Eye on the future
After discovering the extraordinary work of Belgian fashion designer Jurgi Persoons by chance, a little under ten years after his eponymous label closed shop in 2003, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp graduate continued to be much of an enigma. The legacy of his raw-edged romantic vision includes punk-spirited seasonal presentations in Paris along the bank of the Seine and on a deserted parking space, at that time breathing new life into the anti-fashion spirit of the Antwerp Six (and Margiela), who had started a decade earlier. As most of Persoons’ vision (who withdrew from the fashion world after 2003) lays hidden in a time before the internet started absorbing everything that takes place, only bits and pieces are still to be found now, with every once in a while a piece from his hands popping up on eBay.
Six years ago, after years of working in the printing workshop of his partner, Persoons had returned to fashion, but in a completely new capacity: as a teacher at the Royal Academy of Art The Hague. There he becomes the Head of Fashion and Textile in 2013, which finally granted me the chance to sit down with him and learn more about what had fascinated me for so long, right before the graduation show of 2016. With the new graduation show upon us tomorrow, we sat down another time to speak about the rather eventful last twelve months and how it brought Jurgi new perspectives, both as Head and through the (highly surprising!) return of fashion design in his life.
When we met one year ago, we spoke about your past as a designer and how you implemented those experiences in your work as the Head of Fashion and Textile at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. With the 2017 graduation show coming up, a lot has happened in the last twelve months, which included the release of your capsule collection for DUST: your first public design work in almost 15 years. Was it a special year for you?
It was definitely a different year than the years before. Despite the fact that the collection for DUST wasn’t particularly large and only made out of jersey: it was incredible to get back to designing. I also really like how it all came about. I’ve known Luigi and Luca for quite a while and they contacted me two years ago to do a large interview for the magazine. I did a photographic series for the following edition and this year we did the capsule collection, which received a lot of positive response, so who knows what will grow out of that.
That would mean that the collection was grounded on a personal relationship, which is perfectly aligned with one of your strongest messages to your students: find people who are artistically likeminded to achieve better things together.
For me personally the collection was a re-acquaintance with an aesthetic and atmosphere I discovered when I stumbled upon your work in hidden places on the internet, but now placed in today’s totally different context of fashion. It almost evoked a nostalgic feeling, despite that I only discovered your label when you had already closed it for many years. Was it nostalgic for you?
Above all, I really enjoyed being involved with designing again. My only fear was that it would evoke too much of a ‘retro’ feeling, but I think that in the end we succeeded in staying away from it. It is not wise to dwell in nostalgia for too long. The now and the future interest me most. I try to stay away from focusing on the past for too long, period. A lot of people ask me what my thoughts on my past are, but I just don’t really think about it that much.
I like being in the moment, so it just really excited me being in the process of creation, which instantly triggered new ideas. That fact that this collection has reached a totally new audience is really exciting to me as well. It has been almost 15 years since I had to close the label. Time flies and things you can’t find on the internet are easily forgotten. Despite having to shut down the label in 2003, it didn’t really feel like a definite closed chapter. You never know what lays in the future and what has happened in the last year really underlines this for me.
I feel that in today’s fashion there is this renewed interest in the ideas of certain former influential designers, whose work is being placed in a new daylight. Apparently my work is somewhere within that reinvigorated field of attention. I really appreciate that, but don’t have the illusion that this will not fade away again somewhere in the future.
It is not wise to dwell in nostalgia for too long. The now and the future interest me most. I try to stay away from focusing on the past for too long, period. A lot of people ask me what my thoughts on my past are, but I just don’t really think about it that much.
Did any of the reactions on your DUST collection stand out?
Most of the reactions were positive, which was very pleasant of course. It was a very interesting experience to receive this kind of feedback again, to begin with. As a result of my absence from the fashion world, I met a lot of new people. There were some familiar faces and rendezvous, but I was most surprised to meet all these young people who actually knew my work.
More-so because most of your work lays hidden in the pre-internet age, with not a lot to be found online.
My label operated in the time of fax communication. That says it all.
One of the things that struck me most when we spoke last year was your remark that despite the current climate in fashion, which is far from creative; at one point the industry has an economical need for innovation and therefore interesting new ideas will be able to rise again.
I still struggle a little bit with the questions how these new ideas can grow their (sub)cultural roots in today’s globalized world to begin with. In the past, as the case with your very first collection, new ideas oftentimes came about in encapsulated situations. Today there’s that strong tendency dictating visibility and accessibility. Do interesting new ideas still need encapsulation?
Instead of encapsulating yourself, I believe that as a designer you should make full use of today’s ever-growing public sphere. A complete world of possibilities has opened up, which potentially could present your vision to the largest possible audience. When you speak about the former encapsulation of new ideas, you should also mention the isolation that came with it. The openness the digital globalization brought us, means that the walls of isolation are taken down brick by brick, opening potentially more and more people to relevant thoughts in an earlier stage.
I’m from a generation that grew up without computers, the internet or social media. Which makes it sometimes difficult for me to completely understand how young people use these technologies in their everyday life. Personally I’m still very excited about the vast amount of information that’s at hand at all times, and feel we have seen only a fraction of what this development really means.
I do see that for younger people, including my students, the lack of a clear field of proven references can cause confusion on their personal preferences. It makes it at times hard to filter all the information that is at hand. Questions like: ‘What works for yourself? What really speaks to you? How should one interpret certain things? What is the truth?’, are harder to answer because of the open framework, but that doesn’t mean they will not be able to answer them at all. For sure, young people still have their emotions to rely on.
Instead of encapsulating yourself, I believe that as a designer you should make full use of today’s ever-growing public sphere. A complete world of possibilities has opened up, which potentially could present your vision to the largest possible audience.
Both as a designer and Head at the Royal Academy of Art you stand for design that is rooted in its societal context. Do you feel that globalization has brought significant changes to this practice; are we breaking away from the past with more and more international elements becoming part of academies like the one in The Hague?
I find it extremely exciting to see how this new level of cultural diversity has become an intrinsic part of art academies in Europe. In this development lays the biggest challenge for the future: how to maximize the full potential of every individual’s cultural background into a fruitful dialogue and forming the most relevant perspective possible in the student’s work. Dictating a classical monoculture of what is right and what is wrong has no place in this reality anymore.
To get to that situation there is still a lot of work to be done, but things seem to slowly start moving. Personally, I feel that cultural exchange holds the key to the most relevant position for fashion in the globalized world of the future. That demands from an academy to cultivate a strong individual cultural awareness for the students to embed their conditioning into their work, through which they can express their unique perspective on the world around us. That is for instance also exactly what Rei Kawakubo has done in the past. There is a need for new ideas that express new perspectives on the globalized world, and an academy should cater to that need by stimulating their students towards it in the best possibly way.
In [the new level of cultural diversity at European art academies ] lays the biggest challenge for the future: how to maximize the full potential of every individual’s cultural background into a fruitful dialogue and forming the most relevant perspective possible in the student’s work.
Has your personal perspective on fashion changed in the last year?
For me it was really exciting to experience the enormous scope of possibilities one has now, which was definitely a lot broader than I could image. That was incredible to experience. It underlined my feeling that in the context of today, the right audience for relevant ideas can always be found somewhere, because there are very few limitations to find those people. That feels like a great empowerment for designers to minimize compromises in their personal vision when using the highly accessible, both economically and technically, platforms that are at hand.
That goes beyond just communication. When I was young the idea to make anything less than a complete collection, which costs a fortune, was very uncommon. In today’s climate it is really accepted to start with a few items that still represent an individual story, which a designer can gradually grow into a full collection. The fact that it is possible for a designer; to establish him- or herself without having to compete with the rich fashion houses is an important development in fashion, that without a doubt in the future will bring a lot more change. To have seen that from up close serves as an incredible insight how things have changed. It has really inspired me.
You had to close your label in 2003, just before globalization really manifested itself, amongst other reasons because you lost all of your American retailers when the attacks on 09/11 literally cut off your collection from them. That is really hard to image in the world we live in now.
When we spoke twelve months ago I asked you if you thought your work would hold a relevant position in the globally rooted ecosystem of contemporary fashion. A year has passed and now it is safe to conclude that it still does. Personally I still struggle in forming an opinion about the potential results of globalization: cultural erosion or unlimited possibilities for great ideas. You are an important protagonist of the second thought.
Without a doubt. I strongly believe this and, amongst other things, find confirmation when looking at the four Bachelor students; Roos Boshart, Rachael Cheong Li Zhen, Veronika Konvičková and Thalonja Slui, that will graduate from the academy in The Hague this year. They are fearless in their exploration of deeply personal themes, which I really admire. It was at times downright moving to have seen these explorations from up close. As I have said before, the platform where they will show such intimate and personal reflections is very public. To be in such a vulnerable position and still choose to tell these intimate individual stories gives me all the hope I need for the future. It furthermore fills me with pride as a teacher.
I am a person who was and still is always curious about what’s to come. When I first discovered internet and social, I almost became addicted to it because of its unlimited availability of information. It has inspired me deeply from the beginning. A library opens itself one book at a time. A museum or gallery can only show the one exhibition placed within its walls. The immense nature of online, without a definite start and end: I think that’s fantastic.
That exemplifies why I believe so strongly in the unlimited possibilities of the globalized word. We are still in such an early stage of these developments that much is still under development and far from it is in optimal form, but things continue to change unavoidably at rapid speed. It is incredible to be part of these changes at an academy and I very much look forward to continue developing new personal perspectives on these changes in other ends of the fashion industry in the future. I can’t wait to see what is yet to come.
When looking at the four Bachelor students that will graduate from the academy in The Hague this year: they are fearless in their exploration of deeply personal themes, which I really admire. To be in such a vulnerable position and still choose to tell these intimate individual stories gives me all the hope I need for the future.
Photography by Ronald Stoops
Art direction by Jurgi Persoons
Creative direction complete campaign by Peter De Potter
Fashion top image by Roos Boshart
For the Jurgi Persoons for DUST collection see here
Next to the collections of the Royal Academy of Art The Hague Bachelor graduates Roos Boshart, Rachael Cheong Li Zhen, Veronika Konvičková and Thalonja Slui, the show comprises work made by 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students.
The shows are at 18:00 and 21:00 taking place at the Electriciteitsfabriek in The Hague, for tickets see here