Mikael Vilchez started his brand Forbidden Denimeries with the aim to spend artistically the money he’d earned through winning various awards, reconnect with his family members and heritage (which extends from Russia to Peru), and defy and subvert gender roles. After a few collections, which he’s shown through ModeSuisse, he’s decided to stop following the industry’s fast-paced calendar and take his time instead to develop and create in a more mindful way. Today we speak with him about the importance of family, breaking the moulds, and his decision to detach from the seasonal schedule.
From a very young age, you felt the need to express yourself through image-making – illustration, photography or video. But why did you choose to become a fashion designer?
I decided to become a fashion designer, and more specifically, the artistic director of my own brand, because this job allows me to link different mediums of expression in order to tell stories through the process of collections.
As far as I know, you take the pictures and make the videos of your brand’s lookbooks and campaigns. Is it a way to connect all these artistic and creative interests you were just talking about?
I started creating the images for my collections as a fashion design student, but when I launched the brand, I decided to collaborate with videographers and photographers to explore different points of view. This enriched me very much and I was very happy with the results. Today, I’m considering regaining control over the visual communication of my next collections because I feel visuals are an intrinsic component of my artistic project, and clearly my creativity extends to visual communication.
You founded Forbidden Denimeries in 2018, so it’s still very young. It challenges gender codes through garments, like a mermaid-inspired skirt, for example. Why did you decide to start your own brand?
I won several awards for my Master’s collection, which was named Forbidden Denimeries. I thought that creating my brand would be the most fulfilling use (artistically speaking) of the money I had earned through with the awards.
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In your collections as a fashion design student, you explored your background and origins. Your BA collection was inspired by your grandmother, and the MA collection was based on your Peruvian/Latin roots. How did your origins influence your work back then, and what influence do they have now?
Working on my origins is indeed important to me. It allows me to create indelible traces of my ancestors, people I love, some of whom have passed away. My grandmother, for example, was one of the most important people in my life. Creating a collection off one of her dresses was like making a totem pole that would outlive her.
I had a very introspective way of creating collections during my academic years. The first two Forbidden Denimeries collections as a label were about setting the bases of the brand in terms of fit, style and visual identity. I would now like to reintroduce the exploration of my origins as part of my creative process so that together with my muses, they pursue the storytelling of narrative collections.
After finishing your Bachelor degree in 2014, you decided to move to Paris to work at the womenswear design department of Balenciaga. How did this experience and living in Paris inform your brand?
My year in Paris was as wonderful as it was unhappy. Indeed, that year, I achieved my dream of working for my favourite house, Balenciaga. But that same year, my grandmother had a stroke that deeply disturbed me because I could no longer communicate with her with words. Living in Paris and designing for someone else in such a terrible time was not easy, but it was also a year of success as I won a Swiss Design Award then – and with the money of the prize, I decided to move back to Switzerland and start a Master Degree. This allowed me to start to create independently again and be reunited with my grandmother.
Questioning gender and stereotypes has always been an inspiration in your work. Where does this interest stem from?
I grew up surrounded by women with very strong personalities. Since I was a little boy, I identified myself with feminine strength and determination, which I’ve also been inspired by through the cinematographic arts (movies, series) and music. I have always admired women with power, women who are successful, women who take charge of their lives. I think that these women are role models. However, I never rejected my sex or my manhood nor have I demonized the masculine. Forbidden Denimeries is the expression of identity freed from hierarchies between genders.
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How do you want people to feel when they are wearing your clothes?
Different and sexy.
Forbidden Denimeries was also the name of your Master Degree collection at Head-Genève. Why is this name so important for you?
The term ‘forbidden’ poses my challenging statement on, and deliberate transgression of, social prohibitions around gender, and more broadly, all my questioning in regards to what gender really means. All of this is expressed through the denim vocabulary (‘denimeries’) because it is a very democratized, modest, yet most lively material. It also reminds me of the daring years of Britney Spears and all the other divas I listened to as a teenager.
Greetings from Pantelleria, your latest collection, is inspired by a trip to the Italian island with a mysterious lover. Because it has a narrative going on, how was the designing process like?
Before leaving for Pantelleria, I had a basic collection plan for Spring/Summer 2020. I let this plan evolve according to my experience on this island – my clothing needs, the happy moments I spent with my boyfriend, etc. It had been a long time since I last let myself live; Pantelleria did a lot of good to my body and mind, so I went back to work very inspired. The Spring/Summer 2020 collection subtly captures the guts of such a mystical island and is also a reflection of how its deep primary colours and authentic lifestyle arouse one’s senses to create the most precious souvenir.
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Since the first collection, you’ve tried to use eco-friendly materials, but in Greetings from Pantelleria, you go further in your commitment to respect the environment. Do you think that new, emerging brands are more concerned about these issues?
I wouldn’t say that, unfortunately. Many emerging brands are still completely ignorant of the ethical and environmental issues posed by disrespectful fashion practices. I made the choice not to enter an archaic system; it’s a matter of responsibility.
Hip-hop is always present in your runway shows. Is hip-hop culture one of your main inspirations? What else inspires your work?
Hip-hop culture is everything to me. Without me noticing back then, hip-hop and R&B soundtracked my childhood and adolescence. Musically, I will be forever marked by hip-hop, R&B and pop from the ‘90s and 2000s. A journalist friend, Phillippe Pourhashemi, reflected that many people are forever marked by the cultural references of their adolescence. I recognize myself in this: my teenage years were so emotionally intense that the visual and musical decor of that time will remain etched in me forever.
What can we expect from your next collection? Can you give us a brief idea?
It may be related to Russian culture and history, which is also part of my family’s history as my grandmother was Russian herself – she was the granddaughter of a princess in Georgia, so they had to flee during the revolution when my grandmother was a baby. My interest in my Russian roots was recently revived when I saw a series on the history of the last Tzars: the assassination by hardliner bolsheviks of the Tsar and his family, including five children, was an act of utter barbarism. I had nightmares about it.
However, it connected me even more powerfully to my late grandmother, who as a person had been an inspiration for a previous collection; this time, the history she carried with her may a more specific inspiration for the next one. I am not sure about the timing though, as I decided to stop chasing the fashion calendar and its fast pace. The next collection is likely to come in 2020-21. What is certain is that it will be the fruit of deep inspiration.
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