Last summer I had the opportunity to meet Jan-Jan Van Essche at his lovely showroom in Paris. I have been closely following his work after discovering it at Ra in Antwerp several years ago. Indeed, it was quite a treat to finally meet him in person #fanmode. And of course, I got a chance to try on some of his amazing garments!

The acclaimed Belgian menswear designer is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and a recipient of the prestigious Dries Van Noten award. Unlike most designers, he presents one collection per year. He encourages everyone to have a wardrobe that they can wear throughout the year and just layer it up and down depending on the season. 

Jan-Jan Van Essche juxtaposes Western and ethnic traditions in fashion. His collections are characterized by relaxed silhouettes, refined patterns and natural colors. His latest effort is called Project #1, Proceed, a capsule collection reflecting Van Essche's personal view on menswear.

I'm very excited to share my exclusive interview with Jan-Jan. Here he talks about Antwerp, Proceed, Belgian designers, Japan and his concept boutique. Read on guys...
Tell us something about yourself. Briefly discuss your background as a designer.
I am born and raised in Antwerp. And I am also a graduate from the Antwerp Fashion Academie, so I guess you could say Antwerp is a big part of who I am as a designer, background wise...

As a designer, what is your style mantra?
Comfort and timelessness.

There is a certain spirituality to your clothes. Are you a very spiritual or religious person?
I wouldn't consider myself religious but I guess I do have a spiritual side, I do believe in a certain energy or state.... But I don't believe in organized religion, it is in essence something personal I feel.

Where do you typically draw inspiration before you start a collection? What inspires you to wake up and start working on your craft?
I am bad at waking up.
I generally get my inspiration from daily life, traveling, photo books and art.
Anything beautiful can be inspring.
And people of course. They are the most inspiring to me... The way they move, conversations we have...

Your latest project is called "PROCEED". What's it all about? Tell us your inspiration and the story behind your latest endeavor.
It's called PROCEED, because I believe that proceeding, moving forward is in itself the essence of creativity. Anything that isn't moving is dead, change is life.
This project felt like a very clear step forward to myself as a designer. I wanted to do something with handwork again, and more specific hand-sewn patchworks. I wanted to create pieces of textile that were in the same time garments as well as works of art.
The inspiration for the patchworks is on one side West African, and on the other side Japanese. The rhythm and the patterns are derived from Ewe and Asante handwoven cloth. The colors were inspired by a visit to a Kabuki theatre in Tokyo, to be more precise on the stage design and the beautifully painted backdrops.

What are the most covetable pieces from this collection? And what are the pieces that you personally adore?
There's a pair of wide trousers I love to wear myself, I think it's one of those pieces that will come back in future collections. And of course the patchworks, I am still in love with them, so much time and dedication has gone into them, you can really feel that.

Antwerp is home to some of the most celebrated designers of our time such as Raf Simons, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck to name a few. What do you think sets Belgian designers like yourself from other international designers?
Individuality maybe? They all seem to have a very personal approach to their work. They all seem to have created a world of their own, within the fashion world, that allows them to stay free and fully creative. 
But maybe I'm not the best person to ask, I can't be objective about it i guess...

Your collections generally consists of pieces with modern cuts and relaxed fluid silhouettes reflecting Japanese sensibilities. Have you always been fascinated with Japan? What do you think makes Japan interesting?
The Japanese reference has slowly entered my work through the years, but the interest in purified aesthetics has always been part of my working method, always deleting unnecessary details.
And that's why visiting Japan, in some way, felt like meeting a like-minded friend...
Japan is interesting in a lot of ways, and for many different reasons. Having friends there to mention one. But also the overall mentality, specially towards creativity. There is a big hunger for genuineness i feel.
And of course the whole costume history and the Kimono. It's a never ending source of inspiration to me.

Until now your production is still based in Belgium if I'm not mistaken. So obviously everything is made in Belgium. What's the logic behind this? And has outsourcing to other countries ever crossed your mind?
On one hand, it's just much more practical for me to do my production in Belgium. It's much easier to follow-up the whole process when it happens close to where I work.
On the other hand, it also has a sentimental side to it, Belgium has and certainly had a very famous textile industry, and it feels good to be somehow supportive of that.
I have thought about relocating production somewhere else, but it has to be for the right reasons, and on the right time. That moment hasn't occurred so far.

Unlike most fashion designers, you create one collection per year and produce garments in one universal sizing. How do your clients react to this?
Good I feel, sometimes it takes some getting used to, but I haven't had bad reactions on this. Maybe I wouldn't hear it in that case...
People that are drawn to it, really are open to these relatively new ideas.

You and Pietro Celestina run an independent concept boutique in Antwerp called Atelier Solarshop. What is the idea behind this? And what makes it different from other stores?
It started out as my and other artists' atelier with a multifunctional space attached. That sometimes turned into a gallery, a store or a restaurant for example.
We decided to turn it into a permanent store since last September. We are kind of offering a best off of what we've done until now. It's a very personal selection of vintage pieces, new design, books and so forth. Whatever we find beautiful actually.
I don't really know how to define what makes it different from other stores.
We are on a quite strange location though, not exactly in your everyday shopping street.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Pietro Celestina and Jan-Jan Van Essche for making this interview possible. You guys rock! See you this summer!

For more info about Jan-Jan Van Essche check out www.janjanvanessche.com

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