The designer Josephus Melchior Thimister, who has taken his life at the age of 57 following a long struggle with depression, used his subtle talent to define the artful minimalism of ’90s fashion but struggled to find a place in the years that followed. In Vogue’s July 2000 issue, Thimister was heralded as one of 10 members of ”The New Guard” alongside such peers as Nicolas Ghesquière, Hedi Slimane, Viktor & Rolf, and Junya Watanabe. “Thimister’s signature look,” wrote Sally Singer, “honed in his couture and ready-to-wear creations, is one of luxurious imperfection, of a grandeur distressed to a wicked grooviness.”
Of Russian, Belgian, and French extraction, Thimister was born in Maastricht in the Netherlands and educated in England and Belgium where he graduated as a star of the prestigious Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Latterly he lived in Dublin. Dressed in his signature old fashioned matelot top, Thimister met Karl Lagerfeld at a Chanel couture show. The designer told him he was too good to be an assistant, but he worked briefly for Lagerfeld’s eponymous brand nonetheless before landing the job of creative director at the house of Balenciaga in 1992.
His debut collection, executed entirely in black and white, focused on the structural drama that was one of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s signatures and garnered new attention for the long moribund house. Barneys and other prestigious fashion-forward retailers supported him from that first show. After 10 collections, (the last of which was set to a live rock music accompaniment so loud that Suzy Menkes and others walked out), Thimister struck out on his own, (Ghesquière, formerly in charge of licenses, took over the helm).
Thimister and his dedicated team worked for three months to produce a 49 piece haute couture collection that he presented during the January 1996 Paris couture week (having fulfilled the exigent demands of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture), in the glacial École des Beaux Arts. Thimister’s sister helped finance the collection; Armand Hadida, the owner of L’Eclaireur, loaned him his own workrooms; and the models—including, on one memorable occasion, Naomi Campbell—generally walked his runway for free. Thimister told Vogue’s André Leon Talley, who would become a friend, that he was thinking of clients who “want couture clothes for real life today.”
His proposition, which included elegantly draped sheaths of chalky crepe and filmy tulle t-shirts worn over buff leather pants, attracted clients including such discriminating couture mavens as Inès de la Fressange, Deeda Blair, Anne Bass, and Jayne Wrightsman, and Vogue hailed a “breakthrough collection [that] established the designer as the crown prince of haute couture.” But with minimal backing Thimister was unable to sustain the momentum. “You have to choose to be small and artisanal, or big; in between you always lose,” he explained later. “And if you are small you have to work like a nutcase.”
Donatella Girombelli hired him to design her Genny collection and Thimister focused on his own ready-to-wear, where he “radically reimagined the very meaning of luxury.” Many of these collections were presented on Stockman dummies in his monastically elegant apartment on Paris’s Invalides—a ground floor, loft-like space in a bourgeois apartment building scented with church incense and with candles burning in the antique chandeliers. Thimister would have placed a cherished Russian icon alongside contemporary art, and Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” might be playing on the soundtrack. There were commodious black velvet sofas and cushions—at that point the gregarious and droll Thimister liked to entertain—zebra skins were laid on the lacquered black floors, and a taxidermied baby elephant and polar bear provided a surprise greeting.
In January 2010 Thimister returned to the haute couture with a powerful capsule collection that he titled “1915: Bloodshed and Opulence,“ which featured repurposed military jackets and canvas tents mixed with conventionally luxurious fabrics, and dye effects that suggested the spattering of blood. Thimister did not shy from violent references: He based a 1999 collection on the notorious Bader Meinhof gang. Although prescient, the return to clothing design proved short-lived, but Thimister became the creative director for Charles Jourdan, and also turned his aesthetic skills to decorating; he had already designed interiors for friends, and for installations during the Biennale des Antiquaires. In recent years he had been teaching his exceptional and hard won skills to a new generation of fashion students at La Cambre in Brussels and at the Institut Français de la Mode.