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Catching up with Jan-Jan Van Essche

The King of slow fashion is speeding things up with his new project-based approach.

Just when we got used to the concept of slow fashion and the idea of an annual wardrobe to be worn throughout the year by layering up and down, Belgian fashion designer Jan-Jan Van Essche strirs things up by bringing pieces together in the form of a project. We’ve known him and his partner Pïetro ever since they started Atelier Solarshop and some of you might have read their story on coffeeklatch. We paid a visit to Jan-Jans atelier to talk about his experiences during Paris Fashion Week. More than ever we were curious to know how it went, cause for the first time he presented a project.

Where did the idea for ‘Project #1 – Proceed’ come from?

From this season on we decided to add an extra layer to our concept, because there were so many things I wanted to do that didn't fit in the annual collection. 

What is this project about?

This project was built around four huge patchwork blankets, capes, scarves, wall art, pieces of textile or whatever you may call them, in four different shapes. I really wanted to do handwork this time. Do you remember the collection I did four years ago with the faces embroidered on T-shirts? Well, I wanted to create something similar, in terms of handcrafted work and textile art. So I decided to build a project around it and thought of a concept that emphasizes the way I work and think.


What’s so special about the textiles? What does it say about you as a designer?

With the project I feel like I’ve added some extra crayons to my color box. My alphabet has been enlarged. The patchwork and the hints of bright colors were inspired by a trip to Japan and a visit to the Kabuki theatre. The shapes are an evolution of my own pattern language. The rhythm is based on West-African patchwork, on wefts and small band weavings seen at the Ashanti and the Ewe people. There’s always an ethnic element to my work, it’s always a mix of different cultures. It’s about sampling and making it my own. My work as a fashion designer is also about authentic fashion and the idea that I don’t want to re-invent myself every season. In the patchworks I also re-used fabrics from previous collections. A fabric is not ugly because it ‘s last season. Most manufacturers I work with have a steady fabric collection that doesn’t change that often. It’s a nice way of working and it fits my philosophy as a designer.


Where do you find the time to devote yourself to a project, when you have an annual collection to work on? Why speeding up the pace?

(Laughs.) By creating one collection a year I don’t want to make fashion extra slow, but I sure don’t want to make it extra fast by adding an extra project to it. It’s just a choice I made. It’s the same amount of work if I would create two collections a year. It’s true, it’s a lot of work, but I am not complaining. What I do doesn’t always feel like work and it’s my baby. When it’s crying I need to feed it.


But you make it extra difficult and extra slow by making hand sewn patchwork textiles, all is handmade and unique. Could you state you make couture?

No machine was involved and all patchwork scarves were stitched by hand. All pieces are unique and no patchwork is identical. My work is not couture in the sense that I work to one specific client, it’s not measure made. I don’t get an order from one individual client. But this project was definitely flirting with couture. Couture has high regards in the fashion world, for it’s not going fast and it’s really about the art and craftsmanship of making fashion, whether you do it in a luxurious or modest way. It all exists in couture.


With your project-based approach you tried out something new. How did people react?

Some people were confused and asked why I wasn’t showing a full winter collection. I wanted to show an autonomous concept claiming its own identity alongside my annual wardrobes, emphasizing my personal view on menswear. I know I seem to make things difficult by working in a different way. But if they’re interested they’ll come back. If not, they’ll go elsewhere. Some people were very charmed by the project and understood what I was doing and they encouraged me to stay stubborn and to follow my own path. It’s so nice to see that when I do things my way, clients and shop owners do things theirs way, we’re able to meet somewhere in the middle and we can really lift each other up. It’s incredible to see how people can inspire each other, although they don’t speak the same language and live on the other side of the world. Through fashion we can relate and that’s rather special.

You give me the impression you really enjoy this personal contact with your clients. How important is it for you to represent your own collection in your showroom?

By attending the showroom you put yourself in a very fragile position. You can loose balance when receiving a bad remark. But you can also get inspired by a genuine compliment or by the way others play with your collection. It’s with ups and downs. But it’s a fact that I have to be present in the showroom and I should be the one doing the talking. Since I’m the one designing it, I’m the one who can explain it best. Talking about my work and meeting people from all over the world is privilege and I am very grateful to be able to enjoy all this.
Text: Magali Elali
Photos: Bart Kiggen
Photos Collection: Piëtro Celestina

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