Ann Demeulemeester Doesn’t Miss Fashion at All. She Has Other Plans.
There are chickens, a garden and a whole new line of products.
KESSEL, Belgium — Six years ago, when Ann Demeulemeester walked away from the fashion label she founded in 1985 — a house known for an ethereal, monochromatic aesthetic embodied by nymph-like models with penetrating stares and dark brows — speculation ensued.
What would she do next? Could the label, which she had so carefully cultivated to be the visual incarnation of a Patti Smith lyric, really go on without her?
It is not unusual for designers to step away from fashion — some burn too bright, crashing out broke or exhausted — but Ms. Demeulemeester’s case was unusual. She left something that was still succeeding — handing creative control to Sébastien Meunier — seemingly for no pressing reason other than urge.
It turns out, though, that she was not done with designing. She was simply looking for a new language. “I wanted to leave myself time to try another kind of life,” she said. “I wanted to be vulnerable again. To be starting out, finding something difficult.”
She has landed on a new medium, and Ann Demeulemeester Serax, a collection of porcelain dinner services, silverware, glasses and, in the near future, larger housewares, will be available in October. It was all conceived by Ms. Demeulemeester and her husband, Patrick Robyn, a former photographer and her long-term collaborator.
For years, Ms. Demeulemeester, 59, lived in central Antwerp, in the only surviving Le Corbusier building in Belgium. (During her final year in college, she produced a fashion collection inspired by Modernism, and Mr. Robyn thought they should photograph it in a complementary setting, so they tried to contact the building’s owner. A few years later, after a slight miscommunication over their intentions, they ended up buying it, cobbling the money together from relatives.)
Now, country life defines her day. To be specific: a house in Kessel, a small town where, at one time, most residents were employed in diamond cutting. It is about 45 minutes from Antwerp, by car, and just shy of an hour from Brussels. “It’s really in the middle of nowhere,” Ms. Demeulemeester said.
The house, from the outside, is imposing: giant, square, Palladian. It was built in 1864 on the instruction of a woman who had fallen in love with an Italian man and hoped to entice him with a house modeled on a Lake Como residence. (Her plan failed.)
Inside, it’s cozier. There is well-worn midcentury furniture, a stuffed horse’s head with an added horn to suggest a unicorn (“Are you a princess?” children ask Ms. Demeulemeester when they visit) and an abundance of lamps. At the end of the grounds, a river flows, which, if followed for a little over three miles, leads to the country house of her fellow Belgian designer Dries Van Noten.
He and Ms. Demeulemeester were members of the Antwerp Six, a cluster of talented students who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1980 and 1981 and quickly put Belgium, previously unremarkable for its fashion, on the map.
Today she and Mr. Van Noten often compare garden notes. Hers is 50 acres and includes Shamo chickens, which she recently bought for Mr. Robyn. There is also a small bathing pond, in which she takes a midafternoon dip, and a thriving vegetable patch.
IN KESSEL, Ms. Demeulemeester has come to respect the relentlessness and unpredictability of tending to nature. She likes how slow the process is, the fact that validation takes years. She insisted that a reporter smell her favorite tree, a rhododendron.
“You have to be strong,” she said. “There can be a storm, and suddenly something you love dies. You have to learn to start again. I learnt that if an old tree goes away, another one will grow. A small one will take the place, in the light that becomes available.”
The obsession with rearing things by hand is what led her to housewares. One afternoon, she bought a bag of porcelain clay and set to work. She took to the process well, trying little bowls, then bigger bowls. Then came the cups, plates and ornaments, including two eerily lifelike heads, an angel and a devil, that sit, one cheek down, on her dining room table with candles extended from their necks, as if they’ve been impaled.
Part of the appeal of porcelain was having suitable homes for her carefully harvested fruit and vegetables. Her husband suggested building a little atelier downstairs. There, clad in a white lab coat, Ms. Demeulemeester worked away for five years, slowing learning new techniques.
“I had to learn to be so patient, to wait days until things dried, to wait while it baked, to accept that it may break and I’d have to start again,” she said. “It was the opposite of fashion.” She found it relaxing but would often find herself working into the night.
“I always loved to sculpt,” she said. “My clothes were always about shape. That’s why they were always black and white. I felt much more like an architect than a decorator.”
MS. DEMEULEMEESTER attended porcelain master classes in England and France. She employed tutors. She went to Germany to see traditional manufacturers. She taught herself to make molds. She tested endless glazes. (Forty squares of porcelain, each a different, barely distinguishable shade of white, sit lined up by the atelier window.)
She invested in an enormous German kiln by Rhode, which came only in bright turquoise. (“It’s a horrible color,” she said.) “I wanted to know how to do it all,” she said, surveying shelf upon shelf of her creations.
Why the mania?
“I was raised Catholic — maybe that has something to do with it,” she said. “If you wouldn’t give the best of yourself, you would be lazy. I never saw my parents sitting down or relaxing or doing nothing. I still feel guilty doing nothing.”
Fittingly, her home came with its own chapel upstairs, a round room decorated with ornate frescoes, which today contains a record player and a couch. So perfect are the acoustics that sometimes the local choir asks if they can borrow it to rehearse.
At the intimate dinner parties (fish suppers for between four and six) that Ms. Demeulemeester enjoys hosting, she began to introduce her handiwork. “I loved to always put a new plate on the table,” she said. “Look what I made!”
Sometimes guests asked to buy them. “It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s like seeing your first collection, only it’s not clothes.”
“‘But it’s so Ann!’” she recalled her guests saying.
One business-savvy guest suggested she meet Axel Van Den Bossche, a founder of Serax, the housewares manufacturer. On visiting her “castle,” as he calls it, Mr. Van Den Bossche was struck.
“I was really surprised because I’ve been in the business of tableware for years, and I’d never seen something like that,” he said by telephone, referring to Ms. Demeulemeester’s hand-painted plates with meticulous, delicate brush strokes creeping in from the edge, resembling something between the edge of a feather and a hazy ray of light. “This was really something special.”
THEY SPENT A YEAR working out how to produce the Serax collection. Much of the complexity came from the demands of Ms. Demeulemeester’s unrelenting eye. “I said to him in advance, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Because I’m a perfectionist,’” she said. “It’s my best and worst element.”
It was an “emotional” process, Mr. Van Den Bossche said. “I’ve worked with several well-known designers, and I’ve never seen anyone like this, who goes into the detail like this.”
At one point, no one could be found to adequately reproduce the hand-painting. In the end, they settled on a studio of porcelain experts in China who received regular WhatsApp videos of Ms. Demeulemeester painting. The Chinese experts would film themselves and take pictures of the plates and send back the footage. Worried that their brushes weren’t exactly right, Ms. Demeulemeester sent them her own. Finally, Ms. Demeulemeester said, one woman mastered the brushwork and slowly trained the others.
The Serax line also contains lighting, which Mr. Robyn helps design. The pieces are made with platelike porcelain spheres and strips of porcelain ribbon. Each model has a sweet name: Lou, Luna, Gilda.
Mr. Robyn always wished he had gone into interiors, he said, surveying the Kiki lamp, which has red fringing attached to long, spiky supports. When he was called up for military service (a practice Belgium suspended in 1992), when he was in college, he occupied his time painting the barracks a muted green to give them a new lease on life.
Back in the garden, Ms. Demeulemeester surveyed her crop. “For me, the biggest luxury is going out with my basket and saying, ‘O.K., what are we going to eat?’” she said. “You feel completely self-sufficient. The things we need, we make.”
Since leaving her label, she said, she feels “free.” She has not attended any recent Ann Demeulemeester shows, even though they still bear her name. “If I start to interfere, I know myself, I won’t be able to stop,” she said. She hardly speaks to Mr. Meunier, she said, and she hasn’t bought any new clothes, save for a pair of Birkenstocks, which she wears to garden.
In the greenhouse, she plucked a swollen Coeur de Boeuf tomato. Later she served it chopped in a salad, divvying it up on delicate plates, which were hand-edged in red.