Patti Smith and Ann Demeulemeester
Please don't reduce our friendship to a trouser or a skirt.
Patti Smith is the first lady of punk. Revered for howling soulful lyrics and thrashing about onstage, she's the last person likely to care about something as transient as fashion. But Smith's wayward appearance raffish t-shirts, oversized coats and pegged jeans is more than just any old thing that she picked up off the floor. Her look has been thoughtfully crafted; whether it's the striped linen trousers she bought as homage to John Lennon; the fact that she knots her shirts at the waist ala Ava Gardner; or that she sheared off her shoulder-length tresses after being dismissively described by one of Andy Warhol's gatekeepers as a ringer for Joan Baez "machete-ing her way out of the folk era," to put it in her own words. Smith's style has become almost as legendary as her music and it's been emulated countless times. If it weren't for Smith, Annie Hall wouldn't have challenged Woody Allen's Alvy Singer in vest, tie and suit pants; Hedi Slimane for Dior wouldn't have been a huge commercial success; and Ann Demeulemeester probably wouldn't have designed at all.
In fact, Demeulemeester claims Smith not only as her muse, but also as her soul mate. Smith has had countless creative partnerships over the course of her artistic career the obvious Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Wagstaff, John Cale and Fred 'Sonic' Smith but none quite like her long-term friendship with the Belgian fashion designer. Perhaps the two were drawn to each other because of their free-spirited approach to life. As a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Demeulemeester ignored the advice of teachers who wanted her to imitate Coco Chanel. Since founding her label in 1987 she has been marching to the beat of her own monochromic, asymmetrical, slightly Edwardian drum. Fashion critics often describe her work as 'gothic' or 'rock and roll' somewhat apt given that music heavily informs her work (Patti Smith aside, Demeulemeester loves Lou Reed, PJ Harvey and Nick Cave) but her aesthetic isn't resolutely dark. Her riff is more a sombre romanticism heavy boots paired with soft-silhouetted dresses and splashes of white to break up the black. If anything, Demeulemeester has a rock and roll attitude she's paved the way for the likes of Rick Owens and Helmut Lang whilst remaining steadfastly impervious to trends.
Demeulemeester was sixteen years old when she first encountered Smith. On a whim, she bought a copy of Smith's record Horses. There was something about the cover sleeve a woman staring unflinchingly into the camera, her pale face framed with jet-black hair, her aquiline nose punctuated by the stern horizontal of her mouth that made the young Demeulemeester stop and stare. With a jacket slung over her shoulder, a tie around her neck and the slightest trace of facial fair above her upper lip, Patti Smith whoever she was had a compelling ambiguity about her. Upon listening to the androgynous American's defiant three-chord songs Demeulemeester was even more inspired. So when it came to selecting a soundtrack for her Paris runway debut in 1991 more than a decade later, Smith's ragged poetry was an obvious choice. Demeulemeester played the album Wave and as a gesture of thanks, sent Smith a package containing a note and a white shirt from the collection. The shirt struck a chord with Smith she felt it had been made for her and she wrote back straight away. The correspondence would last five years before the pair finally met backstage at a gig of Smith's in Ostend.
Since then Demeulemeester and Smith have collaborated on two collections. Demeulemeester's Spring Summer 2000 collection 'Woolgathering' takes its name from a short autobiographical novel published by Smith in 1992. Demeulemeester took excerpts from Smith's writing and embroidered them onto silk tulle dresses and cotton tops. Smith returned the compliment by reading extracts during the runway presentation.
Their second collaborative effort was Demeulemeester's Fall Winter 2006 menswear collection. Filled with alpaca fur gilets, silver leather pants, tailored rust-coloured velvet jackets and oversized shearling coats, the show had a rugged opulence to it. Models sported deadpan expressions as they dragged their feet along in battered, unlaced combat boots. Stringy hair poked out from beneath bowler hats, caps, berets and hoods. Smith, carrying a clarinet and looking suitably disheveled, made a cameo appearance on the catwalk. At the conclusion of the show, Smith and Demeulemeester took their runway bows arm in arm.
Both Smith and Demeulemeester have stressed that their friendship is more than these joint ventures. There seems to be a fierce sense of understanding between them that of a kind shared only by kindred spirits. "Patti has always been part of my universe," Demeulemeester has said, "but I don't want to vulgarise our contact, which is really magical and beautiful. It's almost sacred to me, which is why I never talk about it in the press. Please don't reduce our friendship to a trouser or a skirt.''