15 December 2013
‘I’m not in fashion’, says Alexander van Slobbe provocatively. It is a remarkable statement for a man who was the first to put on a show in Paris and has had a huge influence on the appreciation of Dutch fashion outside the Netherlands. In 2003 he received the ‘oeuvre prize’ from the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund for his work and role as ambassador. This was the first time this prestigious honour had been awarded to a fashion designer. He is still very proud of it.
“I did what my heart told me to do and had the right people around me at the right moment. We opted for unconditional quality. I could never have foreseen that that choice would make such a stir.”
“Fashion is born on the street, by youngsters who dress against the rules; the fashion industry then latches onto it and translates it into a trend. I have never engaged in that process. Which is why I say ‘I’m not in fashion’. I see myself as a designer. My source of inspiration is art, mainly abstract art, architecture and design. The Netherlands has always had an exceptional reputation all over the world in these fields. But at the time when I started my own label, Dutch fashion was more a matter of ready-to-wear clothing than good-quality original design. The situation changed when other Dutch designers and myself first took part in the major Paris shows.”
About Alexander van Slobbe
Alexander van Slobbe (1959) graduated with honours from the Academy of Visual Arts in Arnhem in 1984. He was later delighted to rejoin the course as head lecturer, at its home in a building designed by Gerrit Rietveld, whom he very much admires. In 1989 Van Slobbe launched his own label: orson + bodil. In 1993 he caused an international stir with his SO fashion label for men.
Van Slobbe’s style is often called ‘sober’, minimalist. Insiders call him the pioneer of ‘Dutch modernism’ in fashion. He has always been extremely interested in the design process, and in craft and skill, even when they were not at all in vogue. In 2010 the Centraal Museum in Utrecht held an exhibition on precisely this aspect of his work, called Stof tot nadenken (Material for Reflection). In his views on quality and individuality Van Slobbe makes no concessions. He is currently devoting most of his attention to orson + bodil, which has a concept store at 38 Herenstraat in Amsterdam. This month his own webshop goes live, at Shop.orsonbodil.com. In addition, Van Slobbe this year designed the new uniforms for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and last October was a curator for ‘Design Week Beijing’, where he also gave workshops.
Holding onto quality, unconditionally
With the quality-with-no-concessions that underlay orson + bodil, Van Slobbe was able to appeal to a specific clientele from the very beginning in 1989. Just as he remained true to his principles of quality, his clients remained loyal to his label. Van Slobbe goes his own way. Sometimes his creations fit in with the existing, always fleeting image of fashion, and sometimes they are outside it. He does not allow hypes and trends to set the rules for him. The concept of ‘quality’ is always his guiding light. “By keeping to quality and by doing the right things at the right moment with the right people, we have been able to raise fashion in our own country and beyond to a higher level. Now, when I see how colleagues present themselves abroad, I can only be proud of the reputation enjoyed by Dutch fashion designers.”
However positively orson + bodil was received, the fireworks really started with the SO label for men in 1993. The subdued, minimalist touch of SO was all the rage, especially in Japan, and the designer’s life changed overnight. The man who preferred to sit in his workshop with reliable people around him, using basic materials and patterns to make creations that always reveal the hand of the master, was now spending all his time in planes travelling from hotel to hotel and from show to show.
“My life was lived for me”, Van Slobbe says now, having regained the calm of Friesland, where he lives and works in a monumental villa in Hardegaryp designed by the architect Abe Bonnema (1926-2001). “It got completely out of hand. We were making no less than 700 new items for each collection. Everything revolved around marketing and merchandising. I became a stranger to myself. I owe a lot to that period, but I also lost a part of myself.”
The rediscovery of Alexander van Slobbe
After a good ten years, Alexander Slobbe, then 42, took a firm decision. He sold SO. And he started to reconsider his life. He avoids the press and the major shows, has moved from Amsterdam to Friesland, and works on his oeuvre in relative tranquillity. He enjoys his work, but is once again approaching a crossroads. ‘Do I keep it small and limit myself to the domestic market?’ or ‘Do I again literally expand my boundaries, with all the commotion that you thereby bring down upon yourself?’ This likeable designer has to laugh heartily at the question of whether the time is ripe for an ‘international rediscovery of Alexander van Slobbe’. “A rediscovery? At the age of 54? Too insane for words. But on the other hand why not? Why not another breakthrough for orson + bodil? As long as I can keep hold of my personal world-view, of quality and luxury.”
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