Accessories designer Niels Peeraer debuts his inaugural collection not without a belt of accolades that puts him a cut above his contemporaries. Having graduated tops from the Prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts, alma mater to the Antwerp 6, Niels has gone on to win the coveted Belgian scholarship Horlait-Dapsens Award and the Momu Award of the Fashion Museum in Antwerp. And most recently, he struck gold with industry heavy weights in the likes of Michelle V. Harper who was caught Streetstyled with his signature Hexagon Eye handbag at Paris Fashion Week.
Like Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten, his Belgian predecessors, the 22-year old believes in keeping a consistent thread in his designs from one season to the next. This very fearless streak to be independent of temporal trends landed him the Innovation Award for his BA Collection by BVBA32, a company behind Demeulemeester and Haider Ackermann.
Street cred aside, his work is equally pronounced as his past achievements. Reflecting curiosities in Asian contemporary pop culture, from citing Tony Leung to post-apocalyptic Japanese Anime, Niels’ accessories is pregnant with references, that exults his work to become intellectual designs. We speak to this emerging designer about his namesake label Niels Peeraer.
Tell us about your first collection.
It’s a story about a boy and a girl who are the only survivors of their clan – taken from Japanese Anime. Their family crest is the eye and they are holding on to preserving it. But in order for them to survive in this sort of dystopian society they have to be discreet. So, they kind of hid their crest in their headgears, in the backpacks; it’s all integrated into the design. And more importantly, I wanted to give a certain spirituality to this collection hence the eye. But it’s not a reference to the ‘all seeing eye’. Then again, it’s for people to fill in.
Just looking at your inspiration book, there is a lot of Asian pop culture influence. Why Asia?
It’s something very unconscious. I come from a small town in Belgium. I always tell people that I think I was a geisha in my previous life! It’s a fascination that comes from my heart. I was in Japan 2 years ago, the summer before my graduation it fed this fascination. I really like cute things and it’s something in the western world, we are very scared about. Or we label it as childish. I want to show that you can be both functional and cute at the same time. It’s not kitsch though.
Who are these people you have in your sketchbook?
They are just everyday people that intrigue me. I always search for inspiration in ordinary people, on Instagram, people on the street. And it’s very personal. I think it makes your designs more powerful if you pour your heart into it. Which again explains why my existing collection comes from the same world as the previous collection. After all, I’m still the same person, you know?
Some people might associate your leatherwork to be underscored with fetish. Would you agree?
My inspiration is never fetish but I want to echo the functionality of those accessories. I think accessories should not just be decorative; I want my designs to work. At this moment I’m focusing on nude leather with golden hardware. The leather is always hard and sturdy and there is the use of clean lines. It’s not over-decorated with details. I always tell people that I aim to make a bag that can survive a war!
When did you decide to become an accessories designer?
I only decided to do accessories in my final year at Antwerp Fashion Academy. I noticed a medium I like to work with most, the leather. I don’t think my assets lie in making the best pockets. I think that it’s important to know that about yourself. I just found my own way to work with leather in my graduation collection. There’s no seam, just studs and bolts.
How has winning these competitions helped you?
I won the Delvaux Award which gave me a chance to work with them on a limited edition handbag. They taught me how to be functional. I had a closing that was so complicated, that it was not very practical. For me that was the interesting part, because I was never really a designer that designed shapes that have nothing to do with the body. I’m quite fond of, really, clothes. Not art pieces. There is still a human body; it moves.
How do you as a young designer compete with big brands?
Firstly, everything is handmade. Everything is cut by hand, and I finish all the leather myself before attaching the studs. For now, the sourcing for leather and production are all done in Paris. I want to keep this handmade; craftsmanship. You know today everything moves really fast. I want to go back a bit. It’s a responsibility as a young designer to slow down the production for the quality to keep up. I want people to think about what they buy and spend on something decent that lasts longer, not just based on trends. For me, it’s about finding your own world and your niche. Of course it’s hard to compete with the big brands but it's also not hard to try.
Do you pay a lot of attention to other designers?
I don't really look that much to fashion. I don’t need to see everything because it blocks you in a certain way. It will influence you so I try to stay away from that too much, and I got credited for that in my graduation collection. It might have its disadvantages as well, but it’s just my way of working.
How would you describe your label in a few words?
Again, my designs are really related to the past collection. It’s a very Belgian aesthetic to not think in styles and trends but to keep doing your own thing and be good at what you do to make timeless pieces.