It’s a world in which everything is black or white. Largely. It certainly is in the model‑fitting studio at Dior Homme’s new Paris HQ on Rue de Marignan – a classic Haussmann building overhauled last year by Antonio Virga Architecte to chime with the label’s signature style. When creative director Kris Van Assche enters and sits down in front of me at a sleek black desk, he provides the only artwork to a room that is positively monastic: on each forearm he bears a tattoo of a flower – a tulip on the right, an orchid on the left. Both are, of course, black and white. “The spring collection was a continuation of last winter’s story,” he tells me. “That was about a young guy taking a girl to the opera, and wearing black tie for the evening. This explores it further – the story takes place on a summer’s day, with sunshine, freshness and flowers.”
The collection, staged in the colossal Tennis Club de Paris, with a catwalk that crisscrossed immense blooming flowerbeds, is not only big on floral motifs, but has an abundance of camouflage and a surprising amount of colour. The Dior Homme brand, it seems, is changing, and not just by opening up its colour palette. Last year, former Céline chief executive and Dior Homme COO Serge Brunschwig was promoted to the role of president, and five new standalone stores opened: in Düsseldorf, Bangkok, Macau, Vancouver and Seoul. In addition, a giant new Peter Marino-designed Dior store, one of the largest in the world, will open in May in London on New Bond Street. This will bring together all elements of Dior for the first time in the UK, with a separate floor for the Dior Homme collection. “Dior is a big house, and the rooms are all very different,” says Sidney Toledano, CEO of Christian Dior Couture. “The only thing consistent is the quality. But we are a fashion house as well as a luxury house and while we need the suits, shirts and jeans, we also need new flowers in the garden several times a year. Kris knows how to do that. The last show had that newness, but kept the quality of a couturier for men.”
“Couture-like touches and sensibilities at Dior Homme always reference the house of Dior,” adds Bosse Myhr, the director of menswear at Selfridges. “The beautiful floral embroidery on sportswear and tailored shapes this season are typical – the smartened-up bomber jacket [£2,050], the argyle printed short-sleeved knitted top [£730] and traditional blazer with pocket detail [£1,550]. Dior Homme goes from strength to strength as a go-to label for precision tailoring, presented in a subversive way. Cult items – like the trainers [£720] Van Assche teamed with suits on the runway – are becoming just as important to our consumer.”
The Dior Homme aesthetic, as reinterpreted by Belgian-born Van Assche – who has been at the label since former creative director Hedi Slimane joined in 2001, and who took over the creative helm in 2007 – is on the one hand art house and niche, but it can also be rock ’n’ roll. Not since Le Smoking has the simple black suit enjoyed such power. Its narrow cut and louche overtones continue to make it what Toledano calls “Dior Homme’s number one item – a unique proposition, with a different silhouette”, adding that, what started out as something popular solely with “artists and musicians became adopted by the more mature and classic clients”. Crucially, the Dior Homme suit crosses boundaries: “It has the unique quality of the atelier,” he says, “but you can wear it with a T-shirt too.”
The tuxedo is something that Van Assche continues to experiment with. For all his love of sportswear tropes, and his flair for using luxury fabrics (including leather) for trackpants and sporty jackets, it is the gentleman’s formal eveningwear that underpins Dior Homme. “It goes with the house,” says Van Assche. “It is what Dior was initially about – good, strong tailoring. We are the men’s division at a couture house, so eveningwear is important.”
Looking at the spring tuxedos (from £2,200) upstairs at the Dior Homme store at 24 Rue François, it strikes me just how unique they are. That cut – which has me and other fashion writers searching for alternatives to the trite description “razor sharp” – couldn’t have come from many other sources. But how does Van Assche take something so classic and make it so modern? “That’s the $1m question,” he replies. “It’s where the story behind the collection becomes important – because maybe it’s about a young guy taking a girl to the theatre, but it’s not Swan Lake they’re seeing, it’s contemporary dance. And he wears his tuxedo, but with sneakers, and he might take her there on his motorbike.” All these elements are reflected in the modernity of the Dior Homme cut, and what he adds to it. “Look at the choice of a flower-mural lapel pin,” he says. “It’s romantic and historic, but a little bit punk.” There are also anarchic details to the tailoring – this summer there are two-button wool jackets with multiple zip pockets (£1,900), as well as trousers in the same vein (£770).
“For our customers, Dior Homme continues to be synonymous with tailoring,” says Jason Broderick, fashion director of menswear at Harrods. “The range as a whole has meticulously chosen fabrics, exceptional craftsmanship and attention to detail, and is so popular that we recently introduced a made-to-order service [from £3,000] featuring luxury outerwear pieces from Dior’s collection. We also have plans to expand the Dior Homme space later this year.”
Van Assche has now been creative director for longer than his predecessor and has a strength of vision that deserves respect. His style has, perhaps, more in common with fellow Belgian Raf Simons than Slimane: you can see it in the short pre-spring-collection film where well-groomed, buttoned-up, collegiate young men wander through a milieu of academia, libraries and lecture theatres. Dressed in white cotton poplin button-down shirts (from £320) with navy-blue stripes and argyle-jacquard knits (£990), they look like Oxbridge graduates about to start a band.
Van Assche rolls his eyes when I ask if he considers himself a Belgian designer. “I used to throw that question off the table by saying that fashion doesn’t come with a passport,” he says. “But I’ll try to give you a more considered answer: I was at the Royal Academy [of Fine Arts] in Belgium for four years, but that was 18 years ago. And since then I’ve been living and working in Paris.”
If his work isn’t inherently Belgian, it’s certainly masculine. While some of the edgy, monochrome presentation of Dior Homme chimes with the likes of Rick Owens, Van Assche would never send his men out in sepulchral robes and skirts. He relishes the conservative dress codes of old-school Dior. “I’ve always liked boys to be boys,” he says. “What I find so interesting about menswear is that there are so many rules, so many things you can’t do. That’s what’s interesting – pushing things a little further. It’s not about putting men in dresses or silk blouses, because that’s not going to interest most men. It’s fun, and why not? But I don’t find it that interesting.”
There has, however, been a lighter, more casual spirit at Dior Homme under Van Assche. For example sportswear elements continue to take root in the brand – something you’d expect from the man who created, under his own label, what may well be the most perfect black and white trainers of the past 10 years – totally simple, stripped back, with elegant lacing. There is, of course, a thriving line in Dior Homme trainers – for summer there are navy with camouflage-print sneakers (from £430); camouflage appears throughout the summer collection, worked into short-sleeved shirts (£990) and jeans (£490). “Camouflage is the new streetwear,” says Van Assche. “Soldiers don’t sit in forests any more – that’s not how war is done now. But it’s very interesting to use camouflage with a blazer jacket, because you start thinking of businessmen as Wall Street warriors.”
For him, “sportswear jackets” are at the core of this season’s collection. “I’ve always been about sportswear and workwear,” he says. “The blazer jacket represents the sportswear jacket for the classical French bourgeois generation, and the bomber jacket is the sportswear jacket for the cool guys. You can’t get any more basic than the bomber – it’s just two sleeves and a zip. We have mixed up both styles.” For summer he took the distinctive colour combo of the original MA1 bomber – navy with an orange lining – and applied it to more formal pieces. There are also bomber jackets (£2,050) with floral embroidery on the sleeves and searing orange aviator jackets (£1,450).
Although Dior Homme sales are not published separately from the catch-all of Dior Couture, there are clearly smart strategies in place to grow the brand internationally. A Malaysia flagship opened in January, and the label has been restaging its lavish Paris shows in China for press and key clients. Asia, and the tastes of the Asian market, remain a focus. Indeed, when the Vancouver store opened last year Pamela Baxter, president of Dior Couture for North America, explained the reasoning to WWD: “More than 40 per cent of Vancouver’s population is of Asian descent [and] Dior and Dior Homme have a strong presence in Asia.” It’s perhaps not surprising therefore that Van Assche put his own much-loved label on hiatus last year to focus on Dior Homme.
Van Assche is designing clothes at an intriguing time for menswear. Codes are blurring, and while many designers want to dissolve formality, he wants to evolve it. He’s a master of mixing sportswear and tailoring, high and low. While last season it was a night at the theatre with punk twists, and this summer it’s all about sunshine and pollen, he staged a show for next winter’s collection within a neon-lit skate park, and riffed on 1980s new-wave culture. “For me, the most crazy piece in the spring collection was the bomber jacket that was orange on the outside, as if the lining colour was on the exterior,” he says. “But we made it incredibly luxurious. Maybe it is, after all, a Belgian approach.”