Paris - Ludovic de Saint Sernin's debut with Ann Demeulemeester last weekend in Paris was eagerly awaited. It turned out to be a straightforward tribute, which was perhaps just a little too simple.
In recent weeks and months, names have once again been shuffled around fashion's organisational charts. Contracts between labels and designers are getting shorter and shorter, three years on average, while in the past is was sometimes 10 years. If there is no spark between brand and designer, it soon sounds like "next!". In London, Daniel Lee took over the torch at Burberry a fortnight ago, and in Paris, Harris Reed and Ibrahim Kamara presented their first collections for Nina Ricci and Off-White respectively last week.
And then there was Ann Demeulemeester, where new artistic director Ludovic de Saint Sernin debuted on the catwalk on Saturday night.
The Belgian label has been around since 1985 and was founded by Demeulemeester and her husband and right-hand man, Patrick Robyn. The couple have not been involved in the company since 2013. It was then sold to businesswoman Anne Chapelle. The French designer Sébastien Meunier, who had been designing the men's collections for several years, became creative director.
In 2021, the label changed hands again. It was acquired by Italian businessman Claudio Antonioli, who owns boutiques in Milan (where he has sold Ann Demeulemeester since 1987), Turin, Lugano and Ibiza, as well as Volt, a club in Milan. Antonioli was also co-founder of New Guards Group (NGG), the group behind trendy labels such as Off/White, Palm Angels and Ambush. NGG was sold to e-commerce giant Farfetch a few years ago; but Antonioli himself is no longer involved with the group.
"I don't want the brand to totally change," Antonioli told FashionUnited following his relaunch of Ann Demeulemeester last year. "There is no rush. But I do want to prepare us for the future. Fashion is not meant for sixty-somethings. Fashion speaks to people in their twenties and thirties, and we want to reach them. With respect for Ann Demeulemeester's DNA."
By then, Sébastien Meunier had waved goodbye. The label, studio included, moved from Antwerp to Milan. Antonioli brought Demeulemeester and Robyn back on board. Demeulemeester provided behind-the-scenes advice; Robyn's responsibilities included redesigning the flagship store in Antwerp.
The pair also sat front row at the brand's first catwalk show under Antonioli's reign. That show, and the next, both during Paris Fashion Week, were designed by an in-house team. The collections were in keeping with the designer's heritage, with many reinterpretations of archival pieces. They were positively received, but had relatively little impact, despite Cher's front row appearance last season.
This was not really surprising. In Paris, during fashion week, it is increasingly difficult for an independent fashion house to stand out among the mega spectacles of the luxury houses and younger labels that use social media more effectively, such as Jacquemus or Coperni, which scored gigantically last season by spray painting a dress onto Bella Hadid on the catwalk.
Ludovic de Saint Sernin makes debut at Ann Demeulemeester
Late last year, Ann Demeulemeester somewhat unexpectedly then announced a new artistic designer: Brussels-born but French-raised Ludovic de Saint Sernin.
The designer, who started his own label in 2017, and sometimes joins shows as a model, specialises in (literally) sneakers with lots of glitter, often genderfluid. There was, at first glance, nothing binding De Saint Sernin and Demeulemeester, except perhaps the Parisian's Venetian blonde locks.
But De Saint Sernin does have an extensive fan base, especially young fans, and a powerful network. He is digitally skilled. One of his first steps was to replace Michèle Montagne, the legendary Parisian press attaché who had accompanied Demeulemeester since the 1990s and who also helped style the shows for many years, with the agency of Lucien Pagès, responsible for Coperni's stunts, among other things.
De Saint Sernin started his job with the brand with a series of six photos in which he himself wears archival pieces from Demeulemeester. Then came the show, Saturday night, at the Lycée Carnot, a high school where shows are often organised — Acne Studios also landed there earlier this week.
The debut, like those selfies, was remarkably indebted to the archives: black leather suits and white shirts for the boys, long silk skirts for the girls; sturdy walking boots; wisps; plumes — in the first and last look, a leather feather served as a kind of bandeau, and several models, remarkably all women, crossed their arms in front of their naked breasts in the manner of a dove.
"That was my way of saying that after this first step, I'm going to spread my wings and express myself," the designer said backstage afterwards.
He called the collection a tribute to Demeulemeester, based on the 2014 book with photos looks from all the designer's shows, from her debut to her last own collection in 2013, printed on wafer-thin bible paper. In it, he preferred the period between roughly 1997 and 2000 because he recognised himself the most in it. He would also have met her, and was advised to do his best and work hard.
Work harder, perhaps. All in all, this was a collection that weighed rather lightly, figuratively, but also literally - with the exception of pieces in leather, there were hardly any jackets or coats to be seen. Demeulemeester was known for her atmospheric, poetic shows, but De Saint Sernin at no point managed to create, or even recreate, a similar atmosphere. The magic was missing. Moreover, the difference with his predecessor Sébastien Meunier's collections was rather small. A simple tribute to Ann Demeulemeester may not be enough to get the kids into the story. For older fans of the brand, De Saint Sernin's collection is a poor carbon copy of 'the real thing', Demeulemeester 'light'. And younger consumers impatiently await the French designer's own vision. What does Ann Demeulemeester mean now, in the twenty-first century? Perhaps next season the designer will find an answer to that question.
This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.