Tim Van Steenbergen: Old Values in a New World

By JoAnne Sommers

Tim Van Steenbergen was fated to become a designer.  Just ask the award-winning Belgian creator of the sunwear line, ‘theo by Tim Van Steenbergen’, himself.

“It was inevitable that I would do this,” Van Steenbergen says of his career. “I come from a family of architects who were always seeking harmony and beauty in their surroundings. My grandfather, René, taught me how to draw, and my mother is a painter, who encouraged me to draw and paint. When I was four, she took me to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, where we lived, and where I later spent five years studying fashion, textile creation and theatre costume.”

After graduation, Van Steenbergen, now 35, worked as the first assistant to Belgian fashion designer Olivier Theyskens, studied drapery and couture techniques, then worked in Paris and later,New York. 2001 was a year of milestones: he returned to Antwerp, establishing his company, Mitzlavv bvba, and his first collection of women’s clothing was launched in Paris.

But Van Steenbergen’s creative gifts are much too varied to be channelled into a single art form. Among other achievements, he has displayed haute couture dresses in the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, the Louvre in Paris and at the Cannes film festival. He created an installation, « Stills », at the 2003 Venice Biennale. As well, Van Steenbergen has created costumes for Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, ‘Ring of the Nibelungen’, to be performed at La Scala in Milan and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin.

So what led him into eyewear design?

“Several years ago, while flying to Moscow on business, I met some people from theo. As we talked, I realized that we shared a sense of curiosity and excitement about what was new and creative. I felt there was a match and thought it would be great to collaborate with them.”

The people at theo thought so too, and Van Steenbergen has since collaborated with the company’s designers to create seven sunwear collections. The most recent – Limited Edition René – honours the grandfather and mentor who showed Van Steenbergen how to look at and appreciate art.

Limited Edition René, which is available at select locations across Canada, reflects René Van Steenbergen’s application of modern architectural design and building materials to religious architecture. Another source of inspiration came from the sunglasses popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s: heavy, black acetate sunwear that lent ordinary people an instant diva-allure. With that look in mind, Van Steenbergen created four models – three distinctly feminine and one masculine – each available in a full black model and a black/transparent variation. Each model has geometric details in a primary colour. The metal temples are not solid but have a structure that refers to concrete stained-glass windows. Only 150 sets have been released worldwide.

Van Steenbergen says his sunwear creations attract an intellectual clientele, “people who are interested in art, rather than in consumption for its own sake. They know why they choose these glasses. It’s not only about glamour – it’s about the concept behind it.”

Tim’s approach to work has changed over the years. At first, he says, he tried to put all his ideas into a single collection but as he developed, he learned to make choices, becoming more selective and self-critical in the process. The result is that each collection is now “more pure.”

Today, Van Steenbergen’s atelier is located in an old sewing factory in the suburbs ofAntwerp. During the ‘60s the building was the workshop of a traditional couture label that designed and produced every garment in that factory. Today, it is maintained as it was years ago and it reflects the history and the philosophy Tim believes in when creating his designs.

“The challenge in my work is the search for authenticity and artisanship,” he explains. “My motivation is to transfer craftsmanship and the old values into different and modern designs. I’m in search of old values in a new world.”

That search recently led him to create ‘Metronome’, a first light design for Delta Light, and an interior collection in collaboration with Aristide. “I don’t want to focus only on glasses or fashion,” he says. “I’m most interested in how creative fields communicate with one another and how they come together. You can’t work in isolation, you must be part of the world.”

Other new fields beckon, including the world of film.

When he’s not working, Van Steenbergen enjoys running, doing yoga and reading, especially the novels of Dickens and Tolstoy. “I can reread them again and again, always discovering new things,” he says. Again, that happy marriage of the old and the new.