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Spotlighting the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp Class of 2020

Photographer Willy Vanderperre and stylist Olivier Rizzo showcase the collections of nine graduates of the esteemed Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp

The postponement, cancellation and general rejigging of catwalk shows due to the restrictions, constraints and general disconnection caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has upended the fashion system – namely, because it’s the received way to see clothes, to judge them, and for designers to convey their messages. We are about to head into the first ever digital haute couture week; Paris and Milan menswear will follow. Who knows what those will bring? And the questioning, reassessment and re-evaluation is happening at every level, and every stage of designers’ careers. This evening, the graduates of the esteemed Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp will unveil their final collections, digitally for the first time. They have been publicised by an arresting campaign envisaged by two of the academy’s most famous graduates, the frequent collaborators photographer Willy Vanderperre and stylist Olivier Rizzo, who matriculated together at the Academy – and also fell in love there.

“It’s a beautiful context for us – we met each other at the Academy,” says Rizzo – via FaceTime, appropriately enough, given that lockdown may be eased but is still affecting travel, communication, and indeed fashion shows. “Plus the history of the school, all those things. What you want for the students today is to support them, and help them have a reach.” “Those kids have been working five years – and the coronation of everybody, you live for that one moment, your graduation collection that is shown on a runway, it is a first step to what will hopefully become your future. It must be gut-wrenching for those kids not to have that, to be deprived of that,” Vanderperre added.

The approach first came from Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck, who heads the Academy’s fashion department, just a few weeks into the lockdown. “For us there was not one second of hesitation,” Rizzo says. “You know sometimes, when you get an email, you know there is a question in which you will be interested.” The proposal was to create imagery, using and showcasing the collections of the nine graduation master’s students – Julia Ballarot, Florentina Leitner, Isabelle Lempik, Marie Martens, Sabrina Pfattner, Silvia Rognoni, Annemarie Saric, Nico Verhaegen and Karolina Widecka – to publicise both their work and the digital platform, WWWSHOWWW.

The resultant images are both a necessary product of the lockdown, and in some ways an example of creativity rising above its limits. Despite being unable to assemble, to physically interact with models or indeed be able to dress them in the students’ clothes, Vanderperre and Rizzo worked with casting agent Samuel Ellis to gather a roster of models that would, otherwise, be preparing for couture shows – Mica Arganaraz, Sora Choi, Ilona Desmet, Daan Duez and Maoro Bultheel, Kaia Gerber, Rianne Van Rompaey, Craig Shimirimana, Kiki Willems and Anok Yai. They were all 'shot' via Facetime or Skype calls from their respective homes, some of which feature in the final images. “We approached it from the fact that, if it’s personal for us, we should approach people that we have a personal relationship with,” Vanderperre says. “So that’s how we started thinking about the girls and boys that you see in the collages, in the pictures.” Their locations were scattered across the world – “Sora was in Korea, Kaia was in LA, some were in Belgium, some were in New York,” Rizzo says. “But the only limitation was physical – Willy without his team, me without my team. Which actually makes it a very beautiful moment. The cast – they’re kind of artists themselves, all of them, individually. And they are kind of the generation of these students. And they were giving back, too.” Rizzo and Vanderperre chose a selection of clothes, matching them with the models they felt would best do them justice.

The image themselves are unexpected, arresting, surreal – “a very free and abstract approach,” to borrow the words of Rizzo. “Most people know I can take a picture,” Vanderperre laughs, “so sometimes it’s best to explore something else, to explore your work in a different way. So I started experimenting a while ago, using different camera techniques, cutting out, collaging. It felt interesting. This was because we knew we had limitations. And limitations always push you to think further, of how to be creative.” The resultant imagery collages together screen captures, photographs of video screens (slightly more pixellated, Vanderperre says) and still-life images of garments – although often to abstract effect. “It would be weird to dress that girl as a barbie doll – or a paper doll, a cut-out. It would have felt weird. A garment needs a body. So in that sense, we took details of garments that were the most interesting. It was finding a balance.” Which feels right, for imbalanced times.

Ultimately, for both Vanderperre and Rizzo, the shoot was about the beauty of working as a team – about mutual respect, support, and overcoming adversity. “We’re very happy to support young creatives,” says Rizzo. Vanderperre mirrors the sentiment: “It feels like the right time to give support to young kids. It’s good to give something back.” Rizzo adds: “At the end of the day I realise, these kids graduating now, in one way or another are the future of fashion. The beauty of this is that it makes total sense.”

The graduating class of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp is showcased on June 27, 2020 from 8pm CET, on