In the lastest of our Belgian fashion articles we meet an unusual fashion designer.
“Maybe I am more of a tailor than a fashion designer”, says Jan-Jan Van Essche, the Antwerp-based designer, sitting in his large workshop on the outskirts of the city. ‘On the other hand… if you put all catalogues in one row next to one another, you’ll immediately find the fil rouge that is so typical of the work of a fashion designer. I guess that is powerful.”
And he’s right. Even the people behind the Chambre Syndicale de la mode in Paris have finally acknowledged his talent. This Spring, Jan-Jan was invited onto the calendar, thus finding his name in between hot shot designers such as Dior and Junya Watanabe.
Jan-Jan studied fashion at the fashion department of the Royal Academy in Antwerp and dreamed of a collection of his own. But it was only after a long trip in Africa that he ventured out into the business. “My first series of T-shirts were the result of travelling through Mali and Senegal for three months,” recalls Jan-Jan. “I had witnessed people walking in the streets and enjoying their freedom of movement, wearing their so-called ‘boubou’. I took those squares and used them as a basis for a tunic; I”ve never stopped playing with those forms. You’ll see I’m almost a mathematician, if you take a closer look at my work.”
He always starts with the fabrics. Jan-Jan buys them in Japan or Italy. Each collection is a result of new ideas, but they never stand alone, each collection is the result of the former one. It’s a single thread of ideas on how to see fashion evolving. Sometimes pieces are hardly different from former collections but that is the point. They are still essential to him and to his style.
“Of course I’m never into trends or certain trending colours”, he says. “I”ve never worked like that. Our way of working is a mindset. We offer honest fashion and are very transparent in our way of working. I often get told that my clothes offer solace. And believe it or not, one of my earlier collections was called Solace.”
More than ten years of working has resulted in a strong fanbase. Often his clients are young people who need to save up money to buy one piece, but even 60-plus fans buy into the brand: they find that his clothes give them the freedom they missed for years. Jan-Jan explains: “Our biggest fans live in Japan. Where people often need to drive for two hours to find the store they want to visit. While here so much complaining is done because our Antwerp store is located twenty minutes from the city centre (smiles). Oh, how I love Japan, we were supposed to go there again last year, just days before the first lockdown stopped us all in our steps.
The idea was to go with the whole team and to visit several shop owners there. Japanese working clothes have always been a huge inspiration to me. I often start from the kimono pattern, but then add Western touches to it, thus combining the best of both worlds, cultures intertwining so to speak. Japanese love these kinds of small details and they adore my way of working. Always building on what I’ve done before. Never giving up on my mission.”
Jan-Jan’s business may be small, but he is super happy to sell to some 35 shops worldwide. That’s not huge in terms of turnover, but it feels very okay to him. As long as he can go on, he’s happy. And so are his fans. “Craftsmanship is what inspires me. And other cultures of course. I’ve always felt like a nomad, travelling the world and talking to people I can learn from. What I find interesting: in all cultures, fashion is a universal thing.”
He asks: “Did you know that the same form of tunic that was everywhere during French medieval times can still be found in Turkey today? Those kinds of stories truly trigger me. And I strongly believe I work in the same tradition, as if I’m supposed to hand over my work to yet another generation of craftsmen. This is folklore for the future. It has nothing to do with nostalgia, it is a story full of hope.”
Who is Jan-Jan Van Essche?
Born in Antwerp in 1980
Studied fashion at the royal academy of Antwerp (graduated in 2003)
Started his Atelier Solarhop and his collection in 2008
Was a teacher at the The Hague Royal Academy from 2014 until 2019
Got invited to the official calendar of the Chambre Syndicale de la mode in Paris this Spring