• Marieke van Dongen
"As a student you're designing a collection with an eye to what you want to do afterwards. You’re not designing that collection just for yourself. You're using it to say something – you want to reach a particular audience."


Marieke van Dongen works as a senior designer for Raf Simons. She began her studies at Arnhem’s ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in 2002 and stayed on with Simons after her 2005 internship.


What were you hoping to see and hear from the Lichting candidates? “That they’d thought about their collections. That the students took things as far as they could. Going by what I’ve seen, I think the level in general at the Dutch academies could be higher. I wasn’t that concerned with how they presented their portfolios and phrased their ideas. It’s only on the catwalk that you can tell if the clothes really work. Of course, I looked at the portfolios to see where they did their research; the creation of a process is always what I find most interesting.”


What struck you most? “With quite a few of the students, I got the idea that they were preoccupied with the concept, even though they were working on a very material level. They forgot about the visual language. It’s important to work with proportions and to propose something new. With degree work, you need to show your specific vision of what fashion should be.”


Which Lichting candidates stand out for you so far? [At the time of the interview, Marieke hadn’t yet seen the show – ed.] “One I found interesting – I don’t know what it’ll be like on the catwalk – was Ilonka Putkaradze [of the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam]’s grey-toned collection, which was based on sculpture. I found her to be a strong personality. She had an adult take on fashion; her collection was refined, elegant and chic. She knew what she was doing. The combination of wearable pieces and experimental forms was well balanced.”


“Jef Montes [of ArtEZ in Arnhem] did some interesting things at the material level; his work had a couture quality, and the styling was good. He based his collection on priests’ clothing, but the end result was like something from another planet. I thought it was strong. And I found Morta Griskeviciute [of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie] inspiring. She did good research and translated it effectively in her materials. But at the same time, she lost sight of the form.”


Do you know why that was? “I asked her, “Where does your form come from?” Her collection was well developed in itself, but it had the potential to be more. Someone should have said, “Great, you know what you’re doing with your material, and that’s interesting, but you need to be doing something else that makes the form new.” Again, these students certainly have potential, but [the schools] haven’t got the best out of them yet. There’s room for improvement.”


You work in Belgium and are familiar with the operations of La Cambre in Brussels and the Antwerp academy. Did you see differences between them and the Dutch academies? “What struck me at Lichting was a lack of technique. Come on, guys – if you’re using a particular type of material, you need to think about the workmanship that suits it. One suggestion for improvement would be that they make sure that by graduation, students have made a couple of collections of at least six pieces each.”


“And internships should be mandatory, to supplement learning. It’s only after doing an internship that students can know if they want to work commercially or for a designer or to set up their own label or do more internships – which is smart, because these days you need a great deal of experience if you want to get a job.”


You stayed on with Raf Simons after he offered you a job. “It was a great opportunity for me back then, and I didn’t have to think about it for long. It happened in an organic way. To be honest – and this is a bit harsh, toward myself as well – I think if I’d graduated and not had that internship experience with Raf, I wouldn’t have got the job. My internship gave me a chance to show what I could do. If I’d just graduated, I might not have known what to do with my collection. I was very green when I entered the fashion world.”


Did you get that impression of the Lichting candidates? “I don’t think students in general ask themselves what their role in fashion is. I get the idea that they live in a bubble and don’t give enough thought to the bigger picture.”


“And I sometimes got the feeling that the ambition just wasn’t there. A lot of the students couldn’t tell us what they wanted to do after school. The academy could provide some guidance there. After all, as a student you’re designing a collection with an eye to what you want to do afterwards. You’re not designing that collection just for yourself. You’re using it to say something – you want to reach a particular audience. At least, that’s how it should be.”


“A degree collection should show everything a person is capable of, and it’s fine if it’s extreme – you don’t have to sell it yet. And I didn’t think the Lichting collections were extreme.”


How smart is it to set up your own brand? “Right now? Gosh. I was talking to Raf about this recently. When he started, the economy was different. Back then, there were people in Japan with pockets full of money, waiting for new collections. I do have respect for people who are trying to do it now. If you feel strong and you have something to say, then start a brand. Eventually, you’ll build up work experience with shows and photo shoots. That will give you a strong profile if you ever want to work for a company.”


What advice would you give to new graduates? “I would say to enter as many international competitions as you can. Then you’ll see what other people are doing, you’ll get opinions on your work, and you’ll be able to build a network, which is very important. My former colleague graduated from La Cambre, and Raf was on the jury. If someone likes your work, it does pay off.”


By Georgette Koning