A brass band, kiddies in puffy dresses playing hide and seek between long picnic tables, endless floats of champaign and men puffing big cigars while their diamond-clad ladies casually lean against vintage Rolls Royces, discussing the latest gossip with their crazy mothers-in-law: count on Natan’s Mr. Vermeulen to turn a fashion show into the opening scene of The Godfather!
It’s no secret that Eduard Vermeulen likes to host parties: the entire Belgian press is invited to savor sweets and bubbles in one of his ateliers twice a year as he releases his new collections into the world. But back in the eighties, the partying was just that little bit more special, he recalls, as we sit in his fitting room on a rainy afternoon, going through old pictures. I found them in a big red box in the attic of his headquarters, while I was snooping around as a young journalism intern years ago. (That’s also a great thing about the man: he may be the queen’s personal couturier, but somehow doesn’t mind a super curious nobody snooping around the building.) Now, older and wiser, I finally gathered up the courage to ask him about those pictures and here we are. I climbed the old wooden stairs at the back of the house, skipped the rolls of fabric gathering dust on the upper floor leading up to the attic and stumbled upon The Box again.
It must be said, few fashion houses’ history is as intrinsically linked to brick and mortar as Natan’s, as it is through the stately building on the notorious Avenue Louize that a young Vermeulen discovered his passion for couture. He was looking for a nice place to display his interior decorating work in 1983 and ended up renting a space at Paul Natan’s, a townhouse acting as headquarters for the namesake brand that had kept fancy ladies in awe since the early thirties. Their cooing was to be multiplied, as from then on they had to pass through Vermeulen’s colorful universe before reaching the couturières at the back of the house. He greeted them with taste, honesty and loads of charme, and not before long they were all conquered. “Back then, the entire avenue was populated by couturiers, who would welcome their clientele in majestic townhouses. There were no window displays, no big logos, no doormen, everything was really personal and visiting one’s tailor was an intimate, privileged moment. This particular house was a private residence too before Paul Natan turned it into a fashion stronghold. When I was 24, the lady owning the brand retired and suggested I took over the reigns. I didn’t hesitate for a minute and there I was, an interior designing spring chicken sitting in this grand empty house at the helm of a fashion label. Little detail: I had no collection yet.”
So, what to do -besides completely freaking out (and maybe hiding in the cupboard under the grand stairs)? Have a party of course! Oh well, that ànd design an entirely new collection in less than six month’s time. “The year was 1986, I set up a grand fashion show on a nearby estate and partnered with the Oeuvre Nationale des Aveugles to attract some public on top of the former Natan clientèle. They would pay for their seat at the show and the proceeds were to go the the association. The then princess Paola was its patroness, which meant I has my very first royal sitting front row.” The next day, clients started flocking to Natan, and turns out the future queen of Belgium was to be the first of a long, lòng line of royals turning to Mr. Vermeulen for some wardrobe fun.
Speaking about fun. While nowadays we rush in and out of catwalk shows, fifteen minutes top chrono, barely noticing what’s unveiling in front of our eyes, our gaze scotched to our smartphone screen, feet stuffed into comfortable sneakers, back in the days defilés were social occasions and everybody was determined to have the biggest possible amount of fun. Ladies would show up wearing huge velvet hairbows, throats tightly wrapped in their best carré Hermès and their fingers, heavy with chunky eighties rings, would grasp champaign glasses that somehow never stayed empty. And Mr. Vermeulen of course, was never far away to assure that everybody had the best time. Even the models took it easy, parading down the catwalk with cigarettes dangling between their lips. “Ah yes, those were the heydays of Inès de la Fressange and the likes, everybody was just laid-back and decontracté chic like that, there was a lot of freedom and I guess we didn’t realize how cool we all were. The models were a mix of personal friends and professionals. Mon Dieu, it’s crazy to see all these ladies in the pictures… you should see everybody now. Look at mé now, ahaha!”
More of this velvet-clad trip down memory lane? Pour yourself a glass of vintage champaign and enjoy: