Ann Demeulemeester changed ownership, returned to the catwalk in October with a new creative team, and will be a special guest at the Pitti Uomo fashion fair in Florence in January. Demeulemeester herself resigned in 2013, but says she is happy with the brand’s new course.
Ann Demeulemeester between future and past
Things had not been going so well for the Ann Demeulemeester label for a while. Since the departure of the legendary designer, in 2013, the brand was looking for new energy, without much success. Artistic director Sebastien Meunier, a veteran at Demeulemeester, tried to reach a younger audience, however, bar from a small fan base, could never really persuade. Moreover, the brand had lost quite a few traditional customers in recent years, often because they felt that the quality had deteriorated.
What’s more, it just wasn’t good timing for the label. Demeulemeester's dark, romantic goth essence clashed with the garish, poppy streetwear of the decade.
So the brand’s change of command in 2020 did not come as much of a surprise. Though, the Belgian label now being Italian - and designed in Milan - could cause curiosity. The company, now owned by entrepreneur Claudio Antonioli, thanked Meunier for his proven services even before the takeover. The line has since been designed by an in-house team.
Antwerp flagship store renovated
The change of course was approved by Demeulemeester. Moreover, the designer is once again involved with the label, although she will not be designing collections again.
"We have an agreement with Ann for the next ten years," Claudio Antonioli confirmed to FashionUnited in September. "I'd rather not say too much about that. A little mystery is allowed to remain around it."
"I see it as my role to enrich the DNA in new domains and other forms," Ann Demeulemeester added in an email. "The style of 'Ann Demeulemeester' is sufficiently clear. A new team can continue working without me."
Patrick Robyn, Demeulemeester's longtime husband and creative partner, has also been appointed by Antonioli. He led the renovation work on the flagship in Antwerp, Demeulemeester's only remaining store. Located in the city’s southern district, housed in a former seafaring school dating back to the 1860s, the store reopened in September this year.
"There is not a shred of regret or frustration with us," Robyn said during a tour of the store, in reference to the sale of BVBA 32 in 2013. "We achieved our dreams. We're happy with what we've accomplished. When we stopped, it certainly didn't feel like a failure. Ms. Chapelle had her own ideas, and of course, we also saw that the brand was stumbling towards the abyss in recent years. We didn't like that. At a certain point, Claudio Antonioli appeared as a kind of deus ex machina, [an unexpected saviour]. He was a bit of a saving grace for the brand."
“Ann Demeulemeester has become a lifestyle brand”
Claudio Antonioli opened his first self-styled boutique in Milan in 1987. "I was already selling Ann Demeulemeester at that time," he told FashionUnited via Zoom. "Not much later I got to know Ann and Patrick better. I've always remained a fan."
Meanwhile, Antonioli owned stores in Milan, Turin, Lugano and Ibiza, and Volt, a club in Milan. He was also co-founder of New Guards Group (NGG), the group behind labels such as Off-White, Palm Angels and Ambush. NGG was sold to e-commerce giant Farfetch a few years ago, and Antonioli himself is no longer involved.
"When I heard that Ann Demeulemeester was for sale," he said, "I called Ann and Patrick. It seemed like a great opportunity to be able to continue the adventure and, in time, get back on track with growth."
Antonioli closed two deals, one being a take over of BVBA 32 from Chapelle, the logistics structure behind the label. With Demeulemeester and Robyn, he threw in a deal for the brand name.
"The name had stayed with us at the time," noted Robyn. "Meanwhile, we also had a licensing agreement with the company Serax, for porcelain, tableware and lamps. We are continuing with that as well. Mr. Antonioli now owns the Ann Demeulemeester name for everything fashion related."
"Just buying the company," Antonioli said, "didn't interest me. I absolutely wanted the name as well. I don't want the brand to change completely. As I see it, it's not my brand. I work for Ann Demeulemeester. There is also no rush. But I do want to prepare the brand for the future. Fashion is not meant for sixty-somethings. Fashion speaks to people in their twenties and thirties, and we want to reach them. With respect for the DNA of Ann Demeulemeester."
For the time being, there will be no official artistic director at the head of the design team. "It is still too early for that," stated Antonioli.
"To be clear, there is no intention that Ann will be designing clothes again," Patrick Robyn emphasised just before the flagship reopening. "I don't have a crystal ball, of course. The future sometimes makes strange leaps, so who knows. But at the moment, there is nothing to suggest that Ann will return as a designer."
In the Antwerp flagship store, in addition to the clothing collections, Ann Demeulemeester's tableware, lamps and, shortly, furniture will be sold. "We want to show her complete vision, her universe," said Claudio Antonioli. "Ann Demeulemeester is now a lifestyle brand. That must be clearly visible in the store." If all goes to plan in two to three years, the location should serve as a model for new stores in fashion cities like Paris and Milan.
“An emotional moment” for Ann Demeulemeester
Meanwhile, the label has returned to the catwalk. Following a fashion film in March, a show during October’s Paris Fashion Week was held. Olivier Rizzo, known for his work with Raf Simons and Prada, among others, did the styling, while Demeulemeester herself was on the front row.
"It was exactly thirty years ago that I gave my first show," she told FashionUnited afterwards, during a chance meeting at Gare du Nord. "At the time I opened it with a garment that said: Parents, racontez vos rêves à vos enfants. Parents, tell your dreams to your children. That text came back now. I was happy about that. It was a bit of an emotional moment: the first time I was on the other side of the curtain, so to speak. I hadn't come to fashion week since I stopped, in 2013."
She continued: "The casting was incredibly good, the makeup, the styling. I wanted a lot of clothes for myself. Moreover, if you looked closely, and that was possible because the audience was very close to the catwalk, you could see that everything was well made. That was also necessary to get the brand back on track. In recent years the collections were no longer produced in Italy, but now they are again, often by manufacturers I used to work with myself."
'Special Guest' for January’s Pitti Uomo
On January 12, Ann Demeulemeester - the label - will show at Pitti Uomo in Florence, at the Stazione Leopolda, the disused train station where, in the past, Raf Simons and Undercover, among others, have shown collections. Celebrating the history of Ann Demeulemeester," said the official invitation. At a lunch in Antwerp, Lapo Cianchi, communications officer at Pitti, specified that the show for limited audiences would be followed by a DJ set. Although, of course, the latest covid-19 wave could still throw a spanner in the works.
"We are very pleased to be able to bring Ann Demeulemeester to Florence," said Cianchi. "Pitti has a long tradition when it comes to Belgian fashion: Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Haider Ackermann, Glenn Martens - not to mention Raf Simons - they have all shown here."
"We have always loved Ann Demeulemeester's style, both because of her non-conformist approach and her ability to calmly but resolutely carve out a place for herself on the international stage. The new path for the label, initiated by a visionary entrepreneur like Claudio Antonioli, engages in an ideal dialogue with the founder and her standards. We are honoured to look back in Florence on a story that began forty years ago, in 1982 (the year Demeulemeester graduated from the Academy of Antwerp; the label was founded 1987, NVDR). The event created for Pitti Uomo 101 will be an exchange between different forms of creative expression, with a special focus on the younger generations. It will be a synchronised story, between future, present and past."
In addition to Demeulemeester, Pitti Uomo is planning special events of the classic men's labels Caruso and Kiton. The American label Filson will also be present, celebrating its 125th anniversary - and the first collection of a European licensing deal with WP Lavori in Corso, the Italian group behind Woolrich, Barbour and Baracuta, among others. The 101st edition of the fair runs from January 11 to 13.
This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.