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Willy Vanderperre: “You have to constantly reinterpret”

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Willy Vanderperre
Short Profile

Name: Willy Vanderperre
DOB: 1971
Place of Birth: Flanders, Belgium
Occupation: Fashion photographer

Willy Vanderperre's short film, Naked Heartland, is set for release in 2016.

Mr. Vanderperre, years ago you were enrolled in a fashion design course at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts before switching to the more immediate medium of photography. Would you consider yourself impatient?

To a certain extent, yes: I prefer a quicker medium to express myself, I like to share things and I like my art to be almost instant. But on the other hand, I am also very, very, very patient. Some projects will take years to make, there is no rush to it. I think the pace at the beginning of my career was really fast because I was picked up quite quickly… Eventually I slowed down a lot and now I’m very selective with what I do.

Was there a specific moment when you realized that fashion design wasn’t for you?

I studied fashion for a year at the Royal Academy, but after four months I felt like, “This is not me,” you know? I liked the idea of fashion, the quickness, the way it expresses society, how it is a sign of the time… But for me, the process was way too slow: drawings, fabrics, materials, stitching — it was like a whole year to get four garments out! I spent my time making collages and taking pictures. One day, my teacher said to me, “What are you doing here? You should just change to photography.” It was the most logical step. I think I was too caught up in the whole idea that I was into fashion and that maybe I was going to become a fashion designer. But this was not the case, of course.

Was fashion always an important part of your life?

Growing up in Belgium, I was a new waver, so fashion was always important; that was the way I expressed myself. When I was a late teen, it was the rise of the Antwerp Six, a group of young Belgian fashion designers studying at the Royal Academy; they were rock stars, like cult figures. That triggered me to enroll at the Royal Academy as well, and of course, I also wanted to get as far away as I could from Menen, the little village I grew up in. It’s a very beautiful place, very poetic, but also very raw because it was so isolated. I always knew that I wanted to escape it. I think it’s a phase that everybody goes through when you’re a teenager; you just want to rebel in your own way against your nature.

“The minute I catch myself in my comfort zone, I stop what I’m doing.”

What did rebellion look like for you at the time?

I think rebellion can be a sort of introspection. You start to figure out what is important to you, as opposed to what other people are telling you is important. Growing up, I was quite expressive with my fashion; I wanted to stand out from everybody around me. Like I said, I was this new wave kid so my look was really important. You were looked at and mocked, but because you were holding on to it and you didn’t cave to the reactions, it earned you a bit of respect. People were afraid of you because you were the weird guy! That was how you expressed yourself. And I think if I look back, it was art school that saved me.

How so?

It took me out of Flanders, it protected me from the little village that I grew up in. My way of rebellion was acting up against my surroundings. That’s why I made that link with art school — it was not in the city that I grew up in, and it was where I found like-minded people who stuck with me for a very long time.

Like designer Raf Simons, you met him at school and have worked with him ever since.

Right, I’ve known Raf for more than 20 years, so our relationship is extremely strong. I refer to him more like family; he’s like my brother. We think very, very much alike. I love longtime work relationships because you grow to understand people and the way they’re thinking. Sometimes a word is enough to express emotion, it makes communication much easier. And it instantly takes you out of your comfort zone.

Really? I would have thought the opposite, that it is right in your comfort zone.

No, my comfort zone is the feeling that you’re working on autopilot. The minute I catch myself, I stop doing what I’m doing and change it. I think it’s a very dangerous process! If you work with somebody for a long time, you have to challenge them otherwise you jeopardize your relationship. You have to constantly reinterpret your work together and provide a new vision of your relationship. With Raf, we always challenge each other. We make each other think. You push your boundaries so that there’s an evolution every time you work together.

Nonetheless the same themes of rebellion and youth that you were examining 20 years ago remain very present in your photography today. Why do those motifs continue to fascinate you?

It was a very fascinating period in my life! It’s when you start to reflect on yourself. It’s your first identity crisis; you start to question yourself and everything around you. Your teen years are when you actually start to challenge yourself and find your identity, and I think that’s why it’s so intriguing for me because the evolution is very visible. There is a beauty, a romanticism in the fragility that expresses itself in the way young people act, stand, the way they think, the look in their eyes. There’s something so beautiful and vulnerable about that.

Is that what draws you to the subject of your portraits and photos?

Sure. I think it’s all about character — that’s what makes a model or an actor. If you are not interested in a person, you’re not going to make a beautiful picture of that person. They will sense what you are reflecting through the camera. With my new short film, Naked Heartland, for example, the cast was chosen for their talent, aesthetic, and look, but it’s also very much about the character, their personality, their attitude, what they exude, who they are and how they move. It’s what is in their eyes, it’s the emotion that they transport.

Is your own youthful spirit still present today, or do you feel as old as you are?

I still feel like a kid. It’s a weird word, “adult.” What does it mean, being adult? I think that’s the weirdest thing. It’s like, there’s a couple of things that we are meant to become in our lives but nobody ever taught us what it was. If I look at myself, obviously without a mirror, I would say to myself I’m still in my mid-twenties. Of course, you grow wiser from experience but at the same time, I don’t think my energy has changed.

Being an adult now is also much different than it was a generation ago.

I think in that sense, you’re spot on. If I look back on my parents, there was more seriousness to it; I think we are the first generation that has almost refused to become an adult. It shows also in the way that we still dress: my dress code is still the same as it was when I was in my mid-twenties. If I live to be 80, I think I will still wear jeans and a cardigan and a t-shirt, and that would be it. I don’t think that will change.