March '09
We seek out rising stars of design
With another graduating class from the MA program of the world-famous Central Saint Martins in London comes Professor Louise Wilson's latest prodigy. But before his final collection even hit the catwalk last month, there were already whispers about Michael Van der Ham, 24, the Dutch wunderkind interning at Alexander McQueen and Sophia Kokosalaki. Now those whispers have grown into a full-fledged buzz. Inspired by Andy Warhol's foray into fashion design, Van der Ham has created a look that is at once modern and medieval, conceptual and cubist. Here, Van der Ham explains his patchwork approach that takes mismatching to its very limits.

Let's start with the obvious, why fashion?
I started to think about fashion when I was fifteen. I grew up in Holland, where there are 16 million people but very little fashion. There is no Selfridges or Harvey Nichols. There is one tiny boutique in Amsterdam that sells Balenciaga and Margiela.

Why do you think it's like that, especially after the country produced Viktor & Rolf?
Well, it had never seen anything like Viktor & Rolf before! I don't know, but if you look at European royalty and how the Spanish and British, for example, were decadent in the way that they dressed, the Dutch always wore black. They weren’t excessive. I just don’t think that it's part of the culture, then or now.

How did you get started?
I went to this funny little independent fashion school, which wasn’t great, to be honest. I was there for three years studying illustration and drawing. But I knew that I wanted to continue in fashion, and I knew that I was going to have to get work experience. When I was 21 I came to London to work for Sophia Kokosalaki and Alexander McQueen. I'm so glad I did. McQueen is such a massive brand, a completely different studio from Sophia's, which is really small and personal. But every one of her garments is really labor-intensive, which I was interested in. And still am, as I think my collection shows.

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Michael Van der Ham Michael Van der Ham

Is that when you applied for the MA at St Martins?
Yes, I had my interview with Louise the day before I started at Sophia. Six months later I finished at Sophia and started the degree. And it was horrible! I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to do too much. I had so many ideas, but nothing was making sense. Other students there had one idea and did it over and over again to perfect it, which is a better way of working. But I knew at the end of that first year that I could do better, so I repeated it. I think I needed that extra year. If I had left and never gone back I would have regretted it forever—which sounds dramatic, but it's true.

Where did the idea come from for your graduate collection?
I saw these three dresses that Andy Warhol designed for an exhibition curated by Diane Vreeland in the 70s. They were created from bits of other dresses by big designers of that era, like Diane von Furstenburg, Halston, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino. A sleeve of one dress was attached to the front of a different dress. At first I didn’t like them, but then I thought the irony of cutting up couture gowns and sewing them back together was really funny. Who would do that?

Likewise, I think that the initial reaction to your collection was, What the...? But then we totally got it.
Yeah, it was the same for me. So I started collecting loads of pictures of party dresses that I liked from different decades. I started with the 60s and 70s, then expanded the search to the 20s and 50s. I collaged them all together into a little book to get the concept down, but the hard part was making them, especially as I had picked couture references. I knew that it was going to be loads of work, but I knew that I didn’t want to spend all that time on the MA and graduate with a collection of T-shirt dresses.

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Michael Van der Ham Michael Van der Ham

Some people need hand-holding when it comes to color. Is that why there was a shadow part of the collection, in blacks and grays?
That only happened a few months before. At first they were only going to be fully colored dresses, but I was nervous about it because I also wanted to do something that was wearable. I knew that some girls would have problems wearing lots of different colors.

And with all the different fabrics, the dresses shouldn’t work, but they totally do. Louise understood them and liked what you were doing early on. Did that mean you could relax a bit?
I suppose I did a little, but I couldn't in the sense that I was working on this collection every single day for twelve hours since October. All the fabrics came from different places, which took ages to compile. But I knew what I was doing and felt confident with the work. I was working long hours but I wasn’t tired because I was so excited about it.

It must have felt good to have the support of Sarah Mower, too, who came to view the collection before the show.
It was great because she just got it straight away. She didn’t know how all the fabrics worked together, which is how I wanted people to feel, but when she saw the dresses on a model, she thought they were really elegant. They come to life on the girls. From the beginning I wasn’t sure how the different weights would look, but it makes sense with arms and legs.

When you were doing your research, was there one decade that you thought was a fashion high point?
No, I like so many things. Louise used to take the piss out of me because I don't really edit. I like everything, like a magpie for anything sparkly!

Which other designers are you excited about in London at the moment?
I like the gang that's coming from St Martins now. I am excited about what Mary Katranzou, Natascha Stolle and Christopher Shannon are doing. London feels new, sharp, clever and upbeat—and now is definitely the time for something upbeat.