‘80% of our students go on to work in brands’ studios.’

At La Cambre Mode[s] fashion school in Brussels, it’s about the Stockman and sewing machine, not the iPad or 3D printer.

Text and interviews by Marta Represa
Photographs by Jorre Janssens

Future systems. La Cambre Mode[s] - © System Magazine

It’s easy to walk past La Cambre Mode[s] fashion school without really noticing it. The austere 1970s concrete building in Brussels’s Ixelles district, with its inconspicuous entrance and bare interiors, gives little away. Yet, its teaching methods, alumni and faculty have helped define fashion – especially in Paris – for over three decades. Part of the École nationale supérieure des arts visuels de La Cambre – established by Belgian painter Henry van de Velde in 1926 – the school has generated some of the most in-demand designer talent in the industry since it was launched in 1986. Along the way, it has become a formidable competitor to many of the world’s longer-established fashion schools, thanks to a pragmatic, no-nonsense ethos that focuses on the technical aspects of design and creation.

On the fifth to twelfth floors of the building on Avenue Louise – accessible in a cranky elevator – are a series of luminous spaces, filled with small groups of busy students, from first-year undergraduates to second-year master’s candidates, gathered around cutting tables and Stockman tailor’s dummies, draping fabric, cutting patterns, sewing and hand-embroidering, or pinning reference images on the white walls. With time, some will be recruited by the biggest fashion design studios in Paris and Milan. Some may indeed follow in the footsteps of La Cambre graduates such as Anthony Vaccarello, Matthieu Blazy, Olivier Theyskens,
Julien Dossena, Marine Serre, and Nicolas Di Felice.

System spoke to Tony Delcampe, himself an alumnus and head of fashion at La Cambre since 1999, about his vision for the school and why it produces so many promising designers. We then invited some of the current crop of undergraduates to present their work and answer our ‘Future Systems’ questionnaire. Finally, to complete the circle, they submitted questions to the alumni designer stars to answer – all in the quest to find out ‘What makes La Cambre Mode[s] so unique?’

Tony Delcampe. - © System Magazine

Tony Delcampe.

Guiding La Cambre Mode[s] is Tony Delcampe, the head of fashion since 1999. His office seems to reflect the school’s ethos: a no-frills space filled with useful fashion books and heaps of magazines covering shelves, tables and chairs. (‘We just had a flood,’ he explains, ‘I had to rescue all the mags.’) Teachers regularly pop in and out for coffee as we talk. Relaxed and direct, dressed in black and an army jacket, Tony perfectly embodies the school’s mindset. ‘Quite simply,’ he says, ‘we are here to teach students to make clothes and to think fashion, and then to use that to add something of value to contemporary culture.’

Marta Represa: You and La Cambre have a long history. What’s your story with the school, and what did you do before taking over as head of fashion?

Tony Delcampe: I was a student here myself. I began in 1989, three years after the fashion department was founded. I already had a BA in textile design from the Académie de Beaux-Arts in Tournai. I completed my MA in 1994 and immediately set up a brand with my friend Sandrine Rombaux, who now also teaches here. The front and back of our clothes were completely different, kind of like two separate pieces, and hidden in between the layers of fabric was our label, which bore a sort of Dadaist conversation: ‘Sandrine: “Comment tu la trouves?”, Tony: “Quoi?”, Sandrine: “Au milieu dos”’. [Sandrine: ‘How do you find it?’, Tony: ‘What?’, Sandrine: ‘In the middle of the back.’] It was all extremely Belgian, even if we showed in Paris and were sold at Barneys. I was also doing consulting work and in 1998, began teaching second-year students at La Cambre part-time. Eighteen months later, Franc’ Pairon, who was then head of fashion, suggested I take over, as she was moving on to Paris’s IFM. I did have a lot of doubts, but eventually I admitted the truth to myself: I enjoyed passing on knowledge more than participating in the fashion industry. I decided to go full time here in the year 2000; it’s been 22 years since, and I haven’t changed my mind, especially in the current fashion climate.

Tell me about the philosophy of the fashion programme. What makes La Cambre different from other schools?

Above all, we are pragmatic. We’re looking to make intelligent fashion, not to fantasize, sketch or create mood boards. Straightaway in their first year, our students learn to work three-dimensionally; they actually draw very little. Our exercises usually go from the Stockman dummy to the cutting table, and then back again to the dummy. The last thing I want is for my students to dream up grandiose projects that are impossible to achieve and so ultimately useless. I mean, dreaming is important, of course, but at the end of the day we’re making clothes, and clothes should be a reflection of the world we’re living in. They should be thoughtful, as opposed to merely pretty or impressive, especially today. The more the focus is on pretty models, monumental sets and hype, the less important clothes become. We need to keep rethinking fashion, and that’s our main goal in the school.

‘We are pragmatic at La Cambre. We’re looking to make intelligent fashion three-dimensionally, not to fantasize, sketch or create mood boards.’

Tony Delcampe

What is the profile of an average student? How do you go about selecting them for the programme?

We are immensely lucky to be a publicly funded school, so our students only have to pay, at most and if they’re not on a scholarship, around €300 a year. That gives us total freedom when it comes to the selection process, which lasts about a week in early September. For the first 20-minute interview, we ask potential students to bring 10 images they like, including a contemporary artist, an artwork, a muse, and a place. The goal is to get an idea of the creative universe they inhabit, its common thread, their knowledge about it, and their interest in fashion. Then, they are asked to draw ten looks inspired by those images, to see the ways in which they can translate a concept into a garment. It’s a tough process. This year, for instance, we had 180 applications for the BA programme, and retained only 14 people. This means there are never more than 50 or 60 students in the whole fashion department and allows the faculty to work with them on an almost one-on-one basis, especially on the MA programme. As for the students’ profiles, there isn’t really a single one. They come from different backgrounds, have different interests and cultural references, which again results from us being a public school. They all have talent in common, though, as well as the desire to learn the techniques that will allow them to become exceptional creatives. I mean, you can’t come up with a new way to deconstruct a shirt if you don’t know by heart how a shirt is constructed, can you?

What are their professional ambitions? Do they match yours?

I feel like ambition in fashion has become a bigger word the more visible and ‘cool’ the industry has become in the cultural landscape. When I entered the school, I knew textile design. I collected issues of i-D and The Face; I looked up to Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela who, mind you, were fresh out of school themselves. Nowadays, applicants come to us saying they want to become the next Kim Kardashian or Kanye West, and that’s on social media. We tend to go for the people who might have less lofty goals, but do have an impressive knowledge of fashion. I can’t really think of any individual ambitions my students might have – except maybe one of our second-years, who taught himself to drape, cut and sew because he worships Rick Owens – but I think, as a general rule, neither do they. They’re here to find that out, while simultaneously figuring out their style and their creative affinities. I certainly don’t get the impression they are all dead set on becoming the next Anthony Vaccarello.

‘Applicants come to us saying they want to become the next Kim Kardashian or Kanye West. We tend to go for the people who have less lofty goals.’

Tony Delcampe

Which jobs do most students go on to get? What percentage of them become designers versus other industry or industry-adjacent professions?

Our priority is to form designers, that’s for sure. We want to forge creatives, the kind of people who can find new things to say through clothes or new ways of crafting them. That is our main goal. All the mental gymnastics we teach our students to do around fashion and fashion imagery are geared towards acquiring the kind of skills needed in order to become a creative director. Take, for instance, someone like Marine Serre; what she is doing today is just a natural evolution of what she was doing as an MA student. We encourage that through group exercises or making students work for each other, which they really appreciate. Plus, they all have four internships, lasting three and six months, and, ultimately, a full year, in some of the most prominent maisons and brands in the industry. Ultimately, I’d say around 10% of our students go on to become creative directors, while the rest find jobs in studios, doing different, specialized work like, say, tailoring or flou at Louis Vuitton. They often find those jobs straight after their graduation show, for which 50% of the jury comes from industry positions. Then, of course, there are those who choose to establish their own brand, like Marine Serre or Ester Manas. And, while we love it and support them on their journey, we stay realistic and clear-headed about it. Starting your own brand requires a special kind of courage when the competition is way bigger than you, or awash with cash and connections. Making it takes so much more than talent; it’s about the right contacts, the right timing, the right PR, and never forget, people have to make a living. I absolutely get it. Of course, there are the occasional – although not so rare – cases in which MA graduates go on to become musicians or yoga teachers or, like one recent graduate, a sustainability consultant.

Do you have a traditional approach to fashion in terms of skills? What place should technology have in the school?

I’m certainly not a Luddite, but education is not the same as working in a company, especially not in a public school. We struggle with funding, I mean, look at our computers; they’re practically historical artefacts! For a while our heating system broke down and we were teaching in temperatures of five or six degrees for months on end, so we’re definitely not thinking about getting 3D printers or iPads any time soon. I must say I’m a bit suspicious of schools that lure students in with fancy equipment. After all, we’re here to teach the ABC of fashion design; what else do you need for that besides a Stockman dummy, an industrial sewing machine, and a cutting table? Technological innovations and advancements are without a doubt great in a work context, but they must be driven by creativity. Also, technology in the fashion industry is usually handled by specialists. So I don’t worry too much about it. It’s a bit like sustainability: we can do the basics here with recycling and buying fabric scraps, but sustainability on an industrial level is a whole different ball game.

Apart from the design and technical courses, what is the conceptual approach to fashion in the programme?

We are part of the École nationale des arts visuels de La Cambre and our programme is undeniably defined by the fact that it’s a multidisciplinary school. We are a reflection of that, since our students take several core courses in other programmes. All our design and technical classes are concentrated in the first three days of the week. Then, on Thursdays and Fridays, students learn life drawing, painting and perspective, and of course, theoretical subjects, including art history, philosophy, music history, literature, and semantics. The faculty for those courses comes from different universities in Brussels, which makes for a really complete curriculum. That conceptual approach is essential, in my opinion, to develop the mind-to-hand connection that allows them to express their thoughts creatively.

Do you focus on equipping the students with a broader understanding of the fashion industry, especially its business side? Or would you rather keep the programme purely creative?

We don’t teach them anything about the fashion industry’s business side – they will learn about that after graduating or during their internships. Student life, in general, has nothing to do with the realities of the fashion industry. Take their seasonal schedules, for instance: here, they get to spend a whole year on one collection, which is a complete fiction in the working world. So as we are in a fictional world in terms of collection schedules, why not be for everything else as well? We don’t discuss marketing, money, targeting, and collection plans; I know others do, but I have always feared that would somewhat limit our students’ creativity. Plus, it’s hardly going to be their job as fashion designers. Do you know of any great fashion designer throughout history who was also a financial genius?

Not that they’ll be required to do their own bookkeeping, but are they aware that the realities of the industry are completely different to school?

At least when it comes to the big houses’ studios, I actually don’t think those realities are that different. With their mammoth teams and budgets, what is the reality of these maisons anyway? Obviously, it’s different for those who go on to establish their own brand, but you have to keep in mind that around 80% of La Cambre’s students go on to work in brands’ studios, so what we concentrate on are the skills to make them particularly competitive in that environment – and that takes an enormous amount of time and effort. I’m talking classes from 9am to 6pm, plus all the work they do outside of school. There is a time limit on what we can teach, so we prioritize what makes the school successful within the industry.

Do you feel like fashion’s current over-reliance on social media is affecting the way students design?

Luckily, we very rarely have to remind students fashion’s ultimate goal is not virality. I think that’s because we focus on 3D design from the start. If you are used to working on a Stockman, hopefully you’ve understood that clothes are meant to be looked at from all angles, not just the front. It’s clear social media is having an impact on students nowadays; it’s inevitable. Social media can be fun and great, but the sort of channel-hopping behaviour that often comes with it can be detrimental. It means young people are being overfed images, shows, and editorials that are completely detached from any context or reference points. That simply leads to the death of fashion culture, so sometimes we do have to push them to research dates, historical and social contexts and styles attached to what they see online.

Do you keep in touch with the school’s alumni?

Yes! It is really important to me to stay informed about our alumni’s journeys, and I’m lucky to stay in touch with a lot of them regularly, from junior designers at Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton to the ones who have gone on to become creative directors. Many of them have come back to the school as part of the end-of-year show jury in the past few years, from Marine Serre and Cédric Charlier – who has gone on to become Uniqlo’s head of design – to Julien Dossena and Anthony Vaccarello. It’s funny when I think back to how I didn’t initially accept Anthony as a student here and recommended he study textile design and then reapply. We did select him on his second attempt, and now look at what he has achieved. The last time he came over, he travelled by jet. So many different styles, realities and professional pathways, but all united by their talent and what they bring to today’s fashion conversation.

Dylan Guillard, 28

Future systems. La Cambre Mode[s] - © System Magazine

‘Nothing should be taboo, and if my collection allows people to talk about sex swings or pillories as a possibility, then I’m happy. Make love, not war.’

Dylan Guillard

Tell us about your collection.

This collection started with research into the subject of baskets. They often come with leather straps, which led me into the world of fetishism. I then had fun mixing the codes of the ‘modern man’ with well-finished objects, going into object fetishism à la Patrick Bateman [in 1991 novel American Psycho] and sexual practices. Fashion was much hornier in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with Gaultier, Mugler, Tom Ford or McQueen. My ambition is about understanding how to communicate desires before sexualizing a body. Nothing should be taboo, and if my collection allows people to talk about sex swings or pillories as a possibility, then I’m happy. Make love, not war.

What’s the best thing about La Cambre Mode[s]?

The best thing is the teaching that pushes us away from the garment, so then we can come back to it with a completely new vision. This enables us to find principles and concepts that we wouldn’t have thought of in the first place. It frees us from all the issues of marketing.

Which person in fashion do you most admire, and why?

It’s very difficult to answer that with just one name, impossible even. First off, I’d say Jean Paul Gaultier for being the man he is. He’s always done what he wanted to do and I admire him for that. Our generation only knows a tiny part of his work because of the lack of archives, but it seems celebratory, without any commercial worries. Then I would say Martin Margiela who is the king of concept, and McQueen for his attention to detail and his references. And now Demna for all the issues he deals with.

What can younger designers express through fashion that designers from an older generation cannot?

Designers from older generations weren’t as scared as we are thinking about what the future might look like. None of my friends want to have children because they’re scared of bringing them into an unstable world, which could collapse at any moment. Designers of my generation have grown up watching anxiety-provoking but real news. Our sense of ethical responsibility is ingrained. It’s up to us to break the cycle and to share an awareness that should be generalized.

Finally, where do you see yourself professionally in five years’ time?

Five years goes by very quickly. I hope to join a house that shares my convictions, where my creativity isn’t restricted, and where I can climb the ladder – because I like being challenged. And above all, I hope to have as much fun as I do now.

Florent Seligmann, 26

Future systems. La Cambre Mode[s] - © System Magazine

‘The collection is based around the kind of stereotypical male uniforms we all grow up with – sailor, biker, cowboy, suited businessman – while reinterpreting them as female figures.’

Florent Seligmann

Tell us about your collection.

The collection is entitled Handle With Care, and is based around the kind of stereotypical male uniforms we all grow up with – sailor, biker, cowboy, suited businessman – while reinterpreting them as female figures. It’s an X-ray of archetypal looks in which clothing is reduced to its essential codes. It is a play on the proportions of the classics we all know. It’s like an exaggeration of a parody.

What’s the best thing about La Cambre Mode[s]?

The five-year process. Each year is an important part of the construction that allows you to understand what a personal collection is.

Which person in fashion do you most admire, and why?

Rei Kawakubo. I don’t know how she does it but she impresses me every time with her volumes and shapes. It is anti-fashion in a sense, very punk energy.

What can younger designers express through fashion that those from an older generation cannot?

Hopefully the younger generation will make some impact with the slow-fashion process. The way people consume fashion has completely changed over the past 20 years. Everything is so quick now that as soon as your collection is out, it’s instantly digested by social media.

Finally, where do you see yourself professionally in five years’ time?

I hope I will be able to work with an amazing team of creatives who challenge me to always try new things. Wherever that will be.

Pauline Haumont, 27 

Future systems. La Cambre Mode[s] - © System Magazine

‘The school is free and doesn’t have a big budget, so we are always having to find collaborative or craft solutions to push our projects further, to the same level as students who have every possible kind of machine around.’

Pauline Haumont

Tell us about your collection.

It was less a collection and more a series of 10 objects, 10 looks. The concept is around love and the relationships that it has to symbols such as flowers. Flowers are the best love language, and their different states can be different emblems of love. My parents went through a divorce – one more – which still affects me personally, as well as affecting my general idea of love and marriage. The objects are about the materiality of love and how people use objects to prove it to themselves and others.

What’s the best thing about La Cambre Mode[s]?

The proximity to the teachers; we have a one-on-one lesson about our ideas every week. We do collective work with our classmates and sometimes other classes, which means we get objective advice. The school is free and doesn’t have a big budget, so we are always having to find collaborative or craft solutions to push our projects further, to the same level as students who have every possible kind of machine around.

Which person in fashion do you most admire, and why?

It’s hard to limit it to just one person, but I would say Martin 
Margiela for his conscious and his overarching vision of the garment as an object of study. He is still so contemporary – both aesthetically and conceptually – even if a lot of what he did is now 30 years old.

What can younger designers express through fashion that those from an older generation cannot?

I appreciate how the older generation has built classics and suitable resources for us. As young designers, we deconstruct and reconstruct endlessly. We’ve now taken the power from the older generation to continue to use fashion to communicate about and question human progress, rights, feelings, insecurities and pride. We just communicate it differently and faster; everything is so accessible for everyone now or at least people are made to think that it is. We have to take advantage of that as a source of communicative power to push our ideas further. Moreover, we have more ethical responsibility than past generations.

Finally, where do you see yourself professionally in five years’ time?

I can see myself in a team still developing creative garments and meeting people I can learn with and from. I can’t wait to have access to the technological and financial resources that come with a fashion house. That, plus further learning and expanding my vision in different media, while travelling to discover as much as I can from others and different practices.

Raquel Van Oost, 23

Future systems. La Cambre Mode[s] - © System Magazine

‘I don’t think there’s any form of expression that age would inhibit.’

Raquel Van Oost

Tell us about your collection.

A video called The Office Shaman, made by John Feodorov in 2000, was my starting point. In it, the office becomes the natural environment for the shaman. To build this collection, I put together a creative protocol for myself, which began with office supplies in several aspects – object, utility, materials. Each look was a response to the one that preceded it.

What’s the best thing about La Cambre Mode[s]?

Throughout the course, we’re taught different ways of developing our designs both formally and conceptually. We are given the opportunity to build ourselves artistically. In parallel to this creative aspect, there’s the technical education that helps us to understand how garments function and their logic, and how to make our own designs.

Which person in fashion do you most admire, and why?

This is a tricky question because there are direct inspirations like Loewe, Vivienne Westwood, Y/Project, but then there are also the people I admire for their career paths, their ways of building themselves and approaching the world around them.

What can younger designers express through fashion that those from an older generation cannot?

I don’t think there’s any form of expression that age would inhibit. On the other hand, we’re a generation that grew up with the Internet and that makes us a very politicized and committed generation with resources that are perhaps more accessible.

Finally, where do you see yourself professionally in five years’ time?

I trust my tarot to tell me.

Romain Bichot, 24

Future systems. La Cambre Mode[s] - © System Magazine

‘I have always been drawn to the sense of drama that garments can carry. Approaching clothing as a story, not as a product, but a social disguise, a second skin.’

Romain Bichot

Tell us about your collection.

Last year’s collection, Call Me If You Get Lost, was a nightly stroll through the city that both translated an innate sense of fear and invited you to break free of it. It was like a victim thrown into the city, who then melted into the pavements and became fixtures in the streets as a defence mechanism. Each look embodies a figure of fear, so as to escape it. I would define my work as dramatic, both in my way of working and my frame of references. It’s highly visual, looking for fundamental forms, often with film stills as a point of departure. I start with an image and circle around it, immerse myself into its atmosphere, in order to dissociate and then retranscribe it. My work embodies this theatrical notion, and I work a lot by imagining stories, characters or environments. I have always been drawn to the sense of drama that garments can carry. Approaching clothing as a story, not as a product, a social disguise, a second skin.

What’s the best thing about La Cambre Mode[s]?

The environment – you are always pushed to exceed your limits. La Cambre is a small school, and unlike elsewhere, we have no state-of-the-art technology or substantial infrastructure supporting us. But that’s where the course’s strength lies. We are stimulated in our thinking to go beyond our means. La Cambre has nourished my sense of independence and identity by balancing strong guidance with being left to my own devices.

Which person in fashion do you most admire, and why?

Many, so it’s hard to pick one. I think those I admire most are not necessarily from the world of fashion itself. My thoughts go more towards iconic characters, movies, images and attitudes – from extravagant, Botoxed royalty to ordinary people I cross in the streets.

What can younger designers express through fashion that those from an older generation cannot?

Garbage is the new chic. Fewer Karl Lagerfelds, more Harrie Bradshaws! Creative expression is not defined by generations, but by a willingness to open your eyes. It is not up to me to lecture older generations; I think we can all learn from one another.

Finally, where do you see yourself professionally in five years’ time?

On a $130-million yacht, sailing off into the sunset, scribbling out the essence of my next pre-season collection on an alligator-skin couch, a coupe of Champagne between each of my toes. More seriously, the notion of time and the artisanal are important to my process. I attach great importance to the tiniest details, which is also the strength of my work. Later on, I intend to keep this same level of involvement in the creation of a garment, which, I hope, might lead me to couture.

Taken from System No. 20.