Styled: Felicia Garcia-Rivera
Fashion designers tend to fall into two groups: the showmen, who live to ferry celebs around on their yachts, design pirate costumes for their runway bows, and set up Twitter accounts for their cats. And the nose-to-the grindstone types, who are happiest letting their clothes do the talking. The 34-year-old Belgian Anthony Vaccarello—low-key and soft-spoken to the extreme—sits squarely in the second camp. Still, he knows how to stir up some drama from behind the scenes. Last year, the supermodel Anja Rubik, Vaccarello’s muse, was kicked off Instagram for posting a picture of herself in his nipple-baring black top. This was after she had stolen the show at the 2012 Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala in a white satin Vaccarello column: Delicately draped and slashed from the shoulder to the waist and from the torso to the hem, it was a braless, bikini-wax-not-optional balancing act that felt especially risqué on such a windy night.
Vaccarello got into the business straight out of La Cambre, a design and visual arts school in Brussels, after his senior collection won the top prize at the 2006 Festival d’Hyères, an influential talent-spotting competition. His superfitted looks were all in leather—a material he claims he had never worked with before—and two weeks after his win, Fendi, a house famous for its fine skins, came calling. “I was so lucky, I never really had to go out and apply for jobs,” he says. Vaccarello spent two years in the Fendi atelier in Rome as part of a small team working on ready-to-wear, and only left the job for love. “My boyfriend, Arnaud Michaux, was based in Paris, working for Lanvin,” he recalls. “I spent all my money going back and forth to see him and knew I was eventually going to have to make a decision. So I chose him.” It was Michaux who pushed him to launch his own collection. Vaccarello had some small savings from his Fendi job, and Michaux pitched in after hours. (He now works with Vaccarello full-time.)
Vaccarello’s timing wasn’t exactly auspicious. The year was 2009, and the luxury industry was, to put it mildly, ailing. But his erotic, powerful take on minimalism—he cites Azzedine Alaïa, Helmut Lang, and Gianni Versace as aesthetic heroes—was unique in a landscape that had turned to safe staples after the financial crisis. Maria Luisa Poumaillou, with her eponymous boutique on the Rue du Mont-Thabor, became his first client, and the right kind of shops followed: Joyce in Hong Kong, Kirna Zabete, and Jeffrey New York. Vaccarello was able to meet demand by keeping his collections—full of slim tailoring, high slits, clingy knits—abbreviated and to the point. “Plus, I never had any pretense of expecting to travel in business class, which makes things easier,” he says.
In 2011, Vaccarello took home the prestigious ANDAM Prize—previous winners include Martin Margiela, Christophe Lemaire, and Giles Deacon—and his fan base expanded considerably. “They really came to me,” he says of models like Rubik, Karlie Kloss, and Joan Smalls, who remain devoted supporters. (Jennifer Lopez is also a faithful client.) There’s a good reason why statuesque women are drawn to him: Vaccarello says he was never any good at sketching and therefore mostly constructs on the body. “It’s more like sculpture for me. I don’t even notice how high the slits are until I see the girls come in for the fittings, and I go, ‘Oh, okay!’ ”
While Vaccarello, in all his reserve, is unlikely to ever inspire a fashion parody on Saturday Night Live, he has scored big with one designer who has. When Donatella Versace was looking for someone to take over Versus Versace, sources pointed her in Vaccarello’s direction, and she invited him to design a capsule collection for spring 2015. “She’s like a rock star,” says Vaccarello, who was given unlimited access to the Versace archives. “I saw some of the same techniques in both our work.” He extended the synergy brilliantly, using Versace motifs like safety pins, Greek key trims, and asymmetry to softer, looser effect.
Versace was so pleased with the results that she offered the designer a permanent position as the creative director of Versus Versace, for both the men’s and women’s lines. Vaccarello, who will also continue to helm his own brand, relishes the chance to broaden his horizons. “I’ve learned that prints are about more than just florals that distract,” he says, laughing. The resources that come with the house that Gianni built aren’t bad, either. “I used to have to ask factories for fabric remnants,” he confides. “Now I’m buying rolls. It’s a whole new world.”
Hair by Marc Lopez at ArtList New York; makeup by Adrien Pinault for MAC at Management + Artists; manicures by Christina Conrad at Calliste. Models: Othilia Simon, Elodia Prieto at Silent Models NY. Produced by Michael Lacomblez at PRODn Paris. Digital Technician: Rhys Thorpe. Photography Assistants: Aline Blocman, Alexandre Philippon. Fashion Assistant: Priscilla Teko.