Head of Fashion Department - Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp
Antwerp is an excellent place for an artist, especially when you're at the beginning of your career; when you're young and looking for guidance and support.
Please tell us a little about your background.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, in a very academic environment. My education, my upbringing, high school, and then college: it was all very straightforward. But at the same time, my family was super open and supportive. Artistic things were always happening, but not in the hippie sense. Since high school, I have always been a bit by myself, always exploring things.”
Growing up, were you already interested in fashion?
“I liked Project Runway and Lady Gaga when I was in high school. It was nice because these things opened it up already for me. I became very interested in fashion and doing things that were strange or new to me. I took a high school fashion course on weekends, which was helpful because I also met different people. And the teacher was more of an illustrator, so he also had this broader art perspective.
Then, the summer before I was a senior in high school, I took a short summer class with Arts of Fashion in Paris. We came to Antwerp for a day, and there was this exhibit in MoMu on the ground floor by one of the MA students, Mariel Manuel. I remember thinking, what am I looking at? It was beyond anything I had perceived in high school, even in L.A. The obsession began there and then. I remember looking up all the time and trying to find more information, then realising that fashion was what I wanted to be doing.”
How did you end up in Antwerp?
“First, I studied at Cornell University in upstate New York. The design class was my focus. As a student there, you were free to do what you wanted and be who you wanted. That was very formative. Then, I interned in Antwerp with Romain Brau, who had this shop, Ra, on Kloosterstraat. That was a blast. Later, I went to Paris but had trouble finding a job, so I applied for the Fashion Department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. I was accepted, and it turned out to be my best decision ever.”
And now you’re the creative director there.
“When the vacancy was posted, I heard whispers and people talking. I was interested and asked someone, and they said: You know what? Just go for it. I didn’t know who else was applying, but I was like, we will take this step and see what happens. So, I applied. When I heard it was me, I was shocked. I was on a train and screamed. Then I sat in the bathroom for 30 minutes, letting it sink in.”
What do you value most in this fashion school?
“What I value about this school, and always have, is the focus on creativity. Other schools are always searching for creativity but constantly undervaluing it. So, the fact that this is a place where the focus is on forward-thinking and innovative design is so valuable. It's something that I appreciated and benefited so much from. I'm so excited to be able to guide that now and to be a part of how that manifests itself in the future for designers and young people.”
Do students have space to focus on entrepreneurship during the programme?
“The curriculum is already full, and we have to maintain our unique focus on creativity and personal development. We don’t want to overwhelm students with management lessons. I want to invite people from the industry and organise workshops and lectures. I got to know the business side of the fashion industry myself by talking to people in the industry, seeking advice, and closely observing how others approach it. I want our students to unleash their creativity not only in their designs but also in the way they do business. They will need that creativity to build a successful future in this industry.”
How important is the yearly SHOW?
“It's a crucial moment. The show attracts about 5,000 people. There is a large Antwerp audience, and family and friends come to watch, but there are also headhunters, VIPs, fashion professionals, and national and international journalists. Up to 2008, as a student in the Fashion Department, you could find a job before even graduating. The financial crisis changed that. Now, everyone goes through a limbo period of one or two years, during which you do internships, try freelance work, or take on another job. If you get through that period, you're on your way. Graduates always land on their feet; that's been my experience. But it doesn't come as easily anymore. Strangely enough, it changed again after the COVID period: students have been finding jobs more quickly in the last two years. In any case, I want to focus more on alumni activities and encourage our former students to connect. That will help them.”
You’ve been in Antwerp for quite some time now. What do you think of the city?
“I found the best people in Antwerp, and in Belgium, who made me feel at home and supported me. That's also why I stayed so long. Even when working in Paris, I returned because of the people I missed here. They support me in how I need to be supported, literally and emotionally. That's something exceptional. Antwerp is also an excellent place for an artist, especially when you're at the beginning of your career; when you're young and looking for guidance and support. It's a big city, but on the other hand, it's a small community, and people are open-minded.”
A final question. What makes the Antwerp Fashion Department so powerful compared to other fashion schools?
“The Fashion Department has always attracted ambitious designers with a very personal and creative approach to fashion. This continually sparks the interest of other talented designers to come and study here. As a department, we emphasise the development of a personal identity. And with success: in the creative and artistic realm, other fashion schools strive hard to be where we are now.”
Brandon Wen, at a glance
- 1993: born in Los Angeles
- 2015: graduated in Fiber Science and Apparel Design at Cornell University in New York
- 2019: graduated from the Fashion Department of the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts
- 2019: started working for Michèle Lamy and Rick Owens in Paris
- 2020: started working at Maison Lemarié for Chanel Haute Couture and Prêt à Porter
- 2021: guest lecturer at the International Arts of Fashion Foundation in San Francisco
- 2022: creative director at the Fashion Department of the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts
- 2023: first SHOW as the creative director of the Fashion Department brandylaa.com and Instagram
We based this article on two pieces: one published by Flanders DC (www.flandersdc.be) and one posted on this website.