We sit in the sun, not far from Gare de l’Est in Paris, and watch the crowds pass by. A man with sunglasses dangling under his chin, a choker, saunters past, and another with a briefcase held aloft over his head, a sun hat. First prize in our improvised competition for maximum ingeniousness goes to the woman with a mobile phone chord wrapped around her ponytail, holding it in place. Stéphanie spends as much time as she can doing nothing, doing this: observing her surroundings, paying heed to her fellow creatives of the street. I first became aware of her brand D’heygere when I saw a young man wearing a beautifully crafted wire clothes hanger fashioned into a necklace pass me on the street. I was intrigued.
It made me think of the importance of the everyday: the striving to find grace in the commonplace, the paying attention to small gestures, otherwise easily overlooked. Stéphanie’s work is all about that: a lyrical and critical exploration of generic, inexpensive and mass-produced objects. Engaging with her work, as a wearer or as an observer, is to consider the practice and poetics of the everyday, consumption as a creative act, and consumers not as passive receptacles but rather as active agents with the ability to adapt the system imposed on them in a myriad of small, personal and intuitive ways in order to navigate and enjoy life.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg: How do you decide what to wear when you get dressed in the morning? Do you pick pieces of jewellery intuitively or do you consider who you’re going to meet, what you’re going to do?
Stéphanie D’heygere: I consider how I feel, but it’s mostly intuitive. Being at boarding school and having to wear a uniform has had an effect on what I wear. I still have a uniform of sorts: shirts, wide trousers, or jeans and sneakers. It’s what I’ve been wearing since I left school. Hardly any make-up, and jewellery always, usually rings and earrings. Today I’m wearing a button-down Balenciaga shirt from the autumn–winter 2018 collection: I got it in the sample sale. It’s got a +33 number printed in huge letters on the front, an actual hotline number, though when I tried calling it, it was disconnected. I love shirts, they’re my favourite garment. I always get them oversized, usually vintage men’s Ralph Lauren and sometimes fashion ones from Balenciaga or Y/Project or Margiela. I wish I was the kind of woman who would feel at ease in heels but I’m not. I love high heels as objects and I have quite a few pairs actually but I never wear them. What if I go to a party, then need to walk home? From time to time I do try to make an effort to be more feminine, but I always fail.
Anja: What does being more feminine mean to you?
Stéphanie: It’s funny, now that you ask I’m realising ‘feminine’ for me is a by-word for less comfortable: skirts, heels, tight clothes. Garments that make me aware of my body.
Anja: Last weekend I spent some time going through my old clothes, bags and bags I’d stored in our basement. I was hoping to rediscover some old gems I’d forgotten about, but all I found were clothes that seemed to have been worn by another person in another life. It was disconcerting almost, to go through all these garments that once felt so ‘me’ and that I now can’t recognise myself in at all: too-high heels, lots of black, drapey tops and coats. I found all these rings I used to wear, big rings for every finger, and a ton of big earrings too. My style of clothes changed gradually: more colour, tailoring and always flats. But with my accessories it was abrupt: one day I just had enough of all the rings and earrings and stopped wearing any of them. I only wear my wedding ring now. If I try to wear big rings again, it’s physically uncomfortable. It’s curious how my body now reacts to things I used to love, and that once felt absolutely natural.
Stéphanie: I know what you mean. But I wear rings every day, earrings too. I actually feel naked without them: it’s a physical feeling of lack, like a body part is missing.
Anja: Could you tell me about an object that you treasure?
Stéphanie: Well, I have so much jewellery now: all the old D’heygere collections, plus pieces I’ve made for other brands as well as things I’ve found at the market or bought somewhere else. It’s hard to pick a favourite. I keep it all organised in boxes, and the pieces I wear at the moment on a small plate that’s easily accessible. Every few months I change what’s on the plate. But there’s one object that I never put away: a pair of gold-plated hoop earrings that I bought eight years ago at a flea market in Belgium. If you saw them you probably wouldn’t think them special, but to me they are absolutely perfect. Perfect proportions, perfect size, perfect for my face.
Anja: When did you know that those hoops had become indispensable to you?
Stéphanie: OK so this is a bit embarrass-ing – I’m not sure I should tell you – a few years ago I had a one-night stand with a guy, and when I left his place I realised I’d forgotten my earrings. My heart sunk. I was on the phone with a friend, and she encouraged me: ‘Steph, go back!’ I was like ‘No no no no I don’t want to!’ But in the end I did. I didn’t have his number or door code so I had to wait outside the front door until someone left the building so I could sneak in. Then I couldn’t remember his floor so I accidentally knocked on the wrong door. What a mess! Eventually I did find the right apartment and knocked, and when he opened up I just blurted out: ‘Sorry I forgot my earrings I really need them thank you, bye!’ I got my earrings back and knew then how much I love them. [Laughs]
Anja: I had a similar experience years ago, minus the one-night stand, involving a jacket I thought I’d lost forever. I can’t tell you how elated I was when I found it again. [Laughs] Then there are the many things I have lost over the years and that I’ve never found again. They still haunt me.
Stéphanie: Oh god yes. My uncle gave me my grandmother’s engagement ring and – he doesn’t know this yet – I lost it. Thinking about it still freaks me out. I know it’s totally irrational but sometimes I think that losing it cursed me. Like I’m never going to get married because of it. Very silly I know. I actually lost it at a wedding, I don’t even know how. I got everyone there to search for it, I called the venue the next day. I did everything I could and I still didn’t find it. Just thinking about it makes me want to slap myself.
Anja: It’s like we know we’re supposed to accept that ‘it’s only stuff,’ but objects can hold so much meaning, so many memories. When they get lost or destroyed it’s hard to be rational. Are there other things that hold special meaning for you, other favourites?
Stéphanie: It changes, but right now my other favourite earrings are the ones I’m wearing now. They’re from the current collection: they’re called stud hoops. They basically look like hoops with the butterfly part that keeps earrings attached to your ear used as decoration all around the hoop. When I finished the design, I just couldn’t wait to get them made so I could wear them. I knew they’d be a favourite. They’ve just been away for two weeks on a fashion shoot, so when I got them back yesterday I was so happy.
Anja: There’s a paradoxical element in your work that I find really intriguing, this idea of marrying generic, inexpensive, mass-produced objects from the everyday – the wire coat hanger, the bicycle bell, newspapers – with the luxury fashion realm. It becomes a sort of subversion or reappropriation of the everyday.
Stéphanie: I’m not really interested in what’s considered ‘valuable’: diamonds or precious metals or ‘good taste.’ What fascinates me are the quotidian things we take for granted to the extent that we hardly pay them any attention. Reconsidering or recontextualising objects like that is a great creative challenge. Shifting how others look at what’s around them. I remember being thirteen and going to the States for the first time with my family, and coming back to Belgium with a ton of cheap trinkets: plastic bracelets with flowers on them, that sort of thing. I was so proud to show my friends all these new things that they didn’t have access to. I still have everything I bought on that trip; it’s one of those moments that shaped me as a designer I think. I love holiday bracelets, you know the touristy kind, and concert bracelets too. The object is cheap but it tells a story. And I love Claire’s, you know, the high- street accessory brand? I’d love to do a collaboration with them.
Anja: The high street gets a bad rap now but those shops serve a real need, especially for young people. There are few times in life when you’re allowed, encouraged even, to experiment with your sartorial style. Being a teenager is perhaps the only time that happens, and fast-fashion companies like Claire’s cater to that moment in life don’t they? You can try identities out, discard them when they don’t feel relevant anymore, and try again. Being able to experiment with clothes and accessories in that way is hugely significant for most teenagers; it teaches you about standing out and fitting in and about how to feel comfortable in your own skin.
Stéphanie: It’s true. I’m thinking too about the discrepancy between how you feel in your own skin, and how others see you. My grandmother is always telling me: ‘Steph, come on now, you’re a strong independent woman – dress like it!’ Which I don’t mind actually. My mum on the other hand can be a pain in the ass: my shirts have to be ironed and my hair neat. Every time I go see her, I know she’ll comment on my looks. ‘Come on Steph, freshen up a bit!’ [Laughs]
Anja: Does your mum wear your pieces?
Stéphanie: She does. My mum loves necklaces with big pendants, so she looks great wearing the canister necklace. My grandmother wears D’heygere too. My favourite is when she wears our signet ring with this really nice, traditional diamond ring. My boyfriend wears our rings too though he’s got big fingers so I have to make a special size for him.
Anja: Did you ever make something just for him?
Stéphanie: Yes. Once I made him something very personal at the factory – it’s actually quite a painful memory … My boyfriend likes to wear chains, so I made him one with an engraved pendant: it said ‘Chef’ on one side because he is one, and on the other I put the date of our first date. I gave it to him on his birthday which ended up also being the day we broke up. We got back together again eventually but it still reminds him of that bad moment in our relationship so he can’t bear to wear it anymore. He wears the chain but not the pendant. He keeps it but for sure he is never ever going to wear it.
…It’s like keeping a letter from a one-time lover or an old photograph that you store in a box at the back of your wardrobe. Mementoes from a former life…
Anja: The way we experience jewellery can be incredibly profound in that way. A memory, good or bad, attaches itself to the object and it becomes impossible to shake. It makes me think of a ring I once pressured an ex-boyfriend into buying for me. I still have it somewhere in a box, but putting it on again would feel completely wrong. I can’t bring myself to do it.
Stéphanie: Yes, we keep these things because throwing them away would feel wrong. It’s like keeping a letter from a one-time lover or an old photograph that you store in a box at the back of your wardrobe. Mementoes from a former life.
Anja: Do you think of jewellery or accessories as a way to convey something about who you are, or as a means of seduction? What would you wear to seduce someone?
Stéphanie: It can be both of course. As for me – oh that’s difficult! I’m not really into typical feminine accoutrements for seduction: cleavage or high heels or tight skirts. But if I have a date with my boyfriend I do like to dress up. I’ll wear big, bold jewellery in contrast with what I’d typically wear everyday. And even if he tells me he doesn’t like it, I don’t care because it’s something I wear for myself first and foremost. To feel different.
Anja: That separation between daytime you and night-time you is interesting. Those demarcations are quite rare now; people go straight out after work, so what you wear has to function in every circumstance. There’s another separation that has taken over in my life, and it’s about what I wear ‘out’ compared to what I wear at home.
Stéphanie: Same here. As soon as I get home from work I take all my jewellery off, and my work clothes too. I put boxer shorts on and a T-shirt.
Anja: I have a whole wardrobe full of soft pants with drawstring waists, and T-shirts I’d never wear in a professional setting or even out with friends. In a sense those are my most intimate clothes – only the people I’m the closest too get to see me in them. There’s something so telling about how we construct ourselves for the world, and how we remove those layers once we’re in our own space. As if shedding the button-down shirts or elegant trousers or high heels or whatever means entering this more vulnerable, intimate space, both symbolically and somatically. Especially considering that consumer discourse now often focuses on the ‘experience economy’ – what do you see as the value of the object?
Stéphanie: I think a lot about how to add value to an object – how to make it more than what you get at a first glance. Typically an accessory is there to embellish your outfit. It’s how I came up with the saying: ‘Accessorise your accessory.’ I ask the wearer to intervene, or to complete the object. I started this line of thinking and designing with the canister hoops, which are a pair of hoops with a cylinder attached. In the cylinder you can put a cigarette, a rolled bank note, a flower, a pencil, a lollipop, a letter. Or you just wear it empty – it’s up to you.
Anja: Something we don’t often discuss in fashion is how commanding the act of designing can be. A designer implicitly says: ‘This is what I think you should wear, how you should look. Nothing else will do.’ In a sense the designer imposes his or her vision of aesthetics, beauty, taste on the world. So what you are doing when you invite the consumer to effectively take part in the creative process, become a co-creator, is quite remarkable.
Stéphanie: Yes, that approach is an absolutely integral part of D’heygere. Without the input of the wearer, what they bring to an object, it’s just a half-finished proposal. I have a great example for you. We have a Thai customer, his name is Grofe, who is an absolute fan of the brand. He buys mostly adaptable pieces, and what he comes up with is just brilliant. Whenever he tags us on Instagram I just have to go, ‘Oh my god he did it again.’ He never ceases to amaze me. For example, we have this little necklace that instead of a regular closure just has two rings, so the wearer is obliged to put something through the rings in order to close it. Once he put a twig of rosemary through it, another time a rolled-up ticket. Or he bought our magnetic earrings and I’ve seen him attach a scratch card or a Pokemon card to them. Once he went to a wedding and attached Polaroids of the married couple to his earrings. He really gets it.
Anja: There’s another motto of yours – ‘Everything can become an accessory’ – that I love. I was explaining it to my four-year-old daughter, and she immediately ran off and put our toilet plunger on her head as a hat. Thank god it was new.
Stéphanie: Yeah, that’s one of the first things I did when the lockdown started in 2020. I came up with the idea, and then began assembling what I’m now calling our manifesto around it. I was thinking about how we were all bored at home, and that this could be a playful way to think about the world around us and the objects we interact with on a daily basis. I got so many amazing responses: an orange peel worn as a bracelet, a donut, a doorknob or a pacifier for a ring, a clothes peg or a plaster as an earring, a long receipt wrapped around a neck as a scarf, a face mask as a handbag, a hair elastic, slippers … The list goes on. It’s just endlessly inspiring to me.
Anja: Life is full of these everyday gestures: a cigarette or a pencil worn behind your ear as an earring, an elastic band around your wrist that becomes a de facto bracelet, a shoelace or bike lock worn around your waist like a belt, a plastic bag worn as a hat to protect your hair from the rain.
Stéphanie: I love observing people on the train or in the metro. I once saw a woman who kept her metro ticket secure by slipping it under her watch: that to me was so beautiful. Or I saw someone wearing a watch as an upper-arm bracelet, which I loved. Someone who had made a chain of paperclips as an eyeglass lanyard. Face masks presented us with a myriad of opportunities too: they become hair grips, scarves or chokers, an eye mask, a bracelet, a hat.
…‘Accessorise your accessory.’ I ask the wearer to intervene, or to complete the object…
Anja: I’ve worn plastic bags on my feet to protect my shoes from the rain more than once, and there was a time I tried fashioning one into a hat in a thunderstorm. The problem was that I was on my bike as always, so I had to figure out a way to make sure it didn’t just fly off. I wrapped an elastic band around my head, which looked absurd, and also didn’t work. I spent ages fiddling with it, and as soon as I got on my bike and started pedalling the bag flew off. [Laughs]
Stéphanie: Love that look! I’m also attracted to the idea of working with constraints in everyday life as well as in work. As a small brand, that can be a real asset actually: it’s something I learnt during my time at Margiela. I also love the way artists like Claes Oldenburg or Marcel Duchamp incorporated or decontextualised everyday objects into their work. Duchamp’s readymades are just genius. I always consider my surroundings, everything is beautiful to me – it just depends on your perspective. Finding beauty in unexpected places is such a joy.
Anja: There’s something quite intimate about looking at people who don’t realise they are being observed. I’m thinking about watching people on the metro for example. We go through all these elaborate rituals to wall ourselves off from each other and create private spaces in these cramped surroundings: we read books, listen to music, fiddle with our phones, sleep or pretend to sleep.
Stéphanie: True. I steal glances, try not to stare. Sometimes I ask if I can take a photograph, but mostly that makes people feel too exposed so I’ve learnt to make a mental note instead. As a designer I do have to consider the line between something playful that makes you smile and an object or gesture that tips over into the ridiculous. That line can be thin. Mostly it has to do with the context, doesn’t it? Like wearing our bicycle bell ring while having a drink with friends by the Canal Saint-Martin would make them smile but if I wore it to lunch with my mum she’d be telling me to ‘freshen up.’
Anja: That makes me think of women wearing heels that are too high or uncomfortable, and the way the object can then undermine the wearer. It points to the grey zone between being seductive and being ridiculous. Seduction is always a risk in that sense, and it makes you vulnerable. Clothes can play tricks on you, and being over- or underdressed can make you feel intensely out of place.
Stéphanie: That makes me think of the current trend for tiny handbags – perhaps it can be seen as a symbolic throwback to a historical moment when women carried vanity purses that would only fit your lipstick, so that money or cigarettes or anything else you needed would be provided to you by your male companion. That’s very sexist, but there’s something beautiful to it too. Accessories can tell us a lot about where we’re at, what we prioritise, how we think and behave at any particular moment in time.