Katrien Van Hecke loves fashion. Looking down at her outfit, she sums it up: “I’m wearing a coat from my own label, a cardigan from Pringle of Scotland, and a Christinan Wijnants blouse.”, “But they’re full of holes because I paint and work in them” she adds apologetically. “Sometimes I find myself realizing ‘Oops, I’m wearing my Margiela shoes!’ while experimenting with dyes. It’s no fun wearing ‘work clothes’ all the time. I’m in fashion because I like to dress nicely.”
I catch up with the Belgian designer while she unexpectedly has to move out of the Antwerp studio she’s been working in for two and a half years. It’s an old police station she has occupied as part of an anti-squatting movement that puts old and uninhabited buildings to good use.
This is just one of the elements surrounding Van Hecke’s work that reflects her imaginative and clever approach to fashion, making the most of natural resources. “I always start from the textile”, she says. “I mainly work with Italian silk. The sustainable aspect is more about the history and the time-honored techniques that I want to bring into the present. On small patches of fabric I test colors. I extract them from herbs and other natural raw materials, like pigments, from a wide range of sources like chamomile, eucalyptus and curry. I’m a bit like a perfumer who can distil scents from solids. That’s what I do with colors.”
She developed her remarkable production techniques as a response to what she discovered as a student of fashion management and technology. “We learned everything from pattern cutting to the ins and outs of large scale ready-to-wear production. When we visited those factories and companies, it upset me for days afterwards. It was all so depersonalized.”
Van Hecke found that a historical context was lacking, and a human dimension. “Clothes that are made by a tailor are the product of craftsmanship. An aura of romanticism surrounds them, a sense of elitism too – not in an overbearing way but in how people can shape their own identities by what they choose to wear. Most of the clothes produced nowadays have nothing at all to do with this, and I was shocked to realize that.” Motivated to devise her own alternative way of producing clothes, Van Hecke went on to study fashion design in Ghent.
Her current approach is a combination of hands-on research and a unique form of artistry. “Each of my pieces, even if they are part of a series, will always look slightly different from another,” she stresses. “It’s my priority to create unique pieces that are expressive.”
For her A/W 14 collection, Van Hecke has developed a new texture by sprinkling staining agents with salts on dyed fabrics, working not only with silk, cotton and recycled polyester, but also wool. “In essence these are all chemical reactions, but they are not harmful or toxic. I could choose to fixate my colors with heavy chemicals but of course I won’t. I’d just be repeating the industrial process I’m trying to sidestep.”
Katrien Van Hecke’s brand is still a ‘one woman show’ for the most part, making it all the more impressive that her work has resonated with boutiques and customers in Belgium, Italy, the UK and the US. “The owner of a little boutique in New York where my label hangs on the rails told me young girls come in to eye up my pieces, then save up and come back during the sales to buy something” she says with obvious satisfaction. ‘That’s what I want to achieve. That people stop and think about the provenance and the added value I bring to my collections.”