PARIS — “You don’t get to have that many debuts in your career,” Ludovic de Saint Sernin told WWD in an exclusive interview ahead of his debut collection as creative director for Ann Demeulemeester on Saturday.

De Saint Sernin, 32, was appointed in December, a marker of a new era that began when the brand was acquired by Italian retailer Claudio Antonioli in 2020, with the avowed aim of restoring the storied label to its former glory.

“I was very humbled by it and the idea of a designer taking on another designer’s legacy, and being reminded of how good and how amazing it is,” said the Paris-based designer, who will continue to helm his namesake label.

Revamping Demeulemeester is a large undertaking, not least because many from his and following generations don’t know the Belgian designer and her part in the era-defining Antwerp Six. “So there is this whole thing of just highlighting everything that she has done and owning again and giving her that power back, then taking it to the next level for the future,” he said.

His first chapter for Ann Demeulemeester, to be revealed at 8 p.m. on Saturday at the Lycée Carnot in Paris, will be “a love letter.”

To reveal her departure in late 2013, Demeulemeester had sent handwritten missives to all her creative collaborators and selected members of the press, in which she thanked them and explained that her path would be separate from her namesake label.

“That was a very emotional time and my idea is to pick up where she left,” de Saint Sernin said, hinting that the first look of the fall 2023 collection would symbolize that letter come to life.   

If he was tight-lipped about much of what he’s about to showcase, it’s because he wants those attending Saturday’s show to form their own interpretation of what he promises will be a sensual and poetic moment, but also because they should “enjoy the show as the prime art form of that reveal.”

“Ann was all about shows,” he said. “She didn’t do a lot of imagery and all you know of her is runway photos.”

Among the standouts of the season, he named the white shirt because that’s the first item that comes to mind when he thinks of the brand, and a new take on the three-hole dress where the whole construction will hinge on four darts.

Beyond that, he’s pushing forward with the gender-fluid angle, adapting cuts to ensure a flattering fit for feminine or masculine bodies, in contrast to his own brand. He also talked about equestrian style, not as a literal reference but because he liked the “energy and attitude.”

There will be accessories and shoes, congruent with footwear being a huge part of the Ann Demeulemeester business, so he wanted to have “an amazing pair of boots” with her signature. In fact, he wants to “take all these amazing techniques and apply them as a signature” for Ann Demeulemeester because he’s not about to tack a huge logo on anything.

Overall, he plans to showcase “a more mature approach where I want to also present myself as a couturier,” in contrast with his own brand, where he prefers not to take himself too seriously and doesn’t feel “a need to spell it out for people.”

Straight after his nomination, the new creative director dove into the 2,000-page tome on Demeulemeester’s work published by Rizzoli in 2014, a compendium he deemed “a bible that had every single picture of every single show she ever did” and an incredible resource for his work.

“My first instinct was to go through that book and find myself in it,” he recalled, naming the ‘90s, and particularly 1997 to 2000, as a moment he particularly recognized himself in.

But he also alighted on the autobiographical nature of a brand Demeulemeester still calls “her baby”; her tireless work ethic; the sensuality built into each garment, and the way her aesthetic coalesced into a community — all traits he feels they share.

To approach “such a personal brand and such a poetic and beautiful story,” de Saint Sernin felt he had to “get into the character,” going as far as to try on archival looks he’d singled out from the book because he “wanted to know how it felt,” since photos didn’t fully expose every aspect.

As daunting as it seemed initially, he felt it was a luxury to find a body of work, archives and messages that still feel relevant today. “And that made my job so much easier.”

He describes the Ann Demeulemeester brand as having “this feminine touch, this intellect and at the same time, this sensuality,” a vibe he wants to tap into for this new chapter, while still homing in on gender fluidity.

Another way he connected with Demeulemeester’s work is that “she was really her own muse,” creating a readily identifiable and recognizable silhouette, an exercise in self-definition that is in vogue today among his generation. And Demeulemeester’s muse Patti Smith has personal significance, too.

“[Smith] changed my entire life when I read her book ‘Just Kids,’ which I’ve quoted since the very first season that I came out with my own brand,” he said, calling the book “a defining moment for me in terms of understanding what it is to look for your identity, define yourself as a person — whether it’s who you are, who you love, what you love — and also as an artist, what makes you unique and different, and cultivate that.”

This new beginning is not exactly a blank slate. Not only does he have access to the house archives, but he’s also working with collaborators like stylist Olivier Rizzo, who made his debut with the Belgian designer.

Plus he’s had the opportunity to meet Demeulemeester herself. She’s not involved in any formal capacity with the brand but she looms large over her namesake label as a benevolent, gentle but nonetheless vigilant presence.

“I felt it was such a beautiful gift that she gave me because she is very discreet and very private,” he enthused, calling their time together a blessing and a reminder of the weighty responsibility that comes with her name and legacy.

The incumbent artistic director has confidence in his ability to deliver “something that’s going to start a new chapter for the brand,” but he also feels all this comes with a responsibility to shine a light on Demeulemeester’s continued creative practice, like the tableware, lighting and now furniture lines she designs with Belgian brand Serax.

Much of the exercise is, by his own admission, a way of making this archival vocabulary his own and proving that he has what it takes to steer Ann Demeulemeester forward.

“After that, I think I’ll just spread my wings and see where that takes me,” said de Saint Sernin.

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