Welcome to Wild & Lethal Trash. A glitchy, prismatic lens closes in on a young girl sitting in a field of tall grass and dandelions. She picks one of the flower’s seed heads from the ground and blows it into the wind; the camera studiously tows behind while the little white whips shoot through the air as if leaping into hyperspace. As the camera glides through every last corner of the little sanctuary, an alien man and a woman appear together in a cheekily low-budget, teardrop-like vacuole.
As things pick up speed, our ephemeral little couple comes to a halting crash in a tangled sea of green. In the next cut scene, they’re fully realized in this space, lying on the ground and trying to make sense of their surroundings. They carefully explore the surrounding woods in matching white ensembles, kneeling to smell the ground underneath them as they go. Dizzying shots of bark, bugs, magnolias and wet blades of grass are coupled with harsh, ripping sound effects. The sequence is jarring and peaceful, capturing the idea of being overwhelmed by a new space by being born into a completely new world.
Later, the scene abruptly shifts to the same girl as before, now in her early twenties, playing piano in her apartment. A jolting fish-eye camera illustrates the artificiality of the city that she inhabits, but she’s created a tranquil space for herself. She’s draped in pear-colored chiffon as she plunks down a melody in a minor key. The same jerky shots seen earlier are now accompanied by soft heartbeats — our couple is discovering each other all over again, this time cloaked in the trappings of modern life. We’re exposed to a smattering of mesh, nylon windbreakers and trainers that have “Kiss the Future” emblazoned on them. When we eventually return to the woodlands, the dream-like surroundings offer a makeshift runway for models wearing white peppered with the occasional garment made of massive, round leaves.
Walter van Beirendonck, a Belgian designer of his own nuclear-tipped eponymous label, grew to great fame in the 1990s with Wild & Lethal Trash. Inspired by the explosive, Kansai Yamamoto-designed looks of David Bowie and a lack of self-seriousness in fashion becoming more and more apparent with now-legendary mastheads of the avant-garde like Rei Kawakubo, Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, Walter graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1980 and began designing his own collections in 1983 before starting Wild & Lethal Trash a decade later. It was with Wild & Lethal Trash that Beirendonck cemented the aesthetic sensibilities that he is so well known for today.
The label treated everything that modernity encompasses with a cartoonish and childlike sense of wonder, equally celebrating and admonishing technological advancement, politics, commonly held values and digital media. Accompanied by a plethora of neoprene appendages, Walter wore his heart on his sleeve. Every collection he has produced has been philosophical and political in nature, posing meaningful questions and highlighting mankind’s propensity for greed and the ravaging of our planet with stick figures, phallic knitwear and appliques that talk when you press on them.
The presentation of each collection was a production in and of itself. The previously described narrative was part of the official video for Wild & Lethal Trash’s Summer 1999 collection, “Hi Sci Fi,” which explored the idea of reconnecting to nature, to oneself and to each other in an overdeveloped society.
Other notable presentations include the iconic “A Fetish for Beauty” of Summer 1998, featuring a highly coordinated line dance, and Winter 1995/96’s “Paradise Pleasure Productions,” a runway with panels that lit up as models in monochromatic outerwear and bondage suits trotted across them to a parochial Western jingle. Every collection pushed the envelope in a way that was true to the brand, and though it was short-lived, Wild & Lethal Trash represented the height of fun in ’90s fashion. It had the ability to be overtly political and pose new ways of framing meaningful questions during an economic and innovational boom without taking itself too seriously.
After all, who says you can’t make a perfectly cogent argument about the unchecked power of oil companies and have an all-over print of a muscled, hairy body on your t-shirt? In the years preceding the fall of Enron, the war in Iraq, two major economic downturns and a host of issues handled in laughably, horrifyingly appalling manners, Walter van Beirendonck offered a coping mechanism that remains influential to this day.
Daily Arts Columnist Sam Kremke can be reached at email@example.com.