Walter Lecompte, a cut above

20.04.2016 - Dries Tack

When the young Walter first "went up" to Brussels, he was 15 years old and far from imagining ​​the career that lay in wait for him. Half a century later, the designer, who has turned up the heat on the most prestigious Parisian catwalks, reflects on his life journey. A story lined with humility and passion.

Walter Lecompte, a cut above

In the beginning

"You will be a furrier, my son". We couldn’t invent a better prologue for Walter Lecompte’s career. At the age of fifteen, he was sent by his father from his native Flanders to follow an apprenticeship with the Brussels furrier Slachmuylder. Those early days were spent learning the trade.  Patiently. Conscientiously. The size, the cut, the assembly, angled, straight. "There are a thousand and one ways to work the hides. It’s a world into itself. You have to get to know the hide, play with it, with the direction of the hair. There is a different way of assembling each type," he explains with the keen eye of a passionate connoisseur, stroking with the flat of his hand the soft bristles of a marmot hide dangling from a hanger in his studio, ready to be transformed. "We work hand in hand with a machinist. At her workstation right beside the cutter, she is the one who sews the skins that have just been cut. My work is to know which ends to put together".

Walter Lecompte, a cut above

A new start

Before becoming the master of his trade that he is today, and after his apprenticeship, he set up in business in a small workshop in Laeken. His first clients were those of the furriers previously installed in Brussels, who were gradually taking their retirement. Then, Slachmuylder himself shut up shop and helped Walter Lecompte buy his business. Trade was brisk until the 1990s with its economic crises and ecological awareness. Fur was out of favour and threatened with extinction. He had to make a new start. So Walter Lecompte came up with the smart idea of turning to young designers. And, in particular, to La Cambre. "It was out of sheer necessity. I was in trouble. What could I do? Give up? Or reinvent myself? All my know-how was in my hands. I contacted the Cambre and offered to work with the students." This marked the beginning of a win-win collaboration. And a new life. The furrier hosted the young student designers in his workshop - Olivier Theyskens, Olivia Hainaut, Laetitia Crahay and others – and helped them with their end-of-year projects on fur, never charging them for the labour, and sometimes not even for the hides. It did not take long for this generosity to pay back. "After graduating, they very quickly headed for Paris. As they knew that I worked fur, whenever they needed any, they turned to me." In 2001, even Chanel commissioned the sleeves for its show from the furrier. A mammoth task, which earned him a name in the small world of fashion. "In this business, once they know your name, they contact you again.” He certainly was, by Dries Van Noten, Rochas, Ann Demeulemeester and Balmain. Among others.

Walter Lecompte, a cut above

Today

During our visit, he went on to mention a probable collaboration with Anthony Vaccarello. And another, without a doubt, for Jean Paul Gaultier. At the last minute as is often the case. "You have to work fast. Accessories, are the last things the designers think of." The man who has succeeded, without any zealotry -" I don’t want to force people, fur is either something you like or you don’t, that’s just how it is" – in making the rather ferocious furrier trade trendy, does however have one regret. Not having anyone to take over the flame. Obviously he has come across skilled craftsmen and fur lovers, he has seen them at work in his studio in the shadow of the Palace of Justice. But no one who has dared to embark on the risky life that lies in store for a craftsman today. Leaving the town house a stone’s throw from the Sablon, where he has been officiating for a quarter of a century, we cannot shrug off the feeling that we have just met one of Belgium’s fashion greats. A rare representative of the made in Belgium. One of those who know, through their touch and instinct, how to find and bring out the beauty in an object.

Walter Lecompte, a cut above

 Photos © Emmanuel Laurent

Isabelle Plumhans

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