In your twenties, hope feels like the most cunning liar, and yet, you find solace in its whispered sweet nothings about this being the best time of your life. Were I not deep within these years myself, I’d appreciate the irony from afar, but alas, I can’t. Youth is a transient, convoluted period, where you’re perpetually dissatisfied with the present, struggling to piece together your identity, all while genuinely believing that no one else quite gets you. This serves as quite a fitting prelude to the work of Willy Vanderperre, whose lens unerringly captures the emotions and visceral complexity that pervade this tumultuous decade.
In our conversation, he spoke of the magic of youth, the interplay between the observer and the observed, and much more, all of which come to life in his new exhibition Willy Vanderperre: prints, films, a rave and more… Held at the ever-so-notable MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp, the exhibition showcases three decades of his photographic work, with 250 photographs adorning the walls. Throughout these decades, the emotionally charged sentiments that arise when one reflects on youth - whether it is ongoing or long past - have remained central to his inspirations. His images, in all their raw wonder, often feature his collaborative work with husband, Olivier Rizzo, to whom this show is dedicated, and his close friend Raf Simons.
Our chat laid bare the intricacies behind his visual language, while offering some advice to today’s young people. There’s a unique sorrow in scrolling through social media at 3am, comparing your seemingly dim reality to bright curated lives – a disparity we’ll discuss later on. As a preview to our chat, Vanderperre begs the melancholic and confused youth to: “Please stay naïve. Please do stupid things. It’s so nice to be just, wrong. There’s something so beautiful about not getting it right. Such a beautiful learning experience.”
During my visit, with a spring in my step that was just shy of obvious (borderline visible), I stumbled into the exhibition space on a tour led by Vanderperre, as if the universe itself – or indeed, MoMu – had planned it. As we moved from piece to piece, each came alive with its own poignant tale entwined within its creation, and narrated by the creator himself. Some stories ran long and deep, others short but still thick with passion: “And then here’s Mark Ruffalo… because… it’s Mark Ruffalo” [Mark, Perfect Magazine, #6, 2024].
As for the longer stories, they offered reminders that young people so desperately need. Astoundingly naïve and with hopeful hearts, youth has yet to realise that true impact doesn’t rely on perfection or luxury – an amusing oversight, given we couldn’t afford it even if it were. As a young person myself, I continuously faced this reality across the collection of images: the power of art doesn’t depend on flawless execution or expensive resources. Rather, it hinges on your perspective – the lens through which you view reality shapes the impact of the stories you tell. The box in which a Dior dress arrives can be just as impactful as the dress itself - a message Vanderperre conveys through two images he captured, placed side by side.
To the right, featured in Dior Magazine, #4, 2013, Elise Crombez wears a Dior couture dress by Raf Simons. To the left, from AnOther Magazine, #16, 2009, Anne Vyalitsyna wears a dress made of cardboard, styled by Olivier Rizzo. Facing these two masterpieces in their own right, Vanderperre went on to comment: “That’s a Dior Couture dress made by Raf Simons at that time and his team. And this [pointing to the image on the left] is [styled] by my husband, Olivier Rizzo. We did a shoot and he just taped cardboard around her. That image is equally as important to me as the couture. DIY is something I always want to promote, because at the end of the day, when we all start, we don’t have the ability to get a Dior dress. If you do that [the cardboard dress] it's equally as impactful as that Dior. I think that is a message that you want to continue to say to younger kids. They all want to shoot that one Balenciaga, or that other amazing dress… it can also be an amazing picture, of an amazing cardboard that you just fabricate yourself, and it will be just as impactful as the image of the Dior dress. That’s the story I wanted to say with the dialogue between those two images”.
The tour then naturally segued into a chat with Vanderperre. Read-on, then make it a point to visit prints, films, a rave and more…, and for the so-called naïve among you, consider it a strength – you’re actually getting it right!
Chloé, Robbie, i-D Magazine #206, 2001. Models: Chloé Winkel, Robbie Snelders ©Willy Vanderperre.
A deep-seated fascination with youth lies at the heart of your work and resonates throughout the exhibition. As a twenty-two-year-old myself, these years feel fleeting and deeply complex, and I’m curious about how you approach capturing this intensity so vividly in your work?
I wish we had more time to talk because you capture so much of what I’ve tried to do with the work. I listen to people - I listen to my models and what they have to say. It’s like I often say, there is something truly magical about youth, and I’ve attempted to capture this essence in my photography, despite the age difference between us – I am 53, next to you being 22. So I try to start with a conversation, because I’m a photographer. Being a photographer is a weird profession, because there is a sort of fire stick side to it as well – it’s about sparking a connection. It needs to start with getting a sort of trust from people, from the person that you will photograph, so it always starts with a simple question. I think in that sense you already start to understand who you’re talking to and how the picture will work and what you will do with that person.
You start to figure out how you will transfer energy, in fact, that’s what an image is. I transfer energy to the person in front of me, and the person receives and can give back to me, so we can build much more trust in a short amount of time. The more energy he or she can transfer back to me, the more beautiful the image will be. It is very important. I think it’s maybe the base of everything when you take a picture, especially when working with younger people, and especially with youth.
It's a topic I’m very cautious with nowadays because there’s a huge generational difference. I will always feel youthful, that’s me. I am very interested in tomorrow and I live in the today. I do care about the past, of course, I look at it because there’s, you know, there’s things that you take with it. But, I always bring it to the new. There’s this barrier, however. Now, me talking to you, I forget that I’m 53. So it’s kind of weird, because you don’t forget that I’m 53, I’m older than you, and you can see that. So it’s a very complex thing for the moment, talking to youth, I’m much more controlled in my actions towards younger people. The age gap is very difficult, it’s big. So that’s why I say, it would be pretentious of me to say I understand youth. Of course, I don’t understand youth, I am 53 years old! It’s the same as when I was growing up and my father was 50 – he didn’t understand a word that I was saying!
What I try to do is be interested in the person in front of me and try to make an image that reflects their identity. That identity is perceived through my eyes, so the image is kind of a proposition – a visual thought process about who I believe that person is. It’s a give-and-take.
That depth of connection is so apparent throughout the exhibition, especially in the images where models interact with each other. It feels as though there’s a storyline unfolding between them, which really brings to life the dialogue of energy exchange you described. And I completely resonate with what you mentioned before about life – the past, the present and the future. I feel that many people my age, we miss this perspective. We often find ourselves chasing experiences, almost manufacturing memories to ensure they look good in retrospect. We revisit the past, scrutinising it to ensure it fits our desired narrative, all in an effort to shape an interesting identity. So, by the time we’re thirty, or fifty, or seventy, we can say we did it all: attended the right concerts, bought the merchandise and amassed a collection of memorabilia. A collection that reflects who we are, or were – someone interesting, someone who lived a life worth remembering. Given this, I’m curious what realisation do you wish you could shake young people into understanding? 
Yes, exactly. Naïvety. I think it’s something that is lacking a lot today. We try to collect pieces and make sure that it’s perfect, but, imperfections are the best memories. Please stay naïve. Please do stupid things. It’s so nice to be just, wrong. There’s something so beautiful about not getting it right. Such a beautiful learning experience. It’s weird, it’s a bit like the dialogue I did with the Dior dress before, right? Now when I talk to younger stylists or photographers, they just want it to be the perfect picture of that perfect dress, but maybe it doesn’t have to be expressed in that way. Even on Instagram, the generation now, (again, my perception of it), it’s not so much that you just like that image, it’s hoping that you belong to the group of people whose lives are in that image. There’s a whole different value to that, of why you would click or why you would like or why you would be interested in something. So from what I said about perfection, you can take a picture, and send it to a friend, and that friend will say “send it to a magazine”, and then you never know what might happen! There’s something about those images, they’re less controlled. Loosen up. But on the other hand, you live in such a difficult time. It’s a weird time. When we were growing up, we had the AIDS crisis, which, particularly as a gay person, felt like a major threat because there was so little knowledge at the time. And then there were fears about the bomb. You on the other hand have to deal with wars all over, with climate change! I think that’s why I’m so intrigued and interested and genuinely impressed with youth, literally so impressed because you keep being positive and you keep fighting for it, and it’s such a duty, so congratulations (laughs).
So we might be naïve after all, being so positive (laughs).
Yeah probably (laughs)! And your ideology, that’s also beautiful, that you want to create a perfect world. That’s the beauty of it, that you are fighting for that. You are so vocal. Next to the fact that of course social media has its negative sides, and I fully understand what it can do. It tortures people and really, can make people really miserable. But it’s also the platform that actually gives your generation that strength as well.
Absolutely, while social media can be quite toxic and overwhelming, there’s much we can gain by viewing it through a more discerning lens rather than absorbing all the negativity. Having just completed our tour of the exhibition, the curation really stood out to me as I felt it complemented the thematic depth of youth, which is so central to the photographs themselves. In one of the rooms, the walls reminded me of my own bedroom. The pieces felt as though arranged on impulse, yet the overall effect was considered and thought out. It felt kind of similar to how I handle new posters: I stick one on the wall, and then after a few weeks I buy another one and stick it –  next to it, on top, or diagonally – and then continue doing so until the entire wall, though mismatched, becomes cohesive. It works because of the impulse. Could you share more about your approach to the curation of the exhibition?
Exactly! That room to me as well feels like my own teenage room. I thought about what I would hang there: would it be well thought over, or more of a random way of collecting? It was like a collection of ideas. We began with just two images in that room. We placed those two first and then built from there, without even thinking what would come after. What do I see next to it? This. Okay, I’ll put it there, and then we kept it there, without even thinking about it or even noticing where it was placed. It was more about doing what felt right. Is that one there at the top my favorite picture? Not really, but hey, it was my initial gut reaction, and so it stayed. That’s how the room grew. We didn’t overthink it. I didn’t deliberate over every addition. We just sort of went with it, saying, Okay, this one goes here. Occasionally, we had to shift things slightly to find a way to keep it from becoming too chaotic, but we never doubted the pull, because that was very organic. This picture. And, okay, what else, oh, that one, I’d pull it, place it, okay there. There was something nice about that, it was kind of freeing. It was a real pleasure talking to you. I hope to see you later –  are you coming to the rave?
It’s been wonderful talking with you – the exhibition is just beautiful. And of course I’m coming to the rave, I’m 22, I have to.
Rejoice, Dust #24, 2024. Model: Rejoice Chuoi ©Willy Vanderperre.
Mika, AnOther Magazine #45, 2023. Model: Mika Argañaraz ©Willy Vanderperre.
Luca, Luca/12 #11, 2017. ©Willy Vanderperre.
Anok, Anok/12, 2018. Model: Anok Yai ©Willy Vanderperre.
Lisa, Dior Magazine #12, 2015. Model: Lisa Upp ©Willy Vanderperre.
Alpha, Document #10, 2017. Model: Alpha Diaz ©Willy Vanderperre.
Clément, Clément/12, 2017. Model: Clément Chabernaud ©Willy Vanderperre.
Daan, Dust #16, 2020. model: Daan Duez ©Willy Vanderperre.
Willy_Vanderperre_7 2.jpg
Jonas, Prada Disdressed Fall/Winter 2016. Model: Jonas Gloër ©Willy Vanderperre.
Julia, Love #16, 2016. Model: Julia Nobis ©Willy Vanderperre.