Paul Rem is one of a kind. He has been that for a long time. Not because he wants to, quite the opposite, but because that’s all he can be. Most people need time and sometimes help to find themselves. Inspired by beauty all around, that he could not help but notice, the Dutch art historian knew from a young age who he was inside and exactly what that looked like on the outside – despite what others might think or do about it.
To capture his curated collection decades in the making, we embarked on a two-day architectural journey throughout the Netherlands. It took us from a former sanatorium in Hilversum to several locations across Amsterdam and finally into an awe-inspiring space in a Dutch museum in Haarlem. Every place was curated at the personal preference of the art and architecture historian. Showing the wide range of his appreciation of the beautiful artform, while at the same time, offering us some of the most interesting locations to portray one of our subjects yet.
When we sat down, we learned about his early sensitivities for and awareness of the effects of beauty, which slowly, but very certainly, propelled him into a life in art history. And while the world around him has changed profoundly throughout the decades, Paul has dressed pretty much the same: buttoned up in suit and tie, never failing to mark them with his signature personal touches to make it uncompromisingly his own. A style that we together captured in somewhat of an anthology collection, with a few minor explorations into the new. To use his own words: “before he’ll be too old” — and without a doubt will find the clothes that represent what he feels at that point in time and in his life by listening to his inner voice.
What is your earliest memory of clothing?
My earliest memory of clothing is very old, I must have been about two, which I was later able to retrace through pictures. It was a small outfit – I think I was still wearing diapers – puff pants made of a thin Scottish plaid fabric with a matching jacket. I remember that the fabric was nice to wear. But when I was about 10 years old, I noticed that my mother wanted to throw it away, and I made her store it away. After all, it was my outfit. Then it went into a big envelope, and I never looked at it again until the time I moved out of the house. I opened that envelope again and found out it wasn’t fine fabric at all. Somehow it was a big disillusionment, because in my memory I was quite sophisticated in my perky outfit.
How do you look back on that childhood?
A happy childhood, partly because I protected myself by withdrawing myself and cultivating my own world. And I actually still do that. I might very well be one of the last romantics, so to speak. I was incredibly interested in my family’s origins. Even then as a boy, I would take my bicycle to cemeteries and write down years and names. I wanted to get a grip on where I came from. Somehow, I don’t know why either, very early on I had a kind of existential consciousness. I felt that I was an autonomous being. And the past gave a certain existence in that.
Both my grandfathers also played an important role in my childhood. One grandfather had a carpentry factory and was always making things. The other was a boatman, but was also tremendously good with his hands, which he used to make his own house, among other things. I watched both my grandfathers build things as a child. I found that particularly fascinating. And perhaps not entirely coincidentally, I’m pretty handy myself. I checked that off immediately. It occurred to me the other day that I really do carry something of both in me. They also happened to get along very well. I was aware very early on of the, proverbially mostly, genes I came from. I have always been proud of that.
Were your grandfathers well-dressed men?
To me they were! Not outspoken, just within the spirit of that time. But I did think it was special, being so interested in the past. I did see the clothes they wore as a direct connection to that past. I still regret not taking my grandfather’s ties when he passed away. For example, my other grandfather had given me a waistcoat, which I wore as a sixteen-year-old boy. With a scarf on my neck. Not as a statement, but mainly because I felt good in it. At that time, I had a classmate I hung out with and at a certain point he dressed like that too. I thought that was a bit unfortunate, somewhere, I remember. I didn’t want to be a “trend setter,” it mostly felt very much like “for me.”
Did that make you stand out as a teenager?
Yes, I did stand out. Which is actually quite remarkable, because I am by nature quite an introverted and shy person. You could say especially in those teenage years, in order not to stand out too much, you conform so as not to draw too much attention to yourself. But the opposite happened. I didn’t do it consciously, but it did happen. As a result, I was treated harshly at school and in the village in the Zaan region where I grew up — but that never gave me the feeling that I should have gone along with what was fashionable at the time. To me it felt perfectly normal to dress the way I did. In my mind, the “problem” was not with me. And even if the result was that I got a few kicks, I saw no reason to dress myself differently. The beatings, then, were just a necessary evil.
Yes, I did stand out. Which is actually quite remarkable, because I am by nature quite an introverted and shy person. You could say especially in those teenage years, in order not to stand out too much, you conform so as not to draw too much attention to yourself. But the opposite happened. I didn't do it consciously, but it did happen.
So, it did have a price, to dress the way you liked?
You could say that, indeed. I changed high schools several times during those years, with varying degrees of success. Even in Osdorp, here in Amsterdam, where I pursued VWO (pre-university education), it was more often not accepted than accepted. People didn’t understand me and that evoked quite a strong reaction. I was so out of the norm that most people preferred to ignore me.
I did feel increasingly comfortable in a city like Amsterdam, which of course was very different from the village where I grew up. And don’t get me wrong, that wasn’t an escape, it was always good for me there too. I see the “misunderstanding” I encountered as something everyone has to deal with to a greater or lesser extent.
You told us that your parents and grandparents took you to museums at a young age.
I had a print of my namesake Paulus Potter’s painting “The Young Bull” hanging above my bed as a child. At one point I became tremendously captivated by that picture, I wanted to know more about it, and so one time my grandmother took me to the Mauritshuis where it hung. I can still see me by her hand, walking up the stairs of the Mauritshuis and coming around the corner. I will never forget that. I still do it sometimes too, when I’m there now. Only to be completely confused when the painting temporarily hangs in a different place.
The insight that an image can really exist in a more glorious form – that really stuck with me. I realized quite young how happy a museum can make you. That lesson was also really instilled in me by my parents and grandparents. It started at a young age, and I never lost it.
I think I recognized that they [writers Louis Couperus and Guy de Maupassant] were exceptional figures who had brought creativity to the table. There could have been others, but I had come up with these two names. These two men taught me what it could mean if you were "yourself." How you looked on the outside had a relationship to what you felt on the inside. And in their case translated back into creativity.
Who did the nonconformist teenager Paul model himself after?
My role models were writers like the famous Dutch novelist Louis Couperus. I loved his books, even though at first, I barely understood the language. The fact that those sentences went on and on fascinated me. The result was a kind of trance. He almost really taught me to read. I didn’t read very well before, but as I was eager to get to the bottom of his sentences, to look up the meaning of words, that got better. I understood that you could build something with words. I don’t consider myself a “dandy,” but Couperus was distinctly so, and I understood that how he dressed was in some way related to what he wrote. That fascinated me immensely. The French writer Guy de Maupassant was also such a figure for me. He was a lot wilder than Couperus, a womanizer. I was absolutely not that myself, but I was captivated by it.
All of these locations inspire me with their beauty and affirm me in that I am who I am, because knowing it has enriched my life. That remains a bit of a common thread in my life anyway. I know very well for myself what inspires me, allowing me to be who I want to be. I will try to convey that a little in everything to other people. In that respect, our collaboration was a unique opportunity that presented itself, among what I consider like-minded people in that field, so I took that with a lot of gratitude.
You had, anyway, a strong awareness that these were men of exceptional character. Which in turn translated into their clothing.
I think I recognized that they were exceptional figures who had brought creativity to the table. There could have been others, but I had come up with these two names. These two men taught me what it could mean if you were “yourself.” How you looked on the outside had a relationship to what you felt on the inside. And in their case translated back into creativity.
Earlier you mentioned how during this period, in the late 1970s, you also started wearing a Fez for the first time.
My outing, growing up in the village, was walking to the library where I made my way to the art history and fashion sections in particular. There I learned that men in the nineteenth century put on tuxedo jackets after dinner and retired with a cigar. The fact that you “frame” a certain action with a piece of clothing: that fascinated me immensely! When I read that, I immediately believed in that too. I recognized that feeling.
At one point, we were vacationing as a family in the Islamic part of the former Yugoslavia, where I found a Fez in a store. That was a well-known symbol at the time by the British comedian Tommy Cooper: when he put it on, he became the character of the zany magician. I had no substance to that, but it was confirmation that it had a kind of “framing” effect on that role he was playing. My father then, in that store, bought that headgear for me and it has always remained something special for me from then on. When I had to do homework and I took off the Fez afterwards, I literally left that homework behind me as well. Everything stayed under that hat, so to speak.
Later, when I had children of my own, wearing the Fez still meant that I was completely comfortable in my own skin. Then they could ask me anything and it was good, as far as I was concerned. Until the Fez was put away again, then that moment was over again. That is not demonstrative or exhibitionistic. It’s about what I feel when I wear something. For example, such a Fez.
Traditionally a Fez probably has its own meaning and context, but you found your own. That approach is very close to the way we serve men to have clothes that they feel completely at home in at Atelier Munro. The idea of “Manifesting character”: reflecting and presenting who you are as a person. You had figured that out for yourself at a young age.
I have agreed with my children that there will be no flowers on my coffin when I die, but there would be my Fez. Now in retrospect, I sometimes think that I could have taken my love of clothing and fashion even further or maybe even built a career in it by actually studying it. I could have left for a city like Paris. But my whole approach to clothing felt like something that was strictly about me. Not something I could or wanted for others as well. I was even sometimes told later that people thought it was “eccentric”. It didn’t feel that way, but maybe it was. For others, not for myself!
You didn’t end up studying fashion, but rather art history with a specialty in architecture. How do you look back on that time?
It was the happiest period of my life. The fact that you get to get an education, with all kinds of like-minded people, I found that a very special thing. That everyone was pursuing more or less the same thing as a destination in life. At that moment, it felt like my life was really beginning.
Did you also stand out in that new environment?
I did. People talked to me about how I dressed, in a nice way. Again, I didn’t do that to provoke reactions. It was about how I felt. I also had the advantage of meeting my future wife on the very first day of college. Having met her, I didn’t need so many others except anyway. And she didn’t have an above average interest in my appearance either! More in who I was and what I was interested in.
Studying then also gave a lot of new insights and perspectives. The fact that I have always been able to find and feel so much in museums also became a kind of motivation to continue. To be able to convey that feeling to other people. There I actually found exactly what I did not see in the given “fashion” at all: that I could also draw a certain meaning from this. To be able to convey my personal passion and perhaps the general importance of art.
In your selection of locations for our shoot we see your broad predilection, what originally made you decide to focus on architecture?
At first, I didn’t know at all that it was considered an art form. That already triggered something in me. The fact that you can be part of the art form. Of space with air and marked boundaries, made with a certain purpose: I found that fascinating. I had found that before, but back then I didn’t know I could study it. I remember once as a child standing in front of the Cathedral in Cologne: it was almost unbelievable that such a thing could have been made by humans. Or the moment we once had a car collision right in front of Soestdijk Palace: the royal power of that building I found immensely special. When I fully understood I could apply myself to that, the choice was quickly made. Eventually, after art history, I also studied the technical side of architecture at the Technical University in Delft.
Eventually you also started teaching it briefly in the phase before your PhD. You told us that you had visited one of our locations; Sanatorium Zonnestraal, with students in a totally dilapidated state in the early 1990s.
It was very nice to be able to carry out what I had learned. We literally had to clamber in through the windows, but then you could still see very clearly why this building looked the way it did. I was super excited to convey all that. I also realized that everyone could come to enjoy “a work of art” like Zonnestraal. If only they were helped a little in the right direction. In this case: climbing over the right fence. So, there I was also very much confirmed that I drew a certain sense of purpose from singling out beauty. Giving other people a front to enjoy and pointing out things that can enrich their lives.
Then eventually, pretty soon you start at Paleis Het Loo as a curator and also became a father.
That’s when my actual adult life started. The fact that I had Paleis Het Loo, where I could continue to “play” in a certain way was of course a privilege, but it was also hard for me at times. I was a bit weighed down by the sense of responsibility at times. What would happen if I lost my job? But fortunately, that all worked out well and in the end my two daughters were both very strong in life when they finally left home to go to college themselves. Because of my doctoral studies, I was also able to be present within the family a lot during the day, which I now really see as a privilege. That was not necessarily common back then in the 1990s. That also made our bond as a family enormously strong. By now my children have families of their own and I have gained another form of freedom in return.
Did anything else change in how you presented yourself, perhaps under the influence of your growing daughters?
Nothing changed in that. I can remember one time when one of my daughters told me at home that a classmate had asked if I was a cowboy. Because I had a hat on, or something like that. My daughters were actually proud of that. I never had to drop them off at the street corner, or anything like that. On the contrary: I can still remember a parents’ evening about the continuation courses, probably for the whole upper class, and my youngest daughter said that I had to come along, and we would arrive just late. Then everyone would see us coming down the stairs from that auditorium. She was totally into that, so we then did that together. Surely that gave her a certain pride or distinction within the group.
Neither of your daughters actually feared being seen as “different,” even in their vulnerable teenage years, as you hadn’t been yourself!
That’s right. We love each other tremendously anyway, in an all-encompassing way. There is no room for shame in that. How I dress was natural to them. That was part of me.
You were also not afraid during that period to be different again from, in this case, your environment of fathers.
Apart from the fact that I was home much more during the day, because I was working on my doctoral research in the evenings, the men around me did change. When I was younger, men still went to work in suits. That was no longer the case at all by now. But I didn’t change with them. The “just act normal”-thinking became more and more prominent. It became more and more eccentric to even wear a tie, for example. Looking different was, in my eyes, increasingly mistaken for “posturing.” Anyway, of course I don’t share that opinion. For me, “whatever” still applied. My feeling about myself was never affected by it.
Is that ever going to change?
I do think there will come a point when I’m of the opinion that I have to change something in my appearance. I do believe that there is an age limit to how I look. I’ve been fortunate to have always looked youthful. Now I look like my age in my opinion. But, there is going to come a point where you become a silly old man. I’m not going to let that happen. It must stay true when I look in the mirror. I want to continue to look dignified and so how I look now is going to change, at some point.
There has been increasing public attention to how you look in the past decade because of all your presentation and television work in addition to being a curator. This was evident in being crowned best dressed man by Dutch Esquire in 2020.
I co-founded the public relations department at Paleis Het Loo, which had just started when I joined the museum, and so I sometimes spoke to the media as a curator. But about ten years ago, it became more than that and there came more interest in me as a person. I have always embraced that, because there is always a public part that comes with my work. That’s exactly what I draw a lot of pleasure from. That my appearance became part of how people recognized me says in my eyes, a lot about the context of the times we live in. For me, the way I look remains natural, as it has always been.
Now in retrospect, I sometimes think that I could have taken my love of clothing and fashion even further or maybe even built a career in it by actually studying it. I could have left for a city like Paris. But my whole approach to clothing felt like something that was strictly about me.
Can we say that our collaboration is a kind of anthology of the style that you have been propagating all these years.
You can certainly say that, with the addition of some small experiments. I have previously had the privilege of experiencing your sophisticated made-to-measure process and garments. For this collaboration, I took inspiration from as wide a range of fabrics as possible. And in some areas — the jacket in denim fabric or the knitwear polo shirt — to try something new. In part to enhance our collaboration by actively interacting with the locations where we shot the looks.
All of these locations inspire me with their beauty and affirm me in that I am who I am, because knowing it has enriched my life. That remains a bit of a common thread in my life anyway. I know very well for myself what inspires me, allowing me to be who I want to be. I will try to convey that a little in everything to other people. In that respect, our collaboration was a unique opportunity that presented itself, among what I consider like-minded people in that field, so I took that with a lot of gratitude. I have a blind faith that things present themselves in life at the right time, so in that respect, as has happened many times in my life, this came at exactly the right time.