By Georgette Koning
His resume lists him as an art collector, commissioner of artwork, author, patron of the arts and ‘fashion activist’. The latter term – which he coined himself – is meant to convey a sense of active involvement. ‘I consider commissioning work from fashion designers and artists to be a form of activism,’ Han Nefkens (60) explains as we sit in the lobby of Amsterdam’s Conservatorium Hotel. A long-time resident of Barcelona, he likes to stay at this luxury hotel in the city’s Museumkwartier district whenever he visits the Netherlands.
The eldest of seven children, Nefkens was raised in Rotterdam in an affluent family of entrepreneurs. While his mother died when he was young, his 96-year-old father continues to work as an architect to this day. Nefkens has a congenital defect, having been born with a deformed left hand and no right hand. His parents never made a fuss about his disability when he was growing up. ‘That’s our Han – that’s just the way he was made,’ his mother would say whenever he walked around struggling with a glass in his hand and someone would yell: ‘Careful, it’s going to fall on the floor!’ ‘So what? Let it fall,’ would be her laconic reply. Looking back on those early years, Nefkens feels that was very much the right approach to take.
Fresh out of school at nineteen, he left his native Holland, curious to ‘discover what else the world had to offer’. After spells in France and the U.S. – where he took degrees in communications and media – he spent eleven years in Mexico, where he met his current partner, Felipe, who now restores antique furniture. In Mexico he taught English (‘just like all the other expats over there’) and worked as a reporter for Dutch national public radio in Mexico City. He admits that his somewhat colourful CV and years of wandering may have made him seem a little shiftless. ‘But I feel it’s a great thing to lead multiple lives within the one we’re given. You have to give yourself that freedom to explore and, as it were, try different things on for size.’
The reason for Nefkens’ tireless drive and energy becomes apparent when he relates how his life was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with HIV 28 years ago. The news hit him like a lightning bolt. He was told that he would only have another one or two years to live – maybe three at most, if he was lucky. And he turned out to be lucky – extremely lucky, in fact. This was thanks to both an early intervention – he got tested before he seroconverted – and to the fact that the medication he needed was already available on the market at that time, while new treatment methods also continued to be introduced. ‘The fact that I’m still around is very special to me and completely unexpected. It fills me with a great sense of joy and excitement. So that’s part of the reason there’s still so very much I want to do.’
Nefkens never imagined he would become such a key figure in the art world – or venture into the realm of fashion, for that matter. During what turned out to be a transformative visit to Paris back in 1999, he happened to notice a poster with the caption Remake of the Weekend, bearing the name of the Swiss-born visual artist Pipilotti Rist. His curiosity piqued by the unusual moniker and intriguing title, Nefkens decided to attend the Rist exhibition at the Paris Museum of Modern Art on the Avenue du Président Wilson, where he became transfixed by her video installations. He wandered around the exhibition space for hours, inhaling the scent of the grass and feeling the sensation of water on his skin. It was this intense experience that made him want to turn his attention to the art world. Merely storing art or hanging it on his walls at home seemed dull and uninspired to him, mainly because that meant he would not be able to share it with others. ‘When I get that excited about something, I want to share the experience,’ he says. He decided to team up with Sjarel Ex, at that time director of Utrecht’s Centraal Museum.
It would be another five years until Nefkens’ first foray into the world of fashion. As before, serendipity played a role: attending an international AIDS conference in Thailand in 2004, he spotted a series of Adriana Bertini-designed dresses made of condoms. He instructed for them to be sent to the Centraal Museum, where they were exhibited as art objects, illuminated on a rotating plinth. It was then that it dawned on Nefkens that fashion could be about more than just beautiful clothes – that it could make a genuine statement.
He and Sjarel Ex made a deal whereby the artworks he purchased would be placed on long-term loan to the Centraal Museum under the name ‘H+F Collection’ (with the H standing for Han and the F for Felipe, his partner). His first acquisition, dating from 1999, is a work by Pipilotti Rist. He has acquired a total of between 400 and 500 works to date, with fashion design making up between 10 and 15 percent of the collection. When Ex changed jobs and transferred to Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in 2004, so did Nefkens’ collection. By then, other museums in the Netherlands and elsewhere had also started receiving items on loan from him, while talented curators were able to stage exhibitions using financial support provided through his H+F Barcelona and H+F Curatorial Grant initiatives.
Whenever people contact him as a patron with the request to invest money in some ‘interesting little project’ or other, he invariably turns them down: Nefkens will only back projects he has initiated himself. Laughing, he says: ‘That’s one lesson you quickly learn!’
One person whose advice on fashion purchases Nefkens has come to trust blindly is José Teunissen, professor of fashion theory and research at ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem. She introduced him to the work of experimental designers such as Hussein Chalayan, Walter Van Beirendonck and Iris van Herpen.
One of the joint initiatives launched by Nefkens and Teunissen, in conjunction with the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, is Han Nefkens Fashion on the Edge, an ongoing project focusing on fashion and art. Nefkens recently also lent his backing to The Future of Fashion is Now, an exhibition at the Boijmans dedicated to tomorrow’s couture which ran until January 2015. Among the items featured in the exhibition were clothes equipped to charge smartphones and a “fabric” called biolace, made from the roots of strawberry plants. The exhibition included videos, installations and costumes created by some 50 designers who have either received commissions directly from Nefkens or whose works he has purchased over the years. Some of the big names included Viktor & Rolf, Christophe Coppens and Iris van Herpen.
Nefkens chooses his words carefully and cuts a sprightly and youthful figure in his bright red PUMA by Alexander McQueen trainers. He has paired them with a beautifully-cut petrol-blue Gucci jacket with pick-stitched lapels and shoulders that fit him perfectly. He has always had a sense of fashion. As a child, he loved his mother’s clothes, and now, in adult life, it is apparent that he dresses with great care and aplomb. Speaking of his brand-new Gucci jacket, he says (lowering his voice conspiratorially, as if trying to keep the boisterous group of Russian diners at the next table from eavesdropping): ‘You know, when you’re wearing something new, it makes you feel a little more special somehow. I could have put on another perfectly lovely jacket today that I’ve had for three years, but it just wouldn’t have felt the same. Putting on something brand-new gives me a bit of a thrill, a lift – I instantly feel better and I get the impression that other people pick up on that as well.’
Not surprisingly, the walk-in closet in his Barcelona home is stuffed to the gills. But he adheres to a strict ‘one in, one out’ rule where his wardrobe is concerned. ‘I think it’s ridiculous to own items of clothing I’m only going to wear once or twice a year.’ He passes his “hand-me-downs” on to friends, but will wear the ten pairs of trainers he owns until they are coming apart at the seams. When it comes to shopping, he would prefer to be able to visit the same store a few times a year and buy everything he wants in one go – nice and simple, no fuss. But although he has travelled all over the world, he has yet to find a store that ticks all of his boxes. The one that comes closest is a luxury boutique in Barcelona called Santa Eulalia, which stocks a large number of exclusive brands and where he is able to find what he’s looking for most of the time.
José Teunissen is the person to serve as his guide through the world of conceptual high fashion. She was the one to introduce him to influential figures such as the designer duo Viktor & Rolf. Nefkens says he is drawn to the work of Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren for their aesthetic and craftsmanship, their commentary on the world of fashion and the way their style has evolved over the years. He notes that their designs are becoming increasingly personal, referring to the show that marked their comeback to the world of high-end fashion in 2013, after a 12-year absence. The show was set up as a ‘fashion meditation’, which featured Viktor & Rolf meditating amid a minimalistic ‘zen garden’ set and presented make-up-free models in sandals and baggy black dresses.
So did Nefkens, who purchased ten of the twenty items in the collection, have a hand in their return to high fashion? ‘Well, no – that would be giving me too much credit. They were simply looking to celebrate their twentieth anniversary with a splash. But they knew that I would be there to support them and that half the items in the collection had already been sold off the bat.’ Nefkens regards Viktor & Rolf as part of his native country’s national heritage and feels it is important that their work be exhibited in Dutch museums. He purchased two red dresses made from rugs from the duo’s recent Red Carpet collection, with the intention of showing them as part of his The Future of Fashion is Now exhibition.
When asked whether he approves of Dutch museums’ approach to fashion, he will not be drawn. ‘I’m only really involved with the Boijmans, and I feel they’re doing a fantastic job over there. I can’t really speak for any other museums.’ So is the Netherlands ready for a museum dedicated exclusively to fashion – a permanent home for the art form, as envisioned by Teunissen? He says that he and Teunissen never discussed the idea of funding a fashion museum. A bit hesitantly: ‘It’s a tough one, really – I’m on the fence about it. I wouldn’t want to abandon Fashion on the Edge, which I set up together with Boijmans, for another project.’
Nefkens has an award named after him: the Han Nefkens Fashion Award, with prize money totalling 25,000 euros. The award is intended for fashion designers who have already established a presence in the industry, but who have yet to fully break out. Award winners are tasked with creating a design that turns fantasy into a reality. The prestigious award serves as a boost for creative young designers, while at the same time putting the spotlight firmly on the museum involved. ‘Oh, really? That’s fabulous!’, Nefkens says when I tell him about the Fashion Stipend (‘Modestipendium’), of which he – surprisingly – has never heard before. The stipend is a 50,000-euro award presented annually by the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund to a promising Dutch fashion designer or label. Introduced in 2000, the award is funded by another patron of the arts who wishes to remain anonymous. ‘Nope, it’s not me, but it’s really great to hear that people are doing this sort of thing. It’s very much needed.’
The amount of money Nefkens is willing to spend on a particular work depends on the designer’s status. The prices paid for high fashion serve as his primary frame of reference. One aspect that Nefkens loves about commissioning projects from artists or fashion designers is getting to witness the creative process up close. ‘I love getting together with Viktor & Rolf in the studio, for example, and seeing all the drawings and fabrics. It’s a bit like a laboratory, really. I’m right there in the room with them as they bounce around ideas about the music for the show and so on. It’s a privilege to be part of that process. The fact that they’re also lovely people is a bonus.’
Does Nefkens ever let his personal relationships with designers influence his purchases? ‘Of course, if you’re working with someone you get on with, you’re inclined to encourage that momentum. It’s a different story when things don’t go quite as smoothly and people fail to stick to their commitments, for example.’ But what if their work is fabulous regardless? ‘Well, all I can say is that I’ve never found myself faced with that dilemma so far.’
He likes to talk about how much pleasure it gives him to bring people together, and how much fun it was when various designers who knew each other by name only met for the first time at the opening of The Future of Fashion is Now. ‘It gives a whole new dimension to my life and that’s exactly what I find so stimulating about it.’
In late 2001, Nefkens, by then based in Barcelona, contracted a serious illness: a life-threatening brain inflammation triggered by his HIV. Nefkens survived the ordeal, but had to learn to eat, walk, speak, read and write all over again. He recounts his experiences in his book De gevlogen vogel (‘The Bird Has Flown’), published in 2008. He had previously used the funds he receives annually from the family trust to be able to focus on his writing, and until his life-changing encounter with the work of Pipilotti Rist in 1999 he spent his time working on that and simply enjoying life. It was at that point that he decided to become a patron of the arts. So how does he view himself in this role? Nefkens shrugs his shoulders, and indeed he is rarely required to explain what exactly his work involves. He initiates most meetings himself, but tends to shun cocktail parties, exhibition openings and other purely social events: ‘I don’t see the point of standing around and making small talk. Where is that going to get me?’
He is averse to networking: ‘As soon as you create a network, you’re going to then have to put in the effort to maintain it.’ He would much rather meet someone in a no-strings-attached context and have an interesting conversation with them, without any agendas or expectations. Nefkens misses his former career as a journalist, and for many years he felt guilty about having abandoned his work in this field. However, he had no choice but to give it up when his other projects started getting in the way. ‘I really wanted to have my cake and eat it, and although I sort of managed for a while, I ultimately couldn’t really make it work. I felt like there was too much pressure on me.’
However, Nefkens continues to write regularly about artists, among other things by contributing to various art catalogues. Although his work is largely a matter of business, he is loath to describe himself as a businessman – not least because of his aversion to labels. But, of course, he does bring a business mentality to everything he does: all the terms of his collaborations are set out in a contract at the outset, so as to avoid any misunderstanding about the fixed, non-negotiable budget and other important issues. ‘That’s the sort of thing we’ll discuss in our initial meetings, and once that’s all settled we go out for a nice meal.’ Never mind the art, the fashion and the prestige – for Nefkens, it really all comes down to only one thing: having a good time.
Han Nefkens’ life in brief
1954 – Born in Rotterdam
1974 – Communications student in France and the U.S.
1978 – Radio journalist in Mexico
1987 – Diagnosed with HIV
1992 – Moves to Barcelona
1995 – Publication of his debut novel, Bloedverwanten (‘Blood Brothers’)
1999 – Starts collecting art and establishes the H+F Foundation
2005 – Publication of his second novel, Twee lege stoelen (‘Two Empty Chairs’)
2008 – Presentation of first Han Nefkens Fashion Award
2009 – The Art of Fashion exhibition held at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, funded by the H+F Foundation
2014 – Initiates The Future of Fashion is Now project