In the notes for his fall/winter 2013 Dior Homme runway show and in subsequent backstage interviews, Kris Van Assche dropped references to the 1997 science-fiction film Gattaca. It wasn't intended as a literal inspiration, but that was how many reviewers read it. Van Assche doesn't like summing up six months of inspiration and hard work at the tulle in snappy, blog-friendly sound bites.
"It was a nightmare," he says. "I hate to explain it because I think it kills the magic. Some things you cannot explain."
In a digital age, Van Assche is still in thrall to the thrilling climax of the runway. He sees more than 1,000 boys before casting a show and finds himself repeatedly returning to the angular-jawed, full-lipped Danish model Victor Nylander, a perfect foil for his work. "He's my favorite," says Van Assche, who's previously praised Zachary Quinto as the embodiment of the Dior man: lean without being skinny. "It's about creating an ideal. The model can have the best face and the best body, but if their walk doesn't fit with the allure of Dior, then I won't take the guy. You have certain guys that have this grace, but then they don't have the shoulders, so I won't take them either."
Van Assche is a serious, studied specimen with a curious eye and mind. He has elaborately realized tattoos of tulips ("the flower of the north") and orchids ("the flower of the south") on adjacent inner arms ("I am the florist," he says.). We meet in the grand, spare first floor of his Paris atelier. He's dressed in simple, exquisitely tailored monochromes and, at 37 years old, neatly parted and groomed like a lost member from European pop group Hurts.
For six straight years, Van Assche has been involved in altering the silhouette of perhaps the most influential global menswear brand of the past two decades -- the diminutive, omnipresent "skinny" that marked the work of his predecessor, Hedi Slimane.
"I really wanted to go back to a body-conscious silhouette," he explains with methodical northern European precision, "which isn't the same as a skinny silhouette. There's space for the shoulders, the chest, the waist, the hips. Something very athletic." While working on the collection, he thought about Superman -- what he might mean beyond the comic books. "I thought about working hard and studying hard and going to the gym hard and becoming the best you can be," he explains. "Talking about athletics brought us to the idea of having a healthy mind and body, which then brought us to this film Gattaca -- a huge step, but that's how things go sometimes."
He thinks the reference may have thrown reporters off the scent of his intentions and into a Hollywood-endorsed realm of genetic modification, of Jude Law and Uma Thurman. For Van Assche, it was simply about the principles of discipline, hard work, and determination, underpinned by a sensational note of fantasy -- the very characteristics that detonated his dizzying run up the fashion ladder.
Van Assche was born an only child into a conservative family in Londerzeel, Belgium. His mother was a secretary and his father worked in the car industry. At 7, he had his first fashion awakening: "I realized at that point that clothes didn't grow in a closet and that somebody was making them. I wanted to be the person to put them there. It was a very intuitive, immediate decision." As an early teen, he obsessed over the "very loud" Parisian fashion of Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier. And as a pubescent Madonna devotee, Gaultier's work for the Material Girl in particular alerted him to the powerful surge of fashion expression.
"I understood at one point how important Gaultier was to Madonna," he says. "That was a bit of a moment. But then very fast I discovered there was this academy in Antwerp that was half an hour from where I used to live. Paris was like the other side of the world when I was a kid, but Antwerp was really very close; all at once, there was something very approachable about fashion."
He became fascinated by the processes of his fellow countrymen and pared-down visual ideologues Martin Margiela and Dries Van Noten, and underwent the grueling interview process for entrance into the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, birthplace of some of the most exciting and distinct diffusions of global couture. This year, the institution's fashion department celebrates its 50th birthday. "I am supposed to show some of my work from the Academy," he says, temporarily flustered at the thought of digging into his student archive. "Oh my God, that was 15 years ago; it's a bit tough for a designer to go way back."
In an instance of serendipity, the year Van Assche arrived at the Academy, Madonna woke from creative slumber into her artistic renaissance with Ray of Light. It remains his favorite of her records. His thesis collection, as he puts it, revolved around the idea of "Women in a Man's World": "Everything was about pinstripes and flannels and white poplin shirts. I always loved the girl in the suit." His first job out of school was at Yves Saint Laurent, where he transitioned into menswear. "Then the rest of my life happened," he says.
While Slimane engineered a speedy, voluble menswear revolution at Dior Homme, Van Assche has been a stealthier operator. "I had already [had] my own label, so I was creatively expressing myself," he says. "It was a very rational decision." He recently opened his first stand-alone Paris store under his own name, and doesn't like to think of the Dior job as the pinnacle of his professional life. "I hope it's not the peak -- I'm 37," he protests.
These things may be cyclical. At 8 years old, Van Assche wondered where fashion came from and resolved to find out; at 18, he entered the Academy; at 28, he started his own menswear imprint. Soon he will be 38.
"The older you get, the more reasonable you get," he says. "And being reasonable isn't necessarily that stimulating. I had a healthy craziness moving to the Academy, moving to Paris, even starting my own label. You need some crazy youthfulness to make these decisions."
The glint in his eye says he isn't ready to retire that impulse quite yet.