European royalty’s favourite fashion designer welcomes Helen Chislett into his Brussels home
Edouard Vermeulen may not be instantly recognisable in some parts of the world, but in Belgium he is a very grand fromage indeed. Having embarked on a career in interior design aged 23, he took a sublet on Avenue Louise in Brussels — in what happened to be the same stately rooms where Paul Natan, a legendary Belgium couturier of the 1930s to the 1950s, had run his own maison.
When asked to help raise funds for a charity, he had the impish idea of producing a catwalk collection of his own designs in homage to the previous occupant. It was then that fate stepped in. In the audience, as patron of the charity, was Princess Paola, wife of the future King Albert II; she went on to become one of Vermeulen’s most illustrious patrons.
Over the next three decades, he became designer of choice not only to the current Queen of Belgium, Mathilde, and to Princesses Léa and Claire, but also to the royal families of the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Vermeulen kept the name, Natan, because it had such good associations. As to his change of course, he says it was simply a matter of being ‘young — and totally fearless as the young are’.
‘Today, a woman of 50 will dress like a woman 10 or 15 years younger, and why not?’
He says that women’s attitudes to how they dress have changed enormously. ‘We used to produce collections with three customers in mind: daughter, mother, grandmother. Today, a woman of 50 will dress like a woman 10 or 15 years younger, and why not? Natan is not about slavishly following fashions, but making women feel good about themselves.’
Vermeulen lives a short walk from his studio in an Art Deco apartment facing the Abbaye de la Cambre, close to the Ixelles lakes. He loves his home for ‘its convenience and also its charm’, describing it as being ‘like the very best sort of hotel suite: a series of rooms connected by double doors, with huge windows looking out to the gardens’.
Over the past 10 years, he has filled the light-flooded rooms with a masterful mix of the contemporary and the antique, the comfortable and the unexpected — proof, if any were needed, that fashion’s gain was interior design’s loss.
His business, meanwhile, has expanded to six premises in Belgium, multi-brand stores all over the world and a flagship in Amsterdam opening in September; and this year also sees the launch of Natan in the UK, with its elegant, ready-to-wear collections in jewel-like shades available at stores such as Celeste & Rose and Episode Fashions in London, and Ginger in Norwich. One suspects that Vermeulen may soon have a different royal family in his sights.
‘I had this lamp base made from a very pretty antique Chinese vase I picked up at auction. The unusually shaped parchment shade was made for me by the interior designer Gert Voorjans, whose work I admire hugely.’
‘This artwork, made entirely of paper and ink, is by the contemporary Japanese artist Jae Ko. I bought it from Honourable Silver Objects in Antwerp. The density of the black is a wonderful contrast with some of the more traditional paintings I own.’
‘This 19th-century crystal-and-brass chandelier came from a sale of part of Axel Vervoordt’s personal collection that he held about 10 years ago. I know Axel well, and this used to hang over the dining table where I enjoyed many happy evenings — so it is both a reminder of those times and a spectacular piece to have. The lot was due to come up when I was in the middle of a fitting with the king, so I had to ask him to wait while I placed a bid — luckily, he thought it was very funny and was as pleased as I was when I was successful!’
‘This is a work by Pierre Alechinsky, one of the most famous Belgian artists of today, although he lives in France. Alechinsky produces abstract and expressionistic works that are very thickly layered with paint. I bought it from a gallery on Place du Sablon. I love it because it is so vibrant and full of energy and colour.’
‘I love the glamour of this sofa, its shape and its gold satin opulence. Very Natan! It dates from the 1960s and was made by the legendary Maison Jansen [at its former HQ] on Rue Royale in Paris for Leopold III of Belgium.’
‘This is a traditional French rosewood and-ormolu side table — probably from the Napoleon III era. It's a nice contrast to the other furniture in the room, adding a touch of old-fashioned grandeur.’