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Both Eyes on Eindhoven Design Academy's New Creative Director

Always blunt, Alexander van Slobbe sits down to talk about his plans for Design Academy Eindhoven, his own brand Orson + Bodil, and how Holland can give its fashion designers more recognition.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 29-01-2009

A tall and imposing man with a shiny bald head, and an air of authority, Alexander Van Slobbe’s hectic schedule has just been turned up a notch.  Starting from this month, he takes over Li Edelkoort’s role as Creative Director of the Design Academy Eindhoven.  Along with that, he plans to continue in his roles as a Associate Professor at the Arnhem Art Academy and designer for Orson + Bodil.

It took Van Slobbe many months to accept the Eindhoven position and his decision has been kept oddly low-key. That has nothing to do with his own admission of nerves about the undertaking or the murmurs of concern Edelkoort’s departure is sending through design corridors.  “Of course I know what people are saying,” he says, “but at the same time everyone agrees that something at the school had to change.  With all due respect, Li had a very particular way of looking at things and it was very much to do with styling.  That was her thing.  It’s what she does professionally, and it is exactly what the school needed over the last ten years.  But we have to ask ourselves if that is still interesting, or if there is perhaps a better way for the school now?”

The stagnation, according to Van Slobbe, stems from Edelkoort’s focus on success.  “She connected the top graduates to very successful people,” he says, “but every year there are three hundred graduates and they all can't be big star designers.  They need to get jobs and in the last couple of years the school has forgotten about them.”  

Van Slobbe talks with pride about Arnhem’s graduates, 80% of whom still have fashion jobs two years after graduating.  “It’s about preparing them to be realistic,” he says.  “In the end, they need to know as much about finance and running a business as they do about design.  That’s a really hard thing to do in four years, which is why it is often best to spend some time working in an organization like Hema or Philips before going solo.”

Not that any of the exposure and recognition provided to Eindhoven’s top graduates will ease off. “Of course not,” says Van Slobbe.  “We just want to give more consideration and fairness to the rest.  Li admits this herself, and has said that that is why she selected me for the job.  I bring to it something she could not.”

The first big change Van Slobbe is hoping to achieve involves the way the Netherlands presents itself at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan.  “We are such a small country,” he says.  “We should be more united and less competitive.  Arnhem is fashion, Eindhoven is design, and I want to put them out there together to show something that really says something more cohesive about the Dutch design mentality.”

He compares the idea to the successful collaboration between Viktor & Rolf and Job Smeets saying Holland loses out by over-emphasizing the line that separates object design, architecture and graphics from fashion.  “In Paris and Milan it doesn't happen like that,” he says.  “There they have a broader design mentality.”

And the result is some big Dutch fashion stories that garner little to no attention.  “Internationally our fashion designers are doing really well,” Van Slobbe says.  “Apart from Viktor & Rolf, a lot of the guys working at Louis Vuitton, Lanvin and Ralph Lauren are all Dutch, but because Holland has never taken fashion too seriously, they end up as anonymous designers behind larger brands.”

Van Slobbe’s own brand, Orson + Bodil, was the first Dutch label to be sold in Barneys in New York and Joseph in London and has just opened its first boutique in Amsterdam’s Zuid district.  The brand, which he does together with Francisco van Benthum, has had an adventurous life.  “We started out twenty years ago wanting to do something very couture,” he says.  “It was about masterful handwork and form.”

But just three years into the ambitious venture, Van Slobbe was invited to participate in So, the luxurious and international men’s label.  “I did it for the money and the experience,” he says.  So first showed in Paris in 1993 to great acclaim, and went on to become hugely successful with 200 shops worldwide.  “But I got sick of sitting on so many airplanes and giving presentations,” he says.  “I craved to be more involved and hands-on again.”

That itch started in 2002 when Van Slobbe turned 42.  “I really needed to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” he says.  He quit So and in 2003 was awarded the Prins Bernhard Culture Prize.  The plan was to return to Orson + Bodil, to keep things more local and artistic, and to do more collaborations.  

Collaborations with felt specialist Claudy Jongstra and sports shoe designer Puma followed.  Van Slobbe also spent time trying to find the perfect location to open a new shop in Amsterdam with fellow designer Francisco van Benthum. “It had to strike an emotional chord,” he says of the shop."

Apart from Van Slobbe’s clear technical aptitude, his genius is in sensing where design is headed.  He talks about reconnecting with the past, the appreciation of hand-made goods - not because they are fashionable, but because they are better.  

When he refers to Dutch design he isn’t talking about a gimmicky aesthetic, but as a way of thinking that includes an abstract core, a dry concept, and which is always filled with purpose.  “If you don’t need a pocket, then you don’t design one in,” he explains. “I want to capture that more and to better express the mentality, the identity and the tradition that gives Dutch design its flavour.”

All eyes remain on the Design Academy Eindhoven and how Van Slobbe's perspective will change things.


Images: from top Alexander van Slobbe and selected images from Orson + Bodil collections, Van Slobbe's collaboration with Puma.


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