After getting two rejection letters from Antwerp's renowned Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Benjamin Voortmans decided to do it on his own. The 20-year-old performer, fashion designer and founder of Judassime launched his first collection of club couture this summer. Tailored PVC two pieces, sky-high pagoda shoulders, spiky belts that play merry-go-round around the neck and lace-up snakeskin corsets – Voortmans' transhumans are poised and elegant under the flashy veneer of sartorial codes that denote techno clubwear. All of it is somewhat restricting and even uncomfortable (considering the new standards of what we deem comfortable). But then again, the subject matter of Voortmans' creations is not easily palatable.
Titled If we were made of meat, Voortmans' nineteen-look saga comments on the prevalent issue of animal agriculture in the fashion industry – it has been estimated that over two billion animals are used every year in the fur, leather and wool industries. “I had this image of businesswomen being wholly covered with snakeskin, deconstructed skirts, skin falling off, animals dipped in petrol, spiked suits… It is like a whole metaphor of stuffing the animals, putting them on ourselves and becoming the meat of tomorrow,” the designer says of the collection he designed and realised by himself (and with a little help from his father).

Voortmans belongs to a group of young creatives who debunk the traditional route to establishing their namesake labels and negate professional titles altogether, opting in to be multi-hyphenates. “I don't want my brand to be just a series of collections,” he says. “Fashion is a tool for me to express what I want,” and so is performance.

Over the last year, intending to “transcend the locked experience of boredom” – and jazz up the lockdown DJ sets we have become accustomed to – Voortmans, alongside his DJ friend Dana Montana, has staged a number of live-streamed street performances that have amassed over 230,000 viewers. “We have had fascinating interactions with people in the street looking, staring and even screaming at us. Still, it was fun because we were doing more than just sitting at home,” Voortmans says. “I don't want to stick to just fashion. I want to explore the world of performance thoroughly,” he adds.

After launching his delightfully grotesque collection video, Voortmans chats with us about his debut collection, trial and error, the irrelevance of labels and all the good things persevering through rejection can bring.
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Before we speak about your first collection, could you tell us a bit about the capsule collection that preceded If we were made of meat?
That collection was a transition of sorts. I was going to clubs and wanted to wear things that I could not find in shops. So I started making clothes, and they turned into a small capsule collection which I am not so proud of today. What I do now is way more me. I think I really found myself in this collection.
You launched your first collection in June. Tell us about the ideas behind it.
I wanted to imagine what it would be like if we were made of meat; if the human was the meat of tomorrow. Mass consumption is using animals to an extreme, and I wanted to comment on this. It is like a whole metaphor of stuffing the animals and putting them on ourselves.
I had this image of businesswomen being wholly covered with snakeskin, deconstructed skirts, skin falling off, animals dipped in petrol, spiked suits. I took the body, analysed it and made it dangerous, imagining the human body as the danger of tomorrow.
Why did you want to make the body dangerous?
Choosing your body can be a dangerous process, choosing to be who you truly are can be difficult, but as much as it is dangerous, it is beautiful. It is about finding beauty in what people may consider ugly. Non-conformity is really beautiful to me. I think of the beauty found in ugliness as an essential tool in my design process.
Inside Out, Undercover, Red From Filth, Piece of Me(at), Excuses, 1000 Sins, The Butcher, Ligaments… You have designated a name to every one of the nineteen looks in your collection. Was that to amplify the messages you were trying to communicate?
It made sense to name all the looks since each one stands on its own as a character with a story. All the names are derived directly from the inspiration, and for me, they complete the look; they also let the viewer imagine their own stories.
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Your collection criticises overconsumption. Yet, to play devil's advocate, how would you justify creating something new in the world that you blame for overproduction and overconsumption?
My collection is a critique of the overconsumption of animals broadly, as much as it is the critique of the use of animal fur and skin in the fashion industry. That's why my collection is made of ecological and vegan leather and fake fur; lots of the fabrics are recycled or dead stocks. My collection is not produced on a large scale or with the purpose to sell thousands of pieces. I'm going to approach it order by order and client by client without overproducing the pieces.
Your collection launched the day before the Royal Academy of Fine Arts fashion show. Was that a coincidence or a statement of sorts?
I applied twice to the Royal Academy, and I got rejected twice, so I decided to do it independently. I had the guts to do it on my own. Staging the show at that time was a statement. I wanted to show people that my passion drove me to do what I had to do even after being rejected from a school like that. It was a tiny middle finger to the school system but also a thank you for giving me the power to do it on my own.
You have modelled quite a bit and have been a muse of sorts to Sensen Lii, fashion designer and founder of Windowsen, during his time at Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Did being in close proximity to the Fashion Department affect your practice as a designer?
I modelled quite a few times, but I only enjoyed doing it for Sensen because he stays true to his creative vision. He inspired me to do it myself and not care about school or other people. But the academy has never really affected my work. I'm learning a great deal on my own. I don't have any structure behind me or anyone telling me what to do, so learning by myself is difficult, but it is also really rewarding. I let myself have enough time to blow things up because I realise I am super young. I allow myself the time to experiment.
So you are just 20, which is arguably a very young age to start a fashion label. When did you begin doing fashion?
I started doing fashion in secondary school in Brussels at 16. I began pretty early, but the kind of fashion I did was quite technical; the creativity was secondary, that came later.
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Did you grow up in Brussels?
I grew up just next to Brussels before coming to Antwerp. Brussels is super exhausting, and the people are not open to a lot of things. Antwerp is calm, familial and cute. My dream city used to be London before Brexit happened.
Antwerp is arguably the centre of avant-garde art and fashion. How has the city and its fashion community influenced your vision?
It is my motivation to do better than people who go to the Academy in Antwerp. People who have inspired me are not people in fashion. Club kids, people partying, people that took me under their wings when I arrived in Antwerp — that's who inspires me.
Speaking of the club scene in Antwerp, you have been staging online performances during lockdown with Dana Montana. Can you tell me a bit about that? How did you meet Dana, and how did your collaboration come about?
I met Dana after I broke up with my boyfriend. That was around the time I started working on this collection almost a year ago. We became friends because she took care of me! I was going through a massive depression, and Dana and her boyfriend helped me. They took me to their apartment, and that's how we became friends. It is a kind of friendship that will last. Also, we are doing something great professionally, I think.
Who came up with the idea of having those performances? Was it because you were bored?
People were asking us to do DJ sets. But lockdown DJ sets were just people playing on their decks in a room, with just a camera filming them. We just thought it was boring as hell, we wanted to make it more exciting, so we decided to take our stuff, paint ourselves, put the makeup on, get in dressed (in my designs, mostly) and go to the streets with the DJ set following us around. That's how it came about!
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You get the feeling that you are a part of the performance which you don't get when it is just someone playing in a room.
Yes! And it's nice because we have had fascinating interactions with people in the street looking, staring, even and screaming at us. Once some kids were trying to attack us with a ball. Still, it was fun because we were doing more than just sitting at home.
Would you say you are your own muse?
Yes, I totally am my own muse. I don't have a word for my style, maybe an alien gender-fluid non-binary thing. It is like a new creature that I am trying to channel through what I wear and create.
Would you say that you are a goth? There's a profusion of stark blacks tinged with scarlet in your designs, tightly laced corsets, precarious stilettos... The sartorial signifiers are there.
I have no idea, I am not really into labelling because every time people are like: what is your style? Why should I have an answer to that? When people see the colour black or metal, they go directly to labels like ‘anarchist,’ ‘goth’ or ‘satanist.’ I also use many BDSM stuff, and people think that I am into it but no, it's just an image of me I am projecting. It does not define me also as a person.
Would you want to sell this collection?
As much as I don't want to rush the selling process, I am already selling. Even before I released this collection, I had already sold some pieces. I wear my designs sometimes and people want to purchase them. The truth is I need to make money, so that's the goal: make good clothes that live through other people. But some pieces are impossible to sell because they are a bit hardcore to wear, but I am glad that even the bit more commercial pieces retain my signature fully.
What are your plans now that the collection is out? Should we expect a Judassime e-store? Where can the shoppers get their hands on your designs?
I'm already working on new stuff as well as the e-shop. I am also diving into my second collection already. But I also want to explore the world of performance thoroughly. I don't want to stick to just fashion. That's what I realise more and more: I don't want to give my whole life to fashion. Fashion is a tool for me to express what I want. I don't want my brand to be just a series of collections. I want to create clothes that I am proud of, perform how I want and sell what I want. Lots of little and big projects are coming soon, and I'm excited about the future of Judassime!
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