He Knows What You’ll Wear Next Summer: Inside the Unique Fashion World of Jurgi Persoons


Jurgi Persoons is not a  household fashion name but this is only a sign of the times. In a parallel, ideal universe the Belgian designer and educator would have gotten the place he deserves, this of the original voice of the 90s avant-garde scene, probably the last authentic trend the fashion storyline has seen so far. His short run as a designer produced some of the most sought-after items today, a sure sign he knew how to speak to an audience that looked for creativity and uniqueness over hype. The work of Persoons is dark yet hauntingly ethereal and almost philosophical, the type of clothes that tell you a story you’ve been longing to hear.

Merging art with social commentary and politics, his work touched on the individual expression and the beauty that flourishes inside-or often against -all social power settings  At the time, having himself graduated from the Antwerp Academy’s fashion department, he even seemed the lawful heir of the avant-garde spirit that had given birth to the much famed today Antwerp Six group. Still, after many ups and downs, Persoons decided to donate his entire archive to the MoMu in Antwerp and stuck to educating the talent of the future as a teacher and later the Head of Fashion and Textile at the University of Hague. We sat down with him to discuss his work as a designer, his unique way of nurturing new talent, and why the fashion world can’t go on without creativity in its focus.

Why did you choose to leave fashion design?

It was not really a choice… at a very certain moment, there was no other option left. I presented my first collection in 1995 with very limited financial resources. The first collection was sold to only three shops. For me, that was a huge motivation to continue but financially it was a disaster. Season after season, slowly, we sold to more shops however it was definitely not enough to be considered lucrative. Each season we had to make new debts, look for new investors, etc… Eventually, in 2000 (thanks to an important expansion on the American market) the company seemed to be self-supporting still without making any profits yet. But 9/11 changed everything in a dramatic way. Our collection has been already sent to New York to be sold to American customers during the NY fashion week but unfortunately arrived at JFK at the same moment as those horrible attacks. It never left the airport and so we lost all American clients that season.

We struggled-and managed- to have the collection back in Europe in time for Paris Fashion Week didn’t also sell there as many (American, Asian,..) clients were afraid to fly at that moment and even didn’t come to Paris. Internet wasn’t so much a thing back then so we tried to limit the commercial damage by sending pictures of the clothes to the clients to help them order. Still, the final result was a new big financial loss. Regardless of it, we managed to find new investors that allowed us to continue operating until 2003. In 2003 it became clear that the financial situation was unbearable and was only one option left: to close the company.

How was the time having your own brand?

It was intense for sure, but I enjoyed it. Running your own brand is different from “a normal” 9-5 job, it is a different way of life. I started with a small collection doing everything by myself but soon this became impossible. Our studio became a meeting place for young engaged and talented collaborators that worked with great passion and energy. Their enthusiasm was overwhelming, and their energy and vivacity were amazing. Our collection became almost a shared project. I may am a control freak but we ended up improvising a lot. I loved the creative work but having to deal with administrative, financial, commercial, or management aspects and decisions proved difficult for me. We struggled to find the right person to undertake these tasks-probably the biggest challenge our company had to overcome. We were already considered an “underground” brand, which was a huge compliment for us. I and my collaborators had the opportunity to meet so many inspiring people, organize incredible presentations, and work together with some amazingly talented people. We definitely loved every moment of it!

What do you think is key when being an educator?

I started by teaching fashion design to graduate students which is quite a different educational concept compared with the beginning years of a course. Graduate students develop their own personal creative identities during their first year. Later in the course, they feel entitled to tell their own story with independence. Guiding them during their personal creative process requires a strong ability to listen, see and feel each student’s personal sensibilities and how they wish to communicate them in an innovative and unique design language. Respecting each individual’s creative universe, message and voice are key for me. My role is to endlessly motivate them during their creative process and assist with possible problems or even failures.

Storytelling is a crucial element in fashion design; I often tell them, you can communicate to me everything you want but the main goal is that I see and understand it from your work. Being allowed to make mistakes is also an important part of the learning process and my students are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them .If you learn to deal with your mistakes in a constructive, smart, and positive way, this can only strengthen your character and personality, two valuable qualities for any aspiring fashion designer. In the end, is the student that makes his own choices, and a teacher guides him in the best possible way he cans.

What is your opinion of fashion today?

During the last few years, a lot has changed in the fashion world, not always for the best. I don’t follow everything anymore, as I used to do. Today everything is more about “product” and “corporate concept”, creativity or innovation is not considered an essential element anymore. It’s a pity, because, for me, they should always be essential. Of course, there are still some exceptions to the rule. In the eighties and nineties being “avant-garde” was the biggest compliment you could get and the ultimate goal as it was also something the audience appreciated. Back then, the fashion industry embraced avant-garde but was later overcome by big financial interests and profits-the ones that brought us where we are today. Sometimes we see runways full of superficial nostalgia for this period or worse, some ridiculous whims, not very honest or respectful to the right spirit of the time.

Are there any designers you find interesting today?

Thankfully not everything is a disaster, there are still some designers swimming against the current flow who have kept their integrity. They might at this moment fight, so to say, for their own dignity but they are in fact saving the beauty and reputation of this métier. I prefer not to say names in case I forget someone which would be a shame. But there are a lot for sure.

You recently had your work plagiarized by Haider Ackermann during his couture collaboration with Jean Paul Gaultier. How do you react to that?

It is a very sad and disrespectful situation for me. I feel this plagiarism affects everybody involved in creating this specific work, not only me but my team and collaborators as well. Also, it isn’t respectful of the legacy of Jean Paul Gaultier himself, a designer whom I respect enormously. His name is synonymous with innovation in fashion and pushing boundaries and this type of plagiarism isn’t a very clever thing to do, to put it mildly. Haider Ackermann is very familiar with my work; he frequented my circle of friends, and came into our studio, and in our showroom. I took him as a passenger in my car when we went to Première Vision in Paris; he even worked at the maquette of the invitation of our winter 1999 – 00 collection. He knows my métier very well.

What element do you think makes your work have such a cult following today?

That’s a very good question but honestly quite difficult for me to answer, Geert Bruloot, the founder of the iconic shop Louis in Antwerp and one of my first clients, recently said to me: your work was and still is artistic, artisanal, and avant-garde. Those things are rare and precious at this moment. Quite the opposite idea from the corporate concept of the big fashion groups -and a huge compliment for a designer. I often meet people who tell me they bought our clothes more than 20 years ago and still wear them, which makes me feel both proud and timid at the same time. This alone proves our work was not superficial or just a trendy fashion expression. In a period characterized by overconsumption of way too much worthless craps, this is a sign of hope for the future. It means that many people are seeking true values and quality again.

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