Last June the world renowned Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts said goodbye to its legendary head of the fashion department, Walter Van Beirendonck. After much speculation Brandon Wen was appointed as the new creative director, a clear choice from the academy towards fresh ideas and new paths for the department. We met with Brandon Wen just two weeks after the news had been announced, curious to get to know this creative free spirit and to hear about his ambitions.
Who is Brandon Wen?
- 1993: born in Los Angeles
- 2015: graduated in Fiber Science and Apparel Design at Cornell University in New York
- 2019: graduated at the Fashion Department of the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts
- 2019: started working for Michèle Lamy and Rick Owens in Paris
- 2020: started working at Maison Lemarié for Chanel Haute Couture and Prêt à Porter
- 2021: guest lecturer at the international Arts of Fashion Foundation in San Francisco
- 2022: creative director at the Fashion Department of the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts
Could you tell us a little about your background?
Well, before I came to Antwerp, I grew up in Los Angeles, in a very academic environment. My education, my upbringing, high school and then college: it was all very straightforward. But at the same time my family was super open and supportive. There were always a bit of artistic things happening, but not so in the hippie sense. For instance, my father is an architect but he does more hospitals. So since high school, I had always been a bit by myself, always exploring things. But then coming to Antwerp, it was as if the world opened up to me in terms of art and design.
Growing up were you already interested in fashion?
Yeah, it was very suburban homosexual, I liked Project Runway and Lady Gaga when I was in high school. It was nice because these things opened it up already for me. I got very interested in fashion and doing things that were a bit more, I guess, strange or new to me. I took a high school fashion course on the weekend, which was quite helpful because I also met different people. And the teacher was more of an illustrator, so he also had this broader art opinion.
Then, the summer before I was a senior in high school, I did a little summer class with Arts of Fashion in Paris. We came to Antwerp for a day and there was this exhibit in MoMu on the ground floor of one of the master students, Mariel Manuel. I remember thinking, what am I looking at? It was so beyond anything that I had perceived in high school, even in L.A. There and then the obsession began.
There was no Instagram, only Facebook. There were only a few things on the internet about it. I remember looking stuff up all the time and trying to find more information, and then realizing that fashion was what I wanted to be doing.
So you moved to New York to study fashion?
Yeah, I studied at Cornell University, so it wasn't New York City, it was upstate New York. Super academic, they're known for engineering, architecture, veterinary school and hospitality. The program I was in was more fiber science and apparel design. So the program had this fiber science component, a management component and a design component. It was great because it was quite open and you could do what you wanted to. It was a lot of research, much like chemistry as in looking through microscopes and weighing and burning things. But the design classes had my focus. There weren't many of us, but we were all interested in fashion design and didn’t want to do all the science and management. Even though it was interesting, and it would, of course, help.
What was beautiful about Cornell was that it was this enormous campus of students in the middle of nowhere in New York, next to a town called Ithaca, a town smaller than the college. You were very free to do what you wanted to do and to be who you wanted to be. That was very formative.
And afterwards you entered the Antwerp Fashion Academy?
Yeah, I was kind of following it the whole time. When I was in Cornell, I came here to Antwerp for a summer to intern with Romain Brau who had this shop Ra in the Kloosterstraat. It was really fun, a blast. I thought, this is something I need to keep an eye out for. So when I finished Cornell, I thought, now I'll get to work and I came to Paris for a month. I had a friend whom I was staying with and I was applying for jobs but people weren't really responding. Then a friend of mine said that maybe I should think about applying to schools, and she had a contact from someone in Paris. It was the end of June so the entrance exam was in a week. But I had everything ready, I had my portfolio and possibly even my interview questions. And so I tried…
At first I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to go back to study, but when I got accepted into the academy, I was overwhelmed. My friends were saying: if you got in you have to go, you can't turn that down. And my parents, again, were so supportive. Apparently it’s the best decision I ever made.
What do you value most in this fashion school?
What I value about this school, and always have, is the focus on creativity. I think that other schools are always searching for creativity, but are also always undervaluing it. So the fact that this is a place where the focus is on forward thinking and innovative design is so valuable. It's something that I appreciated and benefited so much from. I'm so excited to be able to guide that now, to be a part of how that manifests itself in the future for a designer and young people.
The school has a reputation of being extremely demanding…
I think it's double sided. I'll say two things… I think the intensity is necessary, that's part of it. I also think creativity on its own is just an extremely intense process. Sometimes, looking from the outside, you only see the intensity.
You think of creativity as something flowing easily, but getting to that point takes a lot of self-reflection and of understanding yourself and of going through a process of gutting yourself and your emotions. To make work that is really personal and strong requires so much of yourself emotionally, that some of the intensity comes from the process of creation, next to, of course, all the required work. It's not simple and it’s good that a school puts creativity first, takes the process of self-exploration and creating so seriously.
How long have you been in Antwerp? What do you think of the city?
I think it's been around seven years now. I came here in the summer of 2015. I have had extreme, extreme luck. I found the best people in Antwerp and Belgium, people who really made me feel at home and supported me. That's also why I stayed so long, even when I was working in Paris I came back because of the people I missed here. They support me in the way I need to be supported, not only literally but also emotionally. That's something very special.
Antwerp is also a great place for an artist, especially when you're at the beginning of your career, when you're young and looking for guidance and support. It's a big city, but on the other hand, it's a small community, and people are open minded.
Do you feel like you understand and know Belgian fashion and the local scene now?
I think so... That's a question that I also get a lot from Japan: Tell me something about Belgian fashion. But is there such a thing as Belgian fashion? I think understanding Belgian fashion means also understanding Belgium. After you’ve lived here, you know how this country works. I think what it comes down to is that it's a country with a big history, a lot of taste and a lot of openness towards other influences and places. When you combine those things, that is what makes Belgian fashion. The designers and the people who have made a name for Belgium were able to mix this very strong Belgian sense of aesthetics with other cultures and influences.
Can you tell us more about your work? You're a designer and now the creative director at the academy but you're also a performer?
Yes, and it's definitely something I will continue to pursue. What I’ve always loved about fashion is the show aspect. You create work, but then you get to present it in a very grandiose and celebratory way. When I was working in Paris with Michèle Lamy we were very much working on the performance part, it was very much a fashion ànd music performance. I quickly realized, oh, here’s something that I really love, that really speaks to me and that I really want to do. And today I still want to continue to explore that.
Is it something you want to bring to the academy also?
The performance aspect is more for me, but I do want to bring this attitude of what fashion can be beyond what it is. That was something I was exploring after I had left Antwerp. We will figure out the best way to do it, but more towards the end of the study path. You can start introducing people who are doing other types of fashion or other types of presentations.
Will you also be teaching at the academy?
I will also be teaching. Last summer I taught a fashion summer class in Paris. It was a really formative, meaningful experience, during summer, with a small group of maybe seven students. It was so fantastic to work with them and be inspired by them, but also inspire them. This flow of energy… I realized that I didn’t want to let go of it, it was very beautiful… So I'm looking forward to teaching.
Do you also want to continue to design yourself?
I have a lot of energy and I'm quite serious about what I want to do. Up until two weeks ago, I was trying to find a space where I could do made-to-order, I was working with clients and friends, just creating things that I find cool. But now I want to readjust and see what I can still do. Creatively I want to work on myself, I don’t have to follow any sort of fashion business plan. I’ll create a business around who I am and what I do.
How did you apply for the job of creative director at the Fashion Department?
It was a thought through decision. I was very quiet about it, a lot of people didn't know that I was applying. I'm a very ambitious person, even when I first arrived into this space, I would imagine myself as being the director and teaching, as this sort of Walter slash Dumbledore, head of the school/ practicing fashion wizard. So I always had this quiet dream, because in a school it's really about creativity and that's so very precious to me.
Then when the vacancy went up, I heard whispers and people talking. I was interested and asked someone and they said: You know what? Just go for it. I didn’t know who else was applying, but I was like, okay we're going to take this step and see what happens. So I applied.
How did you react when you were chosen as the new creative director? Were you expecting it?
Well, the interview went well, but you never know. I felt a good vibe, we had some laughs. But I had no idea how well the other candidates had done. I didn’t know what the committee was thinking, they were very good at keeping poker face.
So did I expect it? Well, I had applied, so obviously I was hoping that it would happen. But honestly, I was shocked. They called me, and I was on a train. It was before I was expecting to get any phone calls about it. I screamed and the whole cabin hit me, I had to run to the bathroom, and I sat there for 30 minutes. Then I realized that there was a bar train next door. I went there and just sat there by myself, looking out, crying, with this little bottle of white wine. When I arrived, I couldn't say anything to anyone, I was just sitting on this egg, in disbelief.
Today I'm so excited for this, even for the responsibilities and the decisions. There are things that you hope that the industry does or you're waiting for the industry to do. And now it's possible, we can make these decisions.
Do you already have a plan or a vision?
First I really want to be meeting with everyone, the department and all the people, seeing what everyone is hoping for or thinking about. Then I’ll try to make a global picture of what needs to happen and what would once happen. Like I said, I want to focus on creativity and also on giving people the tools to be creative beyond school. Sometimes it's a shame when it becomes a bubble and when you leave the bubble, you have to change again. So rather than focusing on creativity and the other tools, you can try to build up everything together. Business is about molding your creativity or molding the business to your creativity. And bringing students to meet other professionals and other cool things, the world beyond the academy can be a bit wider, bringing in more outside perspective. I think that's what I want to try to do. There're new positions to fill, for workshops and things like that, bringing in people from outside of Europe. If I can start this, I'd be so happy. The focus for me is the creativity and the internationalization perspective.
Did Walter give you any last advice or warning?
He was very sweet. I'm so grateful for his blessing. He said when I have questions, I could come to him. He said it will be a tough job, but I know that you have the energy for it and you will be able to manage. I feel so supported.
Is there anything you would like to say to young fashion entrepreneurs or students?
We can bring back a nice energy of creativity and authenticity. I love fashion but I want to bring back a little bit more fantasy. I hope that people trying to get into the school and into the industry come with dreams and not just a desire to work.