On a crisp Wednesday afternoon in March, Stephanie D’heygere found herself within the sacral premises of a forest-encircled priory in the outskirts of Bruges, surrounded by a cluster of pubescent girls in identical uniforms. D’heygere — Belgian-born Paris-based designer and ex-head of jewellery of Maison Margiela — had returned to the unlikely birthplace of her fascination for accessorising: her former Catholic boarding school, Bethanië.
The gender-mixed institution was where the designer spent a large portion of her formative teenage years. At the time, Belgium updated a law, requiring all-boys boarding school to begin admitting girls. And among the school’s 40 boys, D’heygere was an early member of the school’s pioneering batch of 15 girls. She remembered the girls would all be dressed in the standard blue shirt underneath a woollen sweater bearing the school’s lion logo and a bible-referencing Latin axiom, neatly tucked in a grey pleated skirt. The strict dress code left the expressive teenage with limited variables for her to toy with: shoes (“They had to be classic.”), socks (“Dark colours only.”) and accessories (“They had to be small.”).
From left: A boarding school modelling D’heygere’s “Canister” ring, of which hollowed socket is meant to perfectly fit a €5 bill or a cigarette; “Jewellery Box” earrings, silver “Halter” necklace, “Scarf Holder” charm, “Canister” ring and “Needle” bag.
Young D’heygere discovered that accessories, albeit restricted in size, was her only medium to convey individuality amid the regulated conformity. It became the starting point of her winding trajectory in jewellery-making. After graduating, D’heygere went on to take her master’s degree in fashion design at Antwerp’s prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts before fervently realising, while tasked to design sunglasses midway through an internship at Lanvin, that accessories were, still, her preferred instrument of choice. Her portfolio now lists employers and clientele the likes of Maison Margiela, where she helmed its costume and fine jewellery departments; and Dior, a brief stint at its couture section; to niche labels Y/Project and Jacquemus. In 2016, the designer set out on her own and early in 2018, debuted her own jewellery namesake.
This boarding school homecoming was D’heygere’s very first, long after her graduation in the early ’90s. Yet everything, apparently, still looked and felt the same. “The only thing different was that the skirt was much shorter,” the 35-year-old remarked, laughing. D’heygere’s return wasn’t without a purpose. Her visit, accompanied by a team of photographer and stylist, was to photograph the school’s final year female students who would be gilded with selected pieces from her jewellery namesake.
Prior to the visit, D’heygere, doubtful that the school board would agree to her request, went ahead and emailed the director of the school anyway. “Actually, he immediately said “No problem.”,” she said, recalling the astonishment she had when the school gave her free reins to organise the shoot. “The only thing we weren’t allowed to do was shoot in the school itself — we had to shoot in the boarding school.” D’heygere was referring to the school’s nearby priory, where the girls would bike home to after classes to reside with the nuns.
“Any girl who wanted to participate was welcome. We didn’t want to do any selection based on how they look,” she said of the campaign’s casting. No makeup was applied. The concept, D’heygere iterated, was to keep it as au naturel as possible, as to how the girls would look like in their uniforms. It was to be a stark contrast to the amplifying of their adornments.
The result is a jarring juxtaposition; a world zeroing in on an exaggerated line between singularity and prescribed orthodoxy. D’heygere’s Dadaist pieces — jewellery boxes as earrings; earrings that double as rings; rings designed to suspend rolled-up bills — were distributed among the uniform-wearing pupils, who were shot and filmed in their accustomed academic ecosystem. In the film, the abnormality of D’heygere’s accessories was further underscored by the normality of the girls’ lunch table banter.
The project was, above all, a personal revisitation for D’heygere. A look back at her initial encounter with the notion of individuality, years after it propelled her to where she now churns her own jewellery in a studio in Paris’ quaint Saint-Denis neighbourhood. A full circle, to put it simply. D’heygere agreed, “It felt good to go back.”
Subscribe to our newsletter