Ann Demeulemeester paid a visit to Barneys New York last month to sign copies of her monograph: a blackened brick of a book, around two thousand pages in length, archiving over two decades of work. Early photographs were taken by her husband, Patrick Robyn, and Patti Smith performed for the audience. Naturally, she wore black, but whereas her flock might have repined, she seemed to be brimming with bittersweet relief. The day’s mood, visitors said, was of a resounding and sincere family spirit. Family of choice, of course, and not of obligation. Because choice has always been the greatest of all luxuries to Demeulemeester, who stayed largely independent throughout her career. In fact, much like the American-born, Paris-based designer Rick Owens, who recently told Alexander Fury of The Independent: “I could just burn the whole fucking place down.”
The first Ann Demeulemeester collection my eyes ever fell upon was her fall-winter 2008 menswear: deteriorated Edwardian dandyism for penniless punk poets (ironic, because you’ve got to spend well to look this swell); hydrangeas pinned to their hats, petals shrinking and rotting to the howl of Patti Smith’s cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” And, in more overt symbolism, Ann has walked through that final threshold. “A new time is coming both for my personal life and the brand Ann Demeulemeester,” she stated in a handwritten letter last November, announcing her retirement to the press. “I feel it’s time to separate our paths.” And though paths are often obscured by shadows, Demeulemeester danced among them with effrontery. This book is her Swan—no, Swann—Song.
Really, it’s a nice gesture. The first thing I did after my final high school exams was throw away all of my books. “Come downstairs,” my mother called. I entered the kitchen to find stacks of paper sitting on the island. “It’s been one day,” she continued. “Are you really that desperate to get rid of your work?” Helmut Lang wouldn’t have minded, though: he donated a percentage of his archive to fashion schools and museums around the word, then destroyed a reported 6000 garments by throwing them into a giant shredder truck. The burned, broken remains were finally incorporated into his art. “After a fire in the building where our studio in New York is located, which could have destroyed the rest of the archive…I slowly became intrigued by the idea of destroying it myself and using it as raw material for my art,” Lang told Lee Carter of Hint Magazine. “I shredded all the pieces without remorse or preference. It was about erasing the difference of what they once stood for.”
And what do clothes really stand for? It’s how I express myself, some people say. What I wear is an extension of myself, we hear. Yet, the system is faster, fleeting, and when Suzy Menkes assessed the nature of the game last year, she decried the suspended humanity of designers stuck in the middle of this muddle. “By their nature artistic and fragile people, they see themselves treated like commodities, bought and dispensed with as the corporate house pleases,” she wrote. We’ve certainly witnessed an increasing interest in designers’ archival work, not only through The Met’s yearly exhibitions, but also through routine scrounging of auctions both on- and offline; which started, in fact, with brands like Patek Philippe buying back heirloom watches for their company vaults. In fashion, the clothes are as much a relic of personal identity as they are of a corporate kind. Christian Dior’s childhood home in Normandy, for example, is now a museum that holds three storeys of haute couture and its accompanying imagery. And it’s growing.
Tom Ford’s leaving the Gucci Group felt “like a divorce, or death,” and he spared no time in distilling, and recapturing, his body of work. Within the first six months of leaving, he compiled the Tom Ford book, published by Rizzoli. “I thought, ‘I’m very proud of what I’ve done and I’m going to claim it, and I’m going to put it all in a big thick book and label it Tom Ford,” he told The Business of Fashion. The meteoric rise of his celebrity, not to mention the sales (Gucci sales soared from $264 million in 1994 to $880 million in 1996) was always going to be part of fiscal folklore, but the designs themselves were deeply personal, and punishing. Of his time at Yves Saint Laurent, Ford told gay men’s magazine The Advocate: “I have letters from Yves Saint Laurent that are so mean you cannot even believe such vitriol is possible. Yves and I were friends before I took over the company. But then, when we began to move the company forward and were very successful…he just became so insanely jealous. Pierre and Yves were just evil.”
One second you’re in, and the next you’re out. And then you’re in and out again. Jil Sander can attest to this exhausting flux and flow. John Galliano and Christian Lacroix and are now legally forbidden from using their own names in business (Lacroix works under the moniker Monsieur C. Lacroix). We can only expect more designers to release these coffee table tomes, a symbol of accomplishment and sagacity, but also a commemorative gesture of what once was, and will always be. Because, in these pages, we’ve got talent immortalised in print, rather than in ephemeral product. And in these books, designers can breathe a resounding sigh of relief in being able to walk away from a system, as good as it started, that ultimately betrayed them.
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue.