(c) Photography: Ronald Stoops
fairy tales
Walter Van Beirendonck A/W 2006-07
Stop Terrorising Our World,
Dazed & Confused, August 2010 'The Joy of Six',
Photography: Scott Trindle, Styling: Robbie Spencer

Actions/Reactions focuses on the controversial themes and social statements in Walter Van Beirendonck’s oeuvre. In his world, fashion may be fun, but he does not shy away from subjecting his audience with a matter of conscience. He likes to compare the way he does this with the richly imaginative way that people in West Africa deal with tragic events, such as death, by burying their dead in coffins sculpted in the shape of an automobile, and onion or other fantastic forms. Van Beirendonck’s work confronts such issues as AIDS, the burqa debate, mass consumerism, ecology and capitalism. Here as well, he has kindred spirits in the art world, including Ai Weiwei, the Chapman Brothers and Grayson Perry.

The collection Stop Terrorizing Our World (S.T.O.W.) (autumn-winter 2006–07) is probably Van Beirendonck’s most socially engaged. ‘I created characters on the backs of the models. In my view, they represent the protagonists that are important in our contemporary world. The Exterminator, for example, with all the diseases around the world, such as AIDS, overpopulation, fevers, and so on. Mr. Greedy stood for America and the fast food industry, Presidents Bush and Reagan, fighting and war. We had Miss Amazon, who was partly a beautiful woman (we used Madonna as the symbol) and partly a decomposing body, with exposed bones that nonetheless still wear designer jewellery. The Rainbow Man was me: I still believe in rainbows.’

However horrible or difficult the issue, Van Beirendonck’s message is always a fundamentally positive one, with a powerful belief in progress and change. The S.T.O.W. fashion show literally presented that change, in the form of reversibe clothing. The models went onto the catwalk in dark suits with slogans, referring to diverse problems. Half way through, they changed, reversing the outfits, now with images of the above-mentioned characters on their backs. Their make-up changed as well. As they changed, the models magically produced colourful confetti from their shoes, smearing it across their glossy faces.

This last theme also touches on such subjects as censorship and socially imposed ideas about, for example, gender. In Gender? (spring-summer 2000), elements from women’s wardrobes are introduced in a men’s collection and presented by fragile, androgynous boys. For his Sexclown collection, Van Beirendonck’s point of departure was a virtual world. In a virtual world, such as Second Life, for example, people have the opportunity to shape their own appearance by way of an avatar, trying on an entirely new identity. In Van Beirendonck’s Sexclown world, men wear corsets, bras and burqas made of tricot, combined with S&M elements and papier-mâché headdresses with phalluses, inspired by the Bozo marionettes of Mali.