Josephus Melchior Thimister, the Dutch designer who died of suicide last week at age 57, was, the couturier Ralph Rucci said, “the greatest designer of his generation.”
Anne Chapelle, the Belgian businesswoman who once backed him, called him “a master.”
He had run the house of Balenciaga for five years, started his own couture and ready-to-wear collections, had his home on the cover of The World of Interiors, and been crowned by Vogue as one of the new century’s “fashion stars.”
And yet, at the time of his death, aside from a small group of fashion insiders with long memories, most people did not know his name.
A talent who was able to balance on the knife edge between poetry and a grungy kind of power, who was fond of tattered romance, a sweeping Byronic trench and the perfect line, Mr. Thimister was also a casualty of fashion’s transition from creative hothouse of individuality to global industry.
He was among the last in a line of designers who came of age in the late 1980s and ’90s still believing in purity of concept and allegiance to the creative muse above all else, only to discover that in the 21st century, marketing and constant streams of stuff were the new benchmarks of success, that the catchphrase wasn’t “vision” but rather a “vision statement.”
It’s a tale that has been told before, with varying degrees of tragedy and of designers with varying degrees of fame.
It was there with Alexander McQueen, who also died by suicide. There with John Galliano, whose well-documented addictions and public implosion were seen as responses to the pressure he felt and led to the end of his career at Dior, before a comeback at Margiela. And with Christophe Decarnin, the man who put Balmain on the map before a reported nervous breakdown took him off it.
If it is true that, as fashion dictates, three of anything is a trend, then four, perhaps, should be a stop sign. (Mr. Thimister also had depression.) And if we don’t continue to pay attention to these stories, we are doomed to repeat them.
“I never understood and still don’t how such an acclaimed talent could be at the same time forgotten by the fashion world,” said Luis Placido de Abreu, who worked with Mr. Thimister for several years in the second half of his career.
The outlines of that career are familiar enough: a rise through the ranks of couture houses, the creation of a namesake brand, a scramble to pay the bills with side stints as the creative director of a more established (less cool) line, financial instability, closure, return, closure. The content is more complicated.
I first stumbled by mistake into a Thimister presentation not long after the designer had left Balenciaga and started his own label. It was 1997 or 1998, and the show was held in a gallery on the rue des Beaux-Arts in Paris, with the clothes hung on the walls.
I remember being struck by the Tolstoy-meets-Oasis mood of the clothes. One dress in particular stuck in my head: a white slip with a giant Greek marble profile silk-screened on the body under a scrim of black tulle that had been tacked into pleats on one side, like a piece of portable chiaroscuro.
I didn’t know much about fashion at the time — I think it was my first season in Paris — but I knew enough to understand there was something ineffably elegant and also slightly twisted about the dress.
It was hard to forget. It became the first piece of fashion I ever bought (I still have it), and with the purchase, I got to know its designer, who was flamboyant and given to scarf-flinging and self-mythology.
Born in Maastricht, the Netherlands, Mr. Thimister attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He worked as an assistant for Karl Lagerfeld, as well as the house of Patou, before becoming creative director of Balenciaga at the age of 30. His first couture show was entirely black and white and is often cited as the moment high fashion returned to the label.
“He’s why we started paying attention to Balenciaga again,” said Julie Gilhart, then the fashion director of Barneys New York.
In 1997, Mr. Thimister left to start his own label. (Nicolas Ghesquière took over at Balenciaga.) Though his namesake line was embraced by retailers like Barneys and Jeffrey, where the founder Jeffrey Kalinsky showcased the entire collection when he opened his New York boutique, Mr. Thimister still struggled with investment, despite a side stint as creative director of Genny.
Thimister the brand was shut down in 2004, and the next year Mr. Thimister became the artistic director of the Charles Jourdan shoe company (he left in 2007).
In 2010, he returned with a one-off couture show. Entitled Blood and Opulence, it was unisex and featured greatcoats and gowns with the grandeur of the Russian Revolution, brought down to earth by blood and mud.
The following year, backed by the Belgian group BVBA 32, which owns Haider Ackermann and Ann Demeulemeester, he once again tried his hand at ready-to-wear. But the shredded knits and rough leather corsets, draped silk cargo pants and gossamer shifts never found an audience, and, in 2013, the company was shut down.
Mr. Thimister lived in a monochrome apartment that had once belonged to Hubert de Givenchy (he said) on one of the streets that borders the Invalides, with black floors, black and white walls and a taxidermied polar bear and baby elephant. His living room was peppered with black plush velvet and silk pillows atop a black rug.
Sebastian Suhl, his first business partner, remembered dinner parties called “picnics” with everyone lying on the floor. Jean Delmas, who, with his partner, Heidi Yang, owns the showroom Red Velvet and were Mr. Thimister’s agents in America after he restarted his label, remembered Mr. Thimister pouring glass after glass of Champagne “until the carpet was completely soaked.”
He told Mr. Delmas that a skeletal torso hanging from a window belonged to his Russian grandmother (he had an obsession with his Russian roots and the concept of decaying aristocracy) and that as a child he had toured Harlem with said grandmother while toting a cape and cane. His favorite place in Paris was the Café Flore.
Latterly he was an interior designer, a consultant at Pucci and a teacher at La Cambre art school in Brussels and at the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris, where he was a mentor to the designer Hed Mayner, one of the finalists for the 2019 LVMH prize for young designers.
“He never wanted to make any concessions,” Mr. Delmas said. “We tried to find him investors after 2012, but nothing panned out.”
He was, Mr. Suhl said, “infuriatingly stubborn and self-absorbed, yet extraordinarily sensitive, kind and generous.” He was also given to depression and mood swings.
He possessed, in other words, many of the qualities once associated with the idea of a designer — drama, exaggeration, eccentricity, flamboyance — qualities that were traditionally excused in the name of artistry, or even expected and prized. (See the 2017 Daniel Day-Lewis film “Phantom Thread,” or pretty much any story about Yves Saint Laurent.)
But in a post-9/11, post-global-financial-crisis landscape, in which the rise of China and the explosion of digital altered the playing field and the rules, those values suddenly looked like unneeded indulgences.
It would be comforting to think that talent conquers all, but it would also be a fairy tale. That in itself was not the problem. Expectations change, as do job descriptions. That is the normal course of the world.
The problem is that there was no allowance for the transition, or the dissonance it created. Instead, a gulf opened up between now and then, and a host of designers, including Mr. Thimister, fell in.
The paradox is, looking back at the clothes he made, the quality that most comes to mind is timeless.