Dirk Vaessen never expected his graduate collection to go viral on TikTok hours after the London College of Fashion master of arts graduate show on the first day of London Fashion Week.
“I thought: ‘OK. My work is a bit weird or whatever.’ I think it will get some attention, but I didn’t expect it to be this massive,” said Vaessen over Zoom from his home near Arsenal in North London.
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Views of the hashtag #dirkvaessen, tagged to videos showing his dramatic wooden shoes descending the runway, hover around 22.1 million at press time. This figure is 7.5 million more than the total views of the hashtag #richardquinn, which was one of the most viral brands during the past London Fashion Week, which ended on Feb. 22.
The 26-year-old Dutch designer, who has been interested in shoemaking since the age of 15 because “I wanted to wear heels but there weren’t so many heels in my size,” said the idea of his MA graduate collection was beyond shoes.
“The shoes are not there for being shoes, but more like a tool that changes your posture. It was based on the concept of form follows function. So I took away all the unnecessary things in the shoes.
“I am a shoemaker. I know how to make proper shoes. This collection for me was a very interesting new process. I used completely different techniques with milling, laser cutting and water jet cutting. That’s why they look so abstract,” Vaessen, who hails from Arnhem, explained.
He added that these shoes are originally made for his alter-ego, Brave Hendrik, who lives in the 2070s. The title of his graduate collection is “Brave Hendrik’s New Identities.”
“It is a world where you don’t own anything anymore and where you only own your body, and how do you identify if you don’t have anything? Then you have to identify through your posture. And that’s why I used to make these shoes for myself because I really had to investigate how I want to do something with my body,” he said.
“Brave Hendrik in Dutch means a person who sticks to the rules and who will never be out of line. But in English, the word brave means courage and heroism.…It just makes you be brave to get out of those rules of society. So that’s why I come up with his name. Also, Hendrik is my name on my passport,” he added.
Asked about why he chose wood as the main material, Vaessen said it didn’t occur to him at first that it was a nod to his Dutch heritage, despite the nation’s most famous shoes — clogs — being made from wood.
“It’s quite funny to see how my heritage is sliding into my work. The choice for the materials was all about functionality. I needed something strong but light. That’s why I worked with aluminum, wood and leather,” he said.
To make sure the models could walk down the runway comfortably, Vaessen practiced with them and eventually became a model for his lineup.
“The shoes really ask for you to adapt and to work with the shoes instead of the shoes working with you. I always asked my models if they are comfortable. If not, then we’ll figure out another way. That’s also why I was walking on one of the shoes myself because those were the most complicated ones. I was like: ‘OK, this is about my alter ego. If I’m pushing people on the catwalk with difficult walks, maybe I should be part of it myself as well,” he said.
Before attending the London College of Fashion, Vaessen obtained a bachelor’s degree in product design from ArtEZ University of the Arts, where he also served as a teacher for footwear development after graduation in 2019 until last December.
After the viral debut, the designer said he wants to continue to create conceptual works in the Netherlands, instead of London.
“I don’t see myself as a ‘fashion’ fashion designer. I’m more like a storyteller. Not only do I do that through footwear, but also through masks and through auto-inflatable objects. I think I will go further with the concept I’m working with right now, and then see how I can also change posture through other things around the human body and create shoes along the way,” Vaessen said.