Ronald Van Der Kemp has always done things a little differently. He’s a couturier who works from second-hand materials, a maximalist who champions sustainability, and a madcap creative who styles his own looks the day before they head down the runway. (“I think it needs to have that tension and spontaneity,” he says). The Dutch fashion designer founded his demi-couture house in 2014, back when ethical fashion was a scarcely used term that often suggested a certain homemade aesthetic. On the contrary, Van Der Kemp’s hand-treated pieces deliver high glamour worthy of Alexis Carrington – much to the delight of stars including Celine Dion, Lady Gaga and Kate Moss.
Van Der Kemp (or RVDK) is the first couture house with sustainability baked into the design process, as the designer sources everything from vintage American flags to previously trashed denim to create his pieces. His spirit of reinvention is no different this season; in the great fashion week upheaval, the designer is presenting his latest wardrobe (he prefers “wardrobe,” which connotes timelessness) in a seductive short film that tells the story of what we all do behind closed doors. Here, Van Der Kemp shares his passions, his visions for the future, and a taste of Spring ’21.
Your aesthetic is so extravagant and glamourous, even while you stick to a sustainable vision. This isn’t something we see a lot. When you’ve dressed celebrities like Celine Dion and Lady Gaga, do you think it’s this sustainable vision that resonates? Or the style? Both?
When I started with the idea of sustainability, I really wanted it to be high fashion, exciting and sexy because I thought it would be the only way to get people interested in the subject of ethical fashion. By showing something that’s really exciting and fresh, people will start to look at it in a different way. I’m convinced that this way, it attracts more people. A good example is Celine Dion. She wore a few of my [pieces] and I told her about sustainability, and she was like, “Oh nice.” But for her, it was about the dress. Then she goes out and people write about Celine Dion going sustainable, so you don’t always have to say it, but your story gets out in a different way.
During the first lockdown, there was a lot of talk about it being the perfect time to slow the pace of the fashion system. For you, has the system changed?
The story that I’ve been telling since I started is something I’m hearing so often now, and I think that’s a good sign. People start telling it; but if you start telling it, you have to start doing it. I do think there’s a lot of positive change; but, of course, it’s not enough. I do think the problem is overproduction and there’s just too much stuff. We see right now you can’t sell it, so why produce it? I understand that it’s very difficult, especially for those huge conglomerates to scale down; it would be a little easier if they were all separate brands.
I see this as a time to reflect. The essence of couture can mean things other than just a dress. So, in the next wardrobe, I’ve worked on the idea of making art and interiors with the same intensity of couture. These items can stand on their own, from a pillow to a painting to a little sculpture to a dress – they all have the same feeling and philosophy. This is my solution for now.
You mentioned small brands being nimbler. Do you see yourself scaling up? Or are you happy at your size?
All you have to do in fashion is see what’s around you and move with it, and this is why I think it’s better if you have a smaller company – because you can move with what’s going on. I prefer to stay small, agile and self-sustainable. I want to show my creativity; and for me, that’s what it’s about.
For Fall ’20, you used materials from previous wardrobes; can you share where you are sourcing your fabrics in general, and specifically, for Spring?
We buy leftovers, but I haven’t bought anything in a year and a half. We have quite an archive of very interesting things, and I keep finding different ways of treating fabrics to make them look different again – painting and collaging with fabrics – to give it a real couture feel.
One interesting thing that is new that we did this year is that the city of Amsterdam has a huge problem with all the clothes that people throw away. It’s difficult to make yarn from, so they do a lot of felting. My idea was to make something very couture out of the felting, so in one outfit we made a bustier and we moulded it so there are no seams in it, and we decorated it with chains. It shows you that even with the trashiest stuff that people don’t want anymore, you can do something very glamourous with it.
Does showing from your home base of Amsterdam instead of Paris affect your process or how you present the collection?
I became more convinced about what I wanted to do. When you’re showing in Paris, you feel you have to perform in a certain way. For me, it was a great exercise and gave me the confidence to do things I normally wouldn’t have done, like working on movies and working with all these different people – musicians, dancers, very different models. I really love it. It becomes almost like an art project. This is what is so unique about this time: you don’t have to follow the rules of the fashion world, you have to reinvent them for yourself.
What can you reveal about your upcoming wardrobe?
It’s very much about escapism and the eccentricity of fantasy dressing, and what people do in secrecy. You get the feeling that because people have been locked up, they want to do something really extraordinary, and that’s the feeling of it. So, there are all these different characters and they’re all dressed very differently – some of them are apocalyptic and others are very glamourous.
What place does glamour have in our world right now?
We are working on a short film done in a hotel, and the theme is “Behind closed doors.” What I feel is happening is that people are still doing things, but in private. They’re still dressing up and trying to find some glamour and entertainment even when it’s a small dinner party or trying to seduce your lover.
Do you look forward to getting back to in-person shows one day?
It’ll be great to do it again, but I think I will approach it in a different way now. I don’t think it’s necessary to do a typical show. I feel now there’s a little more room to approach things in a different way. I feel it’s needed.