A Vogue Idea /

Cartoon Couture / KEUPR/vanBENTM

KEUPR/vanBENTM was founded in Arnhem in 1997 by Michiel Keuper and Francisco van Benthum. Until 2001, the experimental label produced chimerical collections that followed haute-couture’s “laboratory of ideas” model.

I spoke to Michiel about the label’s reaction against thematic design and the minimalist sensibility of the late 1990’s.

I’m intrigued by your seeming disregard for the industry in how you departed from the ready-to-wear model to invent your own haute-couture framework. Did you always operate as “couture”? Why was this important?

Michiel Keuper: We graduated from ArtEz, in Arnhem, in the mid-1990s. The school was renowned for the conceptual approach. It was the time when fashion was mainly determined by grunge and minimalism. When we started to collaborate in 1997, Tom Ford’s overt sensualism at Gucci was beginning to emerge, paving the way for bling-bling fashion. Also there were the appointments of Galliano and McQueen at Dior and Givenchy, putting a renewed spotlight on haute couture. In the case of McQueen, this was an inspiring example of how a young, uncompromising designer could be picked to revive an old House.

What fashion needed was Experiment with a capital E. We wanted to go back to the once-core principles of couture, before it became a reactionary style exercise, a mere marketing tool for selling perfumes. We were convinced that couture should be a laboratory for new approaches and ideas. In that sense our approach was couture from the beginning (the addition “haute” only being allowed to houses accredited by the Chambre Syndicale). Initially we started showing during the prêt-à-porter week because of the group shows we were part of. After a couple of seasons, the prêt-à-porter frame became a bit of a strain since, despite all the editorial praise, the press and buyers inevitably started asking what the commercial value was of all these fantastical collections. Since our main drive was to present our artistic vision, it made sense to move over to the couture season, where we debuted in July 2000.

Was the label a commercial enterprise? How did you survive?

Even though we explored several ways to offer limited editions of commercial renditions of our pieces, as well as doing commissions to keep financially afloat, our main drive never was a commercial one. In our view, as a small label without infrastructure, it made more sense to invest in creating a strong design vocabulary, to hopefully attract the attention of possible financial backers.

By the mid-1990s the Fund had started supporting fashion design in a structural and strategic way. By awarding grants and stipends, that enabled individual designers to develop their work without financial pressure. In that sense, promoting Dutch fashion design became a hugely successful endeavor. Starting with the Paris presentations of the collective Le Cri Néerlandais around 1994, that laid the cornerstones of the careers of Viktor & Rolf as well as Lucas Ossendrijver, to name but a few. And culminating in 1998 in the so-called Dutch Wave, as it was dubbed by the fashion media. This also was the year when all the main prizes at the International Festival de la Mode in Hyères were won by Dutch designers, including KEUPR/vanBENTM. Part of the prize was a group presentation in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the Louvre in October 1998.

Important fashion designers are those who prompt new ideas of the body. Design, paradoxically, also has a tendency to institutionalize the body. KEUPR/vanBENTM’s first collection consisted of looks that completely transformed the body from different viewpoints. What was the process of making these fantastically fragmented outfits?

“Caught in Color” was a project initially started as an application for a rather commercial Dutch design competition. We wanted to challenge our notion of what is beautiful, or useful, or wearable. We started by writing a manifesto that placed concept over wearability, inviting risk and randomness into the design process, challenging our personal good taste. (For example, “In case of doubt, always choose the ugly option/fabric/color.”)

One of the requirements was to design a complete collection, but the maximum was limited to three outfits, which we found absurd. As an act of rebellion we then decided to merge at least four outfits into one, which resulted in hybrid creations that were completely different from every angle. But apart from challenging the fashion system, foremost we wanted to challenge ourselves. If we know that technically there are no limitations, we might as well not care about the outcome, depart from the common notion of beauty, and design in a new and free way.

Despite your alternative positioning, your dedication to fashion language was impressive: the catwalks (“Evil Wrapped in Beauty,” 1998, was at the Louvre); the photo shoots (especially “Caught in Color,” 1997); the production of show invitations (for your fictional runway “Friction,” 1999). Why did you leave? Will you come back?

In the summer of 2001, after our last presentation during the Alta Moda in Rome, we decided to skip one season in order to restructure our label. In a paradoxical way the timing saved us and ended our label at the same time. September 11 happened and the mood drastically changed. Significantly, the attacks happened in the midst of New York Fashion Week. Suddenly other issues seemed more important than fashion. And as the big brands suffered, small labels without sufficient backing did even more so. With buyers reluctant to invest in new brands, sales came to an abrupt stop, and many of our peers were heavily affected. Luckily for us, skipping the season meant that we didn’t loose on a collection. But it did mean that we were facing a different world, with less space for our “Cartoon Couture,” as Vogue had dubbed it. It seemed to us that the time needed different answers.

KEUPR/vanBENTM came out of a personal need, urge and conviction. Our work was in reaction to, and in that sense a reflection of that time. We can’t deny that in some ways we were maybe too much ahead. We are happy to see the industry is changing and now embracing many of the things we were advocating back then, such as merging men’s and women’s collections, or going back to small-scale production and craft. The younger generations are picking up on that. Because of the internet and social media, ideas and alternative approaches travel much faster. We started in a provincial bubble, still pre-internet 2.0 and working pretty analog. Given that, it’s a miracle that we managed to attract the international attention that we did. This also shows the enormous craving for new ideas and alternative approaches.

Your collections stood the test of time…

It is somewhat surprising. And then again, not, since the work was never about trends. Lately we find a renewed interest in our label. Last year the Centraal Museum in Utrecht acquired the remaining key pieces from our archive to complement their collection. K/vB is in our artistic DNA, whatever we do, so maybe the K/vB universe will appear in a different form. Time and movements come and go in waves, especially in fashion. So who knows if at one point we will feel the urge or see new possibilities.

by Matthew Linde

A Vogue Idea is a column by Matthew Linde exploring contemporary fashion practice.