieces in the collections are not necessarily there to bring in the big money. The priority is to make everything look good online. There's a lot of brands who—even during the stylings—have a phone to check whether it looks good on camera. Because we all know that it will be photographed. We also shouldn't forget that people are exposed to fashion through their phones, or the internet at least. "Regular" people don't see the shows and the showrooms. They don't even buy them like that necessarily, it's all imagery. It's so digital. So obviously the marketing teams know that they have to invest in that.
In the past you've also worked with Belgian designer Patrick Van Ommeslaeghe, who designed four collections during the 90's, but still managed to leave his mark—while remaining an underdog. Could you tell us a bit more about this experience?
Absolutely. I just got out of the Academy and I was so lucky. It was my first job and I ended up being his assistant at Poiret in Paris. I knew who he was, I had heard of him and I knew he was Belgian. I also knew that he was from a place not so far from my city, but that's it to be honest. At that time he was not active under his own name and it's like you said, he had his admirable career in the 90's—with Haider Ackermann as his assistant—but after that he moved on to work for other brands and his own name was put on hold. I don't think he always got the deserved recognition but till this day he's still very hardworking and active in the business. So I was thrilled to be his assistant. I became very close with him and I'm grateful to have had him as a mentor. I could relate to him and felt like we had similar paths in a sense.
In which way were they similar ?
As in both being from a small town in East-Flanders, and both coming from the same school in Antwerp. He also actually studied doctor at first. (laughs) This kind of similarities. We were very compatible as people and our sense of humor aligned as well. So I do feel like we were very familiar to each other from the start. We got along very well and he taught me so much because my world was still small at that time. He helped me to open it up. He literally got me books to look into but he would also inform me about the best patisserie spots in Paris. (laughs)
There was always positivity and lightness in his way of working, so in that sense I also learned a lot from him. At the same time he's a minimalist and even a purist—as you can tell from the four collections he did under his own name but also from the work that he delivered for brands such as Jil Sander. That influenced me a lot. Because before, when you are a student you want to do a lot, you wanna show off. And then you end up doing a lot of things on top of each other without them contributing anything extra.
I learned from him that simplicity is key, which is unique, especially today where logomania and everything screamy took the upper hand. I also learned from him how to make woman feel confident, while keeping it comfortable. That's his priority. Basically keeping the focus on the actual core of the job, he makes clothes and he really cares about that aspect. I took a lot away from his perspectives on designing. Because he knows a lot of stars and he has all kind of stories about them but he just doesn't resonate with this celebrity culture of glitz and glam. That's something that's being pushed today too, being involved in this whole media presence. But he's just a pur sang artist really. So I still cherish this experience very much and think back on it with great joy.
It does sound like an amazing experience and learning school. Talking about learning from each other, there's plenty of collaborations in fashion these days. What's your take on that?
I think it's a good sign because it shows that businesses are crossing over and that they are acknowledging the fact that they can help each other, be it in growth or whatever. It's always great to see people, brands or collectives come together to create something, so I'm supportive of that. Then again, you can tell that it's really a trend now. From the buyers' perspective for example, they buy collaborations because it's exciting and it will bring people to the store. But of course I always question the motives and hear myself thinking: "Is it all as genuine or is it just my numbers and your numbers make more numbers, so let's go for it." Anyways, it does bring across a good message of getting together.
Moreover, I think it allows people to step outside of their comfort zones. To have a playground like Jean-Paul Gaultier has created for example. They're opening up their house to so many people now, from Y-Project to Balmain to Haider Ackermann and more. They allow people to come in and have their go with it and this I absolutely love.
I hear you. Going back to you, what can we expect from you in the future?
Well... people do ask me if I want to have my own brand or something else of myself, and I do have an entrepreneurial fire in me so I know that I will put this into use at some point. But not right now, I still enjoy designing for other brands. So you can expect from me to continue this journey, and I want to grow as far as I can.
Otherwise than that, I would love to be a creative director of some house one day. Whether it's my own or somebody else's, something known, something unknown, something close by or something far away. I'm open to all of it but for now I want to continue this path and see where it's going to take me.
That seems like a good thing to do. We probably could go on for much longer but I'm going to round it up. What are staple pieces in a wardrobe according to you?
Good question, I will divide it in two categories. For myself I would say that almost all my pieces are staple pieces. I like the idea of having a kind of uniform for myself, a very simple structure. I always wear some nice tailored pants with a t-shirt, and then a blazer or a long coat also does the job. To me it's actually all about archetypes, as many as you can have. It would be amazing to have all pieces so you can mix them: an aviator jacket, a denim jacket, and so on.
When it comes to woman's wear, I would say that it's very important to have a little black dress, a good pair of jeans, white t-shirts, loafers, maybe a nice leather jacket and a trench coat. The classics once again!
Agreed! A very last bonus question, who is your favorite Belgian designer?
I'm going to say Patrick Van Ommeslaeghe for sure. Not only because I've worked with him but his work just speaks for itself and it's so good.
Thank you for this lovely talk Kjell, it was a real pleasure.
Fitting pictures for Kjell's graduate collection
Arca in one of Kjell's graduate collection outfits, styled by Natacha Voranger
SS24 Marine Serre show, last season that Kjell contributed to
Patrick Van Ommeslaeghe's collections from 1999 - 2001
Kjell's place in Paris