Belgian graphic designer Paul Boudens has had a prolific career closely tied to the fashion world in Antwerp, the creative city he’s called home for forty years. A master collaborator, Boudens carved a niche creating invitations for fashion shows with loyal clients including Yohji Yamamoto, Dries Van Noten, Olivier Theyskens and Walter Van Beirendonck. He was the art director and graphic designer of Antwerp’s first high fashion publication, A Magazine (curated by) featuring guest collaborators every issue; Haider Ackermann, Maison Martin Margiela and Martine Sitbon, to name a few.
As a youngster Boudens found inspiration in the pages of The Face, Blitz, i-D, old copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and books by photographers like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Man Ray. “My back still hurts from dragging books from London or Paris in my suitcase,” he says.
“Nowadays, I don’t buy so many magazines or books but I’m happy print still exists at all. Nothing against digital design but it's just not the same experience anymore, no? I just prefer a mix of analogue and digital, but that’s my shtick.”
Boudens is still known to get tactile and scrappy despite much of his work shifting to digital. Kaat Debo, director of MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp once commented, “If [Paul] gets completely stuck, he will return to the essence of his art and set to work with pen, paintbrush, paper or tape. These experiments are often what has led to his most beautiful and surprising work.”
In the fast-paced world of social media, staying inspired and aiming for timeless design has remained key to Boudens enjoying a long and successful career. “I keep my eyes open and I am like a sponge: if I see something that inspires me it gets stored in my mind and sooner or later, when it has developed into something that I can claim as my own, it will come out. I firmly believe in inspiration; not in blatant copying.”
2023 has been a big year for Boudens to reflect on his own legacy in the evolving industry. In February, he received the Henry van de Velde Lifetime Achievement Award and later this week, he travels to our shores for Alliance Graphique Internationale, the biggest design event ever held in Tāmaki Makaurau. From September 18, Boudens will be among more than 30 of the world’s leading designers participating in the two-day AGI Open at Aotea Centre.
Belgian design has had a profound impact on New Zealand’s fashion scene as it has developed over the years. How would you describe Antwerp’s fashion and design scene today?
I’m not sure we can talk about an ‘Antwerp fashion scene’ anymore, fashion in general has really changed in the last decade. The Antwerp Fashion Department is now full of international students - as it should be. In the 1980s and 1990s, we practically had to invent everything from scratch, which was a totally fantastic experience. Back then, if you were German or Dutch or Asian, if you graduated from the Academy, you were considered a ‘Belgian designer’. Now, with the internet and social media, the term ‘Belgian designer’ has become almost irrelevant. If you have talent and you can sell yourself well, you’re in business.
I’m happy to report the city is still buzzing with creativity, albeit in a totally different way. I think we’ve let go of our ‘underdog’ moniker - if you check the fashion houses in Paris or Milan, a lot of graduates from the Fashion Department are leading them, or working for them. I’ve noticed nowadays everything is more business-minded and creativity is taking second place. We did it the other way round: we always put creativity first and business came second. A sign of the times, I guess?
What excites you about Gen Z and what concerns you? Are there any lessons your generation can learn from them — and vice versa?
Excites or scares? (laughs). You’re always the product of the time you grow up in. I must say I recognise myself a lot in them. I was a bit of an obnoxious monster when I was younger; ambitious, arrogant, mister know-it-all — all that without knowing a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g.
I basically bluffed my way through life and the first years of my career. Then one day, you notice that there’s a new generation behind you, and another one that follows. It’s called Life. No need to panic, you just keep your eye on what’s important to you and soldier on while embracing the next wave of talent. I have to admit I’m in total awe of their self-assuredness and their business-savvy. Just don’t push me down the stairs just yet, please.
You have developed such a signature style. Do you pay much attention to design trends, or try to subvert them intentionally?
Well, one day you wake up and it turns out you’ve developed a signature style, whoops! That was never the plan, I can assure you. I do remember thinking while I was still studying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if one day I would have my own monograph?’ After ten years of working hard I designed my monograph myself — a dream come true. Three weeks before I went into print I realised I had forgotten to budget the thing! Like I said before: creativity first, business second.
I dragged myself on my knees through Belgium begging for money and managed to get about two thirds of the budget, I had to pay one third myself. It must have been the most expensive business card ever made! I’m still chuffed with it, though, I would hardly change anything design-wise. But to really answer your question: I do keep my eyes open and I am like a sponge: if I see something that inspires me it gets stored in my mind and sooner or later, when it has developed into something that I can claim as my own, it will come out. I firmly believe in inspiration; not in blatant copying.
You’re well known for your prolific work creating fashion show invitations for designers such as Dries Van Noten, Olivier Theyskens, Yohji Yamamoto. What have been your favourites?
I’m fond of all the invitations I have ever made; they’re like my children in a way. Same with the books. With every design comes a story and a memory. That’s what I’m planning to do with my second monograph, Paul Boudens – Control Freak, planned for 2025. I want to tell the little stories behind the invitations and collaborations because collaboration is an important aspect of my work. Everything I design is always a cross-pollination with somebody. That approach already started at the end of the 1980s, working for Walter [Van Beirendonck] and meeting makeup artist extraordinaire Inge Grognard and her photographer husband Ronald Stoops; they became friends for life.
I have great memories of creating invitations for Jurgi Persoons (using my own blood and crazy calligraphy), Wim Neels (silk screened posters made from hand-cut copies and architectural blueprints), Olivier Theyskens (the Fontana-inspired lasersharp cut invite, or the hand-scratched lottery system invite), Yohji Yamamoto (the plastic-wrapped or red paint postcards), Dries Van Noten (the watercolour drippings, the makeup blush made from chocolate powder, go figure), Haider Ackermann (more crazy calligraphy, gold foil and cut-outs on heavy cardboard) and of course Walter Van Beirendonck (almost everything) who I met in 1988 and we’re still working together on projects.
You were a co-founder of A Magazine (curated by), a beautiful magazine and concept that started in 2001. Can you talk a little about its initial premise, and how that’s still — if not more — relevant today.
Ahh, my baby! Well, the magazine was part of the cultural city project Fashion2001 Landed in Antwerp, still one of my favourite projects ever. Walter Van Beirendonck, the creative director, asked me to be art director and graphic designer. In that time, Belgium didn’t really have a high fashion magazine so it was the perfect opportunity to start one.
The magazine had a guest curator from day one, N°A went to Walter’s partner, fashion designer Dirk Van Saene; N°B went to Bernhard Willhelm, from Germany but an Antwerp Fashion Department alumnus. N°C went to Hussein Chalayan, N°D went to Olivier Theyskens, and N°E was supposed to go to Maison Martin Margiela. After N°D, the editor went bankrupt, no one got paid even! Thankfully Dirk Van den Eynden, the husband of Linda Loppa — then director of the Fashion Department and working on the opening of MoMu – Fashion Museum Antwerp — came to the rescue, starting a company called A Publisher and so we were able to continue on his issue of A Magazine curated by Maison Martin Margiela.
We tried to publish two issues a year, which didn’t always work, but we managed at least one a year. After Riccardo Tisci’s issue the fun was over for me because suddenly I became a visitor in my own project — a weird and frustrating experience. So we parted ways, amicably. Apparently number 25 came out a while ago so I’m proud that it still exists and that I played a small part in its conception. I still think it’s a great concept.
What is the key to a successful collaboration?
Good question. The key words were always trust, freedom and mutual respect. I remember Yohji Yamamoto’s team giving me a small explanation of what the collection was about and they basically said, “we need this and that, off you go and surprise us, you have a week.” I love that mix of fear and excitement; you really do not want to f**k it up. And it’s basically the same with every designer; first they have to put their trust in you and then you can soar.
You want to create something that fits perfectly in their universe, and hopefully the end result has some DNA of yourself in it. I loved doing A Magazine (curated by), which was truly a labour of love for me. The fun thing was, the invited ‘curators’ had to come to Antwerp and work with me in my studio for three days. And they absolutely loved it. Making a magazine was something totally out of their comfort zone and they totally embraced it. So with most of them it was a wild ride but a totally satisfying one.
You’re passionate about ‘timeless design’ — what does that mean to you today, in these digital times when things move so quickly?
I always want to create work that stands the test of time. Just for me. If I myself like what I’m designing, so will my client. However, I am my own worst critic at the same time. So it’s not that I design something and immediately throw it on social media or send it to my client; sometimes you have to put a design aside and let it simmer for a bit - if you have the time. Then, when you look at it again with a fresh mind, you’ll notice what needs to be changed or not. That system has always worked for me; I would advise it to anyone.
The digital thing I have absolutely nothing against, but for example, Walter Van Beirendonck and I used to make printed invitation posters each season, which after a certain time became a very nice collection. The last couple of seasons we were only making digital posts for Instagram, which breaks my heart. It’s all so… throwaway, no? There’s no tactility anymore and I really like the human aspect of things: the smell of something printed, the feel of the paper, the excitement of opening an envelope; that kind of experience. I just hope we’re not throwing that out of the window completely; we just have to find a more sustainable solution.
I’m interested in your thoughts on the design of digital invites today — the limitations, and possibilities, of that?
Creatively it’s not limiting at all, but the end result is, well, less ‘timeless’ and satisfying than before. Tactility is out of the window with digital design - no one is sniffing their cellphones, I hope? These days I’m doing less fashion invites, the novelty wears off after thirty years, you know. Fashion in general has changed and I’m trying to find a way to ‘make things my own’. I do create digital invites but I have to ask someone else to make them move. Personally, I can’t even change a lightbulb (laughs). I do love a good challenge so anything that comes my way will be tackled with the same passion and vigour since I started out — I can’t help myself.
What’s your favourite font and why?
I’m a sucker for condensed fonts and I also love serifs, although not the over-designed ones. I’ve always said that “choosing a typeface is like falling in love”. Seriously, if a typeface is too obtrusive and I can’t make it my own, I won’t use it. I am always on the lookout for interesting typefaces that don’t ride your leg like a dog in heat. If you can’t add anything to it, what’s the point?
Also, I never use more than three typefaces in one design, preferably only two. Lately, there’s a tendency to use at least a dozen typefaces in one design — no, thank you, not for me. Less is always more, in my opinion.
What personal project or collaboration excites you the most right now?
For years I’ve been fantasising about having my own imprint under the wings of a good publisher and publish books that I think are worth making — I don’t even have to design them myself. So I have joined forces with a multitalented friend and we’re planning all kinds of projects, including books, exhibitions and documentaries. It’s too soon to tell you more but it’s very exciting stuff, I can’t wait to start!