Scaring Away the Demons: An Interview with Fashion Designer and Artist Christophe Coppens

One might expect someone with the credentials of Christophe Coppens – internationally acclaimed avant garde fashion designer, official milliner for the Belgian Royal Family, former theatre actor and director, burgeoning artist – to be radically unapproachable. Instead, Coppens shakes your hand warmly, orders iced tea at an outdoor café, talks about his love for cheap avocado toast and the 20s style bungalows in Silverlake. Perhaps this is why Coppens jumped the brutal, fast-paced, capitalist boat of the fashion industry circuit five years ago, abandoning his label to pursue art.

A lot of other designers have recently jumped the same ship, and have actually found refuge in Los Angeles – namely Hedi Slimane, who left Saint Laurent after an incendiary three years at the helm of the label. But there is something more to Coppens, underneath the surface of his accomplishments, even his openness. As we discuss his oscillations between different worlds, pieces from his newest exhibition, “50 Masks: Made In America,” twirl on mechanized pirouettes in the gallery window, the likes of which include: the American flag stitched into a terrifying ape mask, displaying its sharp teeth (“Trump Mask”); a mask made from a plastic bag filled with red and blue prescription pills (“Refill Mask”). The masks explore the many faces of the American cancer – mass food production, erasure of Native Americans, the oppression of women. All the while, a macabre a cappella version of: “It’s a Small World” plays on the loudspeaker. It is clear that Coppens isn’t in the art business as merely a cop-out of the fashion world. Coppens calls leaving the design industry “my freedom.” This does not just mean freedom from obligations, investors, and employees. Through art, Coppens has room to be truly controversial and avant garde, to talk about the things he wants to talk about, to make good work.

We got to talk to the artist about his past life as a star of the fashion world, his new life as a Los Angeles artist, and all the energies and excitements in between.

OLIVER KUPPER: You started out training for theatre, as an actor and a director?

CHRISTOPHE COPPENS: First as an actor, until I realized I wasn’t a very good actor. I was always fighting with the directors and teachers. So I thought, “Okay, I will direct myself.” I went to a theatre school and said, “I want to direct.” They said, “We don’t care; as long as you’re here, you’re going to act.” Through acting, I founded a small company during school, and I directed plays in the evening. I always did sets and costumes for my plays. I needed accessories – hats and stuff. I went to a lady, 87 years old, living in a small village, asking for her help in making these pieces. She said yes, so I went for a weekend. Since then, for a whole year, I went every weekend. At the end, I had a collection, and Elle Magazine Belgium sent me to Paris fashion week. I quit school.

KUPPER: So that’s what brought you out of acting and directing?

COPPENS: Yeah. I love a lot of things about theatre and performance, but I also enjoyed the process of doing something on my own and only showing it when it’s ready. It was a breath of fresh air at that moment. But everything I did then influenced, always, my work – my shows, my exhibitions, my collections, my photos, my display in stores. It’s always there, the stage, the light, and the sound.

KUPPER: You like the theatrical aspect of fashion?

COPPENS: Yeah, amongst other things. I like the impact things can have on stage.

KUPPER: You grew up in Belgium?

COPPENS: I’m from a small village near Antwerp. I moved to Brussels when I was eighteen or nineteen.

KUPPER: Did you have an early interest in fashion, or was it something that came later? Antwerp is known as the place for a lot of incredible designers.

COPPENS: I had a studio as a kid. The attic was my studio. I always made stuff, and then I invited people over for my “exhibition” or “fashion show.” I always had a little bit of a problem to choose, which is still an issue today. I like different things, which is not, career-wise, the smartest thing. I don’t care anymore. I just want to do whatever feels right. It’s all connected at the end, even though it can look very different.

KUPPER: I wanted to ask about the Antwerp 6. That sort of environment bred a lot of great fashion. Was there something in the air?

COPPENS: Oh yeah. It was super exciting to see people like Walter [van Beirendonck] and Dries [van Noten]. I was always in awe, but never in awe enough to go to fashion school, because I thought, “Oh, I’ll have to stop doing theatre and make choices.” I quit theatre school in my last year because they made me choose. Suddenly, I was in all these magazines, and they said, “Theatre or fashion.”

KUPPER: Did you ever get a chance to meet any of those designers?

COPPENS: You know, it’s a weird thing in Belgium. Antwerp is Antwerp, it’s very protective. I have very good contact with Walter, for example, but that’s the only one. Everything else is quite closed.

KUPPER: When you had your fashion label and doing the fashion week circuit, you showed a lot in Paris and Japan. Were those the main ones?

COPPENS: We showed Paris, sometimes Milan. Mainly Paris, twice, or four times a year when I had men’s accessories. And Japan was my biggest market. I showed in 150 stores, and I had a store of my own in Tokyo.

KUPPER: It seems like the Japanese were really appreciative of your work.

COPPENS: First of all, Japan is a great country to start. They like everything new. You can go really fast there. But then the trick is, a year or two later, there is something else new. Then it becomes really hard to keep it going. We did that for twenty years. To keep it relevant and to stay on top, I went four or five times a year for promotion tours, events. I really worked that market because I love Japan. I have many friends there. My collaborations there were some of the best I ever did. From my old life, that’s what I miss the most.

KUPPER: Did you like the fashion week circuit?

COPPENS: Oh no, I hated it. Also, it’s changed so much. At the risk of sounding old, when I started, it was so different. It was exciting to go to fashion week. It was rather small, also. There was this one small accessory fair, Premiere Classe, which became huge after. It became about something else. The last five years of my career in fashion, I was fairly unhappy, because it was no longer about the things I wanted to be about. There were many people who could still have a beautiful career, of course, and beautiful houses and labels. But I got stuck in this system of having to grow in order to survive. In the end, it’s all about, “They need a red scarf because Dries Van Noten has red pants, so we have to make more red scarfs.” You’re competing in these price ranges that are ridiculous. I could never afford my own stuff. You try to make cheaper stuff, to do collaborations with bigger stores, and they had stuff that was only $10. Everything was slipping through my fingers. It’s not what I wanted. I started doing all my free work in secret, because it was influencing the market and the customers. I would have people in my company say, “Don’t show that too much, it will scare away the Royal Family.” I felt trapped.

KUPPER: Speaking of the Royal Family, how did you become the official milliner for them?

COPPENS: One princess called when I was really young. I worked for the Royal Family for fifteen years. It was fun. There were two milliners of the Royal Family. I enjoyed it, but it’s a niche. It was interesting, as an exercise, because there’s so much protocol and so many rules. There’s so much that you have to think of. It’s not about you; it’s about them, how the photos will look, how the audience will take it. My best memories are with Queen Paola.

KUPPER: Did they have a specific preference of style, or did they like the avant garde aspect?

COPPENS: That was always the fight. The other milliner was very classical – well crafted, but very classical. It came in waves. I would do something that was a bit too risqué, and I wouldn’t hear from them for two or three months.

KUPPER: It seems like a lot of designers are coming to LA. What do you think it is about LA that is such a refuge? Is there more space?

COPPENS: For me, it’s all about a certain freshness. I like that LA has moved from the underdog position, culturally, after all these years. People used to talk about LA like it was culturally flat, but a lot of things could brew underneath the surface. I like that attitude. Suddenly, all these things pop up that are much fresher than other cities. The city itself is so magical. There’s so much in it, so many layers. It feels, at times, like New York in the 70s. It’s very exciting.

KUPPER: And it seems far enough away from the fashion world.

COPPENS: To be honest, the fashion world is no longer my world, hasn’t been for five years now. That’s when I quit… It’s about everything. It’s about the energy of a small restaurant and an avocado toast that is amazing, cheap, and fresh. It’s not tired. There’s no pretention here. I really like that. It would be very hard to imagine living somewhere else again. We’re very spoiled here.

KUPPER: Do you feel like you’re disowning the fashion past, or are you disowning the industry?

COPPENS: I love fashion, still. It’s just that, in my journey, I got stuck. I was in a boat that had to go on and on with stuff and obligations and banks and investors. I had no clarity or vision how to steer that boat. I had to pull the plug, which was a very aggressive and very hard. I had a high price to pay for my freedom, because I lost everything and had to start from scratch. But that was the only choice. It was that or jumping off a bridge. My assistant from five years ago, then, suddenly got a very heavy cancer. And I was like, “I’m next if I’m going to do this. This is no longer okay.” There is a big problem in the fashion world. But now, nobody talks about anything else.

About a year ago, I was asked to be the head of a master’s program at the Sandberg Institute. We start from the urgent question, “What’s next in fashion?” It’s all about those questions, from designing, to sustainability, selling, financing, consuming. We have twelve students to ask all these questions. It’s very refreshing for me to see how the young generation looks at all of these things. It’s surprising; the last thing they want to do is go to Paris Fashion Week. They don’t think like that. They stay at home, work in their kitchen, sell at their friend’s store.  

KUPPER: What’s the dream now for these students?

COPPENS: They’re very socially aware. They’re incredible. Talking about sustainability is almost out of fashion; it’s obvious. It’s incredible. We’re going to publish a book next year. Walter is involved also, and other amazing people form all over the world.

KUPPER: Do you see your fashion designs as in a conversation with the art you make now, or are they separate?

COPPENS: When I stopped, I was fairly radical in it. I was like, “Now, it’s all about sculpture and painting.” People would ask me to make accessories for them, and I would say, “No, this is my new life. This is the way I’m going to tell my stories.” I did four shows like that. But I must say now, five years later, I’m much less uptight about it. The masks could be confused with my older work, but I don’t think so. It’s not pretty. I just use this medium and my couture tools from the past to tell these stories. I could not tell the same stories in a painting; it would be way too heavy or obnoxious. I like this medium that is very light. Then, you can hit stronger. For example, one of my friends, Roisin Murphy, asked me to make masks for her tour. I’ve been making masks for the tour and these videos for the past year now.

KUPPER: Is that where the idea came from?

COPPENS: No. I wanted to do a show with masks, but it got delayed because I sent all the masks I finished to her… How do you name these things? Is it an accessory? I don’t think so. You can wear it, yes. Frankly, I really don’t care anymore. Before, I did, I know that it really worked against. Now, I think times have changed.

KUPPER: It seems like you’re distilling everything to have the ultimate freedom to create what you want to create.

COPPENS: Totally. For example, in those four years, I had some shows and did some art fairs. A big part of the art world is boring. Very unattractive, very unappealing. I was thinking, “Is this what I now want? Is this repeating the same story in a new crowd?” It’s not very interesting. I like this [Please Do Not Enter] much more. It’s much fresher and more modern. To say, “Let’s have an art show, and then we’ll have clothes out front, and then we’ll put out perfume.” That’s how we look at things. That’s how we look at Instagram and look at images all day. When I go to galleries most of the time, the life is outside and everything inside is dead.

KUPPER: There’s no movement to it.

COPPENS: No, and it bothers me. There are amazing galleries, of course. There are artists who have an amazing career who should show there, I guess.

KUPPER: What does “the Mask” mean to you?

COPPENS: A lot, actually. My father is a very respective art dealer in primitive art. All my life, I was surrounded with these skulls and brilliant masks from Borneo and Oceania. Always, when I saw a book about mask making, I would buy it. I like the idea of what the mask could mean today. Is it tribal? Is it a disguise? Today, what can you say with your mask? In a way, it’s still about scaring away the demons or trying to evoke something. I wanted to do a show about America, now that I have moved here. Masks were the first thing that popped up. Maybe you wouldn’t see it in the show, but I really love America.

KUPPER: America has a strange, conflicting history.

COPPENS: As a European, you’re raised with American pop culture – that’s how you learn to speak English, those are the songs you sing, the TV series, the movies. It’s always there. But then you move here at 42, and suddenly, you see all these other layers. You read the American newspapers; you watch the American news. So then there are all these things that are conflicting with what you were taught. There are all these things that you don’t like or understand. When we agreed to do the mask exhibition, it wasn’t the idea to do it about America. But the first mask I made was the “Trump Mask.” From there, there was no way back. I cannot make a pretty mask with pretty feathers. Then, I started making a mask about Native Americans, racism, the empowerment of women. The first group was all about the empowerment of women, even though they look very sexist. That’s the game I’m playing. I’m trying to show things that are quite obnoxious, even though that’s not my opinion.

KUPPER: How does satire play into your masks? Do you think about that?

COPPENS: Yeah, and surrealism also. It’s almost like a political cartoon, a caricature. It’s enlarging an idea. I don’t think it’s cynical, to be honest. I always try to show them in a fresh way. You might look at it briefly and say, “Oh, this is pretty and new.” But there are deeper themes.

KUPPER: If you had to design a mask for yourself, what would it look like?

COPPENS: I made three. They’re on the floor. That’s a mold of my face. I see myself cleaning. That’s my face, scrubbing the floors.

KUPPER: How did you create the soundtrack for this exhibition?

COPPENS: I always loved creating the music. My show “The Hills Are Alive” in Tokyo was about a gift store in an antique park that doesn’t exist. Like, when you do a ride at Disneyland, and you get out and buy all the stuff that you just saw. We did the store, with a cashier and everything. For that, we made a beautiful soundtrack. For this show, it went very fast. I knew exactly what kind of music I wanted. A lot of it has pop culture references – movies, TV shows, commercials. There are many weird variations on “It’s a Small World.”

KUPPER: What’s next after this?

COPPENS: There’s a second year of the school. There’s a lot of work to do there. I was asked, and I am going to do some directing in Europe; a big dream come true. Then I want to do another show in LA. I want a big, empty space; it’s an installation, experience piece. 

Christophe Coppens "50 Masks Made In America" will be on view until July 16, 2016 at Please Do Not Enter, 549 s. Oliver Street, Los Angeles. Interview and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Intro text by Keely Shinners. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE