Hugo Creative Director Bart de Backer talks fashion déjà vu, overpriced streetwear and working with twenty-somethings
Past and present
Ah, the '90s: a time that Charli XCX and Troye Sivan barely remember, but wrote a nostalgic hit tune about. Fashion's been trawling the era of Friends, Titanic and Nirvana for a fair while now, but there are some for whom glory of the years between 1990 and 1999 will never fade. Bart de Backer is one such devotee. For the Belgian Creative Director of Hugo — Hugo Boss's more youthful, casual line — those years were formative periods in his personal life and career, and traces of them surface regularly in his collections. While he was in town to visit Hugo's revamped Ion Orchard boutique, we quizzed the designer about his favourite cultural phenomena, starting out in the fashion world of the noughties, and how differently his assistant designers recall his favourite decade.
Do you have any memories of the first time you felt strongly about clothing?
It's not exactly fashion... But my grandparents sold furnishing textiles and as a kid, I always played in the sewing room of the shop while my grandmother made curtains. That's how the seed of fashion design was planted in my head, through toying with fabric and making stuff. It was a very natural growth. I started thinking about fashion design as a career when I was 12, and as I grew up, that goal became more and more defined.
And how has your perspective on the industry changed over the years, from the early days of your career to now?
When I started out, fashion was very romantic, and designing was about making beautiful things. However, I'd always wanted to create affordable fashion; I liked couture, but I didn't like that it was unattainable for most people. Of course Hugo is not a mass market brand, but we're not extremely expensive either. I'm interested in offering style for a reasonable price.
If you compare fashion in the '90s — when I was a student — to how it is these days, it's much more businesslike. Making a collection has become a lot about business models and target markets but on the other hand, the younger generation is increasingly unresponsive to that corporate way of communicating. They want authenticity. When I design a collection, it's not about how I want to dress people, it's more about the platform or the pieces I can give them to express themselves.
The Berlin club scene of the 90s is a major source of inspiration in your work. What about it is so appealing to you?
What I like about that scene is the very subcultural way that they created their own style. Graphically, there were amazing flyers and invitations, and fashion-wise, there was the oversized clothing, baggy trousers, combining formalwear with leisurewear (like dressy trousers with chunky sneakers) and mixing different fabrics and surface textures.
What's most important to your design process?
I always start by pitching an idea to my team. It's full of people from different generations, all of whom have different points of view. With our Berlin-inspired collection, for instance, we really mined the archives; when it was time to process the research, the younger members of the team — the twenty-somethings — came up with pieces that I would have never expected. At a remove, the younger generation tend to have a very romanticised perception of the decade. What I found fascinating was the way they interpreted 'oversized'.
How large is your design team at Hugo?
I have a core design team of seven, as well as two graphic designers. And then, of course, there are the research and fabric teams.
Is it difficult to keep on top of what all these different teams are doing? Or to design so many collections a year?
Yes and no. It's a lot of work, but the thing I like most about fashion is constantly starting from scratch. Having new ideas to work on is always exciting. On one hand, you have your classic four seasons, and on the other, you have your capsule collections. With the latter you can be more focused; the main collections tend to be so big, with so many business needs to cover, that it's difficult to maintain that aesthetic focus. I'm really into the capsules because they're less concerned with seasonality than with a single core idea, that you get to dig deeper into.
Is it challenging to find a different angle for every capsule?
It depends. I like seeing the capsules as an opportunity to collaborate. We recently worked with some Belgian graphic designers who were very deep into the skater scene. There was a specificity and depth to their stuff that could have only come from direct experience, which again, would have been very hard to maintain across a main collection.
Speaking of skate culture, what do you think about fashion's appropriation of streetwear and countercultural fashion? Do you think it changes of it in any way, or is it a sort of value-add?
I like that the street is influencing what high fashion looks like now. It's a complete reversal of the past, where high fashion was almost dictatorial. It's an interesting shift because it pushes fashion in a more democratic direction. But I've also never seen so many overpriced articles. I struggle with seeing simple cotton T-shirts being sold for four to five hundred dollars.
Apart from paying more attention to the street, what else does fashion need to do to remain relevant?
Overconsumption is the main challenge right now. The system is fueled by a new look every season, which means companies have to keep generating product. It's not sustainable, and for Hugo's part, we focus on quality and adaptability so our pieces can be worn for longer. Our collections have to work with what people already have in their closets.
On a personal note, do you have a most-used or longest-lived item in your wardrobe?
No specific item, but I've started re-wearing a lot of my early 2000s designer stuff, especially from Anne Demeulemeester. Everything becomes relevant again, and while my wardrobe is constantly evolving, I have difficulty throwing things away.
I suppose knowing how clothes are made, as you do, makes them a lot less disposable.
That's the thing, especially when it comes to clothes I've designed myself, that have an entire history and thinking process behind them, and which I like to revisit.
As a creative director, I assume that hands-on design practice is not as much a feature for your day-to-day work as it once was. How do you stay connected to that physical process of making?
I try to be quite involved. I'm a little less so now, of course, but I try to attend as many fittings as possible. Every season, I spend a week working remotely, and design or re-work the team's research. It's a chance for me to reflect on how a collection relates to the season before it, and how it will set up the next one, which I need.
Is there any part of the creative director experience that has really surprised you so far?
I've probably been most surprised by how much of the job is business and people-management. Managing a design team, you have to build rapport; it's less about 'leading', and more it's about guiding and coaching.
Can you share any leadership lessons that being a creative director has taught you?
Two is better than one. It's very important to find people to exchange ideas with, and to challenge each other; different points of view make for interesting discussions. Working with everyone on the Hugo team has made me grow.
What museum should everyone visit before they die?
I only go to temporary exhibitions...
Alright then. Which exhibition made the biggest impact on you?
There was a Bill Viola exhibition in 1998 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. I find his art interesting because he experiments with the idea of time in his videos; besides that, they're also super-pleasing visually.
What song should everyone listen to before they die?
1999 by Prince.
What book should everyone read before they die?
Mapplethorpe, the biography of Robert Mapplethorpe by Patricia Morrisroe. People like Mapplethorpe, Basquiat and Bowie intrigue me because they never connected to the zeitgeist; they just blazed their own trails.
What's one film that everyone should see before they die?
Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book. It's a challenging watch, because it's visually-led and the dialogue is minimal.
Are you very active online?
Generally, yes, although I've pulled back from Instagram, because everything is so available. It's got me searching for second-hand or old books in my spare time, just to find something a little more challenging.
Is there any tweet, video or meme that deserves a place in the history books?
I don't think so, because I don't remember anything.