Push­ing the bound­aries enough to be ex­tra­or­di­nary yet re­main­ing so very wear­able, the col­lec­tions by Bel­gian de­signer Dries Van Noten have an en­dur­ing ap­peal that de­fies tran­sient trends. Here, he muses on his drive to cre­ate for the now and the fu­ture. B

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Push­ing the bound­aries enough to be ex­tra­or­di­nary yet re­main­ing so very wear­able, col­lec­tions by Bel­gian de­signer Dries Van Noten have an en­dur­ing ap­peal that de­fies tran­sient trends.

Dries Van Noten bounds through the door so quickly and unas­sum­ingly, shak­ing my hand and ask­ing about the travel into An­twerp, that it takes me a few mo­ments to regis­ter that it is ac­tu­ally him. We’re stand­ing on the rooftop of his head­quar­ters, look­ing out onto the har­bour on an un­usu­ally warm day in his home town. The pro­ceed­ing lunch with his de­sign team and his part­ner Pa­trick Vangheluwe in­volves talk of how their var­i­ous pets are man­ag­ing the un­ex­pected heat, and the state of their gar­dens. They are sad that a col­league’s 100-year-old tree did not stand the heat – the roots were dam­aged, as Vangheluwe ex­plains, qui­etly shak­ing his head. The de­sign team is young and has trav­elled from all over Europe to come and work for the la­bel and is ex­cited, if a lit­tle ner­vous, about the col­lec­tion they’re work­ing on.

It will be re­vealed two months later at Paris fash­ion week, a col­lec­tion of glo­ri­ously colour­ful hand­painted silks and el­e­gant feather head­pieces. Mass ex­panses of over­sized elon­gated pail­lettes ap­pear heavy but are ac­tu­ally made of light­weight flex­i­ble plas­tic. It will be con­sid­ered one of Van Noten’s most strik­ing col­lec­tions in more re­cent mem­ory, which is say­ing some­thing, since his col­lec­tions are rou­tinely lauded, sea­son af­ter sea­son. Ed­i­tors and stylists swoon over his clothes and his store on the Left Bank is al­ways busy dur­ing fash­ion week.

Play­ing a vari­a­tion on the themes that Van Noten has es­tab­lished for his la­bel, there are al­ways in­spi­ra­tion points taken from ex­otic trav­els and far-flung places: here in elab­o­rate bead­ing, and there is the un­ex­pected mix of high and low, mak­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary out of the or­di­nary. Para­chute-like fab­ric is cut and draped into 50s cou­ture shapes of dra­matic bows and rounded sil­hou­ettes, and cot­ton anoraks are dec­o­rated with swaths of em­bel­lish­ment. Bungee cords are mod­i­fied as straps and han­dles for dainty hand­bags and bu­gle-beaded heels are fin­ished off with stretchy striped elas­tics. “It’s giv­ing that ten­sion to the out­fit,” says Van Noten. “When we make an out­fit, we see how far we can push it. What’s the limit with­out push­ing it over the edge?” In a var­ied and scat­tered sea­son fore­grounded with a tu­mul­tuous po­lit­i­cal and so­ci­etal set­ting in­ter­na­tion­ally, Van Noten’s col­lec­tion has brought forth a rein­vig­o­rated ap­pre­ci­a­tion for his clothes, which are el­e­gant yet in­ven­tive, in­no­va­tive with­out be­ing dif­fi­cult to wear.

Does he still get ner­vous be­fore shows? “Al­ways. And more and more,” he says se­ri­ously later, in his per­sonal of­fice in be­tween fit­tings for the spring/sum­mer ’19 col­lec­tion. “Peo­ple think you get used to [the shows], but the last few years have been so suc­cess­ful so you want to get bet­ter, bet­ter and to sur­prise,” he says. “I have to be hard on my­self as a fash­ion de­signer. You can’t be lazy.” Are there any lazy de­sign­ers out there? “Well, I don’t know. Maybe, you don’t hear of them be­cause they aren’t suc­cess­ful,” he an­swers drily but with a smile. His hu­mour emerges in his in­ner commentary about his daily life and work. When asked if he and Vangheluwe talk about work out­side of the of­fice, he leans in and whis­pers dra­mat­i­cally: “Of course we talk about work at home,” be­fore break­ing out peals of laugh­ter. “No!” he ex­claims. “We have rules, so I have to write down any thoughts I have about work at home so I can talk to Pa­trick about it the next morn­ing in the of­fice!”

A few weeks prior to my in­ter­view with him, Van Noten had an­nounced the Span­ish con­glom­er­ate Puig had ac­quired a por­tion of his com­pany. “Peo­ple are go­ing to try to see a change in the women’s col­lec­tions [af­ter the ac­qui­si­tion an­nounce­ment] but they won’t dis­cover a lot of things,” he says plainly. What about the light­ness and bursts of colour? We can blame it on the warmer-than-nor­mal An­twerp sum­mer. “But they will look for some­thing dif­fer­ent, they will say: ‘Oh, he has changed! He is like all the oth­ers!’” he says, chuck­ling rue­fully to him­self.

The an­nounce­ment sur­prised many in the fash­ion in­dus­try, since Van Noten was held up as a role model for the in­de­pen­dent de­signer. “I was in­de­pen­dent, but peo­ple as­sume that you have free­dom, but as an in­de­pen­dent small com­pany we be­came a big small com­pany, and I felt I had com­pletely

lost my free­dom,” he ex­plains of his mo­tives to sell a por­tion to Puig. “I had al­ways thought that if I didn’t like do­ing what I do any­more, I wanted to be able to stop. And a few years ago I re­alised it was im­pos­si­ble for me to stop be­cause there are so many peo­ple who are de­pend­ing on me.” He is re­fer­ring to the 100-odd staff in his An­twerp build­ing, the fab­ric mills and man­u­fac­tur­ers of his clothes and more. Pre­vi­ously, he said he al­ways in­cluded em­broi­dery in his col­lec­tions to en­sure that the em­broi­dery crafts­men in In­dia he em­ploys can have con­sis­tent work. “So it’s not that I can say: ‘I don’t like this any­more, bye!’” he in­tones with a se­ri­ous look in his eye. “Puig is a fam­ily com­pany and that’s im­por­tant. I will con­trol com­pletely all the cre­ative side and I can fo­cus more on the cre­ative side, and now they can help with the busi­ness growth.”

For all his artistry and ex­otic, ex­ploratory aes­thetic in his de­signs and cre­ative vi­sion, Van Noten can also weigh up the re­al­i­ties of fash­ion and the busi­ness. While his de­signs show a pass­ing ac­knowl­edge­ment for the trends that other la­bels re-ap­pro­pri­ate, he is not in a beau­ti­ful, cre­ative bub­ble, but well aware of what is hap­pen­ing in fash­ion, in the world. “I am a ma­niac – I try to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing im­me­di­ately when I see some­thing,” he says. He never repli­cates in­spi­ra­tion or the past – there is al­ways a sleight of hand in the way he mixes in­flu­ences – and nor does he ex­actly re­flect what is hap­pen­ing in the world. “Oh, no, no, I would not be like: ‘There’s a cri­sis, so let’s make some black clothes,’” he says san­guinely. To this, he prof­fers up in­stead wardrobe-ap­pro­pri­ate clothes with the right amount of beau­ti­ful, in­ge­nious fan­tasy. “Of course, clothes are kind of re­flect­ing the time, so it makes no sense to make clothes for peo­ple to say that they would never wear at this mo­ment.”

While his clothes draw on his­tory and tra­di­tion, he does not want to be weighed by it. Yes, it was less busy be­fore so­cial me­dia and he thinks the run­way for­mat of see-now-buy-now is con­fus­ing. “The clients get lost, they don’t know what they’re look­ing and they’ll dis­con­nect … but I’m not go­ing to say it was bet­ter in the past. It’s dif­fer­ent, but I’m not nos­tal­gic. I love the past and tra­di­tion and I want to take cer­tain el­e­ments and bring it into the fu­ture – I want to make clothes for the fu­ture.”

Al­ways with a deft yet seem­ingly ca­sual hand with prints, he ex­plains his process – he would look at the print in the mirror to mimic how a wearer would look at them­selves when try­ing some­thing on. “Now, the sec­ond thing we do is take a pic­ture of the print. How will the print look as a pic­ture on a small screen?” Of late, he is not in­ter­ested in what is ‘in fash­ion’ for women. “Women, the way they dress now, is a lit­tle bit more bor­ing [than menswear]. It’s jeans, a T-shirt, a pair of sneak­ers and an ex­pen­sive hand­bag and it’s done. I think there is more to do with clothes and the way you dress your­self,” he says hope­fully. His col­lec­tions and in­di­vid­ual gar­ments may grab you in­stantly for their head-turn­ing prints and bower­bird em­bel­lish­ments, but it’s the mul­ti­ple lay­ers of ideas and ref­er­ences, all shaken up and ar­ranged. They’re no one-hit won­ders but are de­signed to work within ex­ist­ing wardrobes and be­yond the sea­sons.

Per­haps be­ing from An­twerp, a his­tor­i­cal trad­ing city, a ma­jor port and an im­por­tant cen­tre for the di­a­mond in­dus­try, has shaped his abil­ity to draw from an ar­ray of in­spi­ra­tions, with no re­stric­tions to era or coun­try. “For me it’s just a city,” he says of his home town. There was never a de­sire to move to a fash­ion city like London or Paris. As he points out, he is a 90-minute plane ride to the Amalfi coast, where he and Vangheluwe have a hol­i­day home, and they are just a quick train ride to Paris or London. “Be­ing here is kind of a step back­wards – you can look to ev­ery­thing that is hap­pen­ing in fash­ion from a cer­tain dis­tance, which is also quite help­ful.”

Grow­ing up in An­twerp, Van Noten would spend hours af­ter school in his par­ents’ con­cept store where he helped with the busi­ness. It was ex­pected that he would take over his fa­ther’s com­pany even­tu­ally. “I re­alised I en­joyed de­sign­ing fash­ion more than just buy­ing and sell­ing, so I went to my fa­ther and said: ‘I’m not in­ter­ested in own­ing the fam­ily busi­ness, I’m go­ing to be­come a fash­ion de­signer,’” re­calls Van Noten. His fa­ther’s re­sponse? “Fine, but not with my money,” forc­ing Van Noten to earn his own way through his stud­ies with free­lance de­sign work and fur­ther for­ti­fy­ing his al­ready well-es­tab­lished fash­ion busi­ness nous.

He at­tended the Bel­gian city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where he met the five other de­sign­ers (Wal­ter Van Beiren­donck, Ann De­meule­meester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkem­bergs and Ma­rina Yee) who would form what is now known as the

“It cre­ates a very good bal­ance in your life, es­pe­cially with fash­ion which is very fast and some­times quite su­per­fi­cial”

‘An­twerp Six’ when they drove to London in a van to show their de­signs. Rene­gades in their pre­sen­ta­tion and point of view, their aes­thet­ics were dif­fer­ent from each other but made An­twerp highly re­garded for fash­ion stu­dents and ush­ered in a wave of Bel­gium de­sign­ers like Olivier Theyskens and Raf Simons.

From the pos­i­tive re­cep­tion of his first few col­lec­tions, Van Noten soon in­tro­duced wom­enswear. “I love cre­at­ing clothes, and the di­vi­sion be­tween menswear and wom­enswear never ex­isted for me.” The col­lec­tions have con­sis­tently been a re­sound­ing suc­cess both com­mer­cially and crit­i­cally in its 32-year his­tory, a rar­ity in fash­ion to­day. “When I started my own com­pany, I did the book-keep­ing my­self – you learn fast. It’s some­thing in me, in my genes. It’s very nice to talk about beau­ti­ful things, but there must also be money on the ta­ble to pay for that.”

While his mother sup­ported his choice to study fash­ion de­sign, his fa­ther’s dis­ap­point­ment was only com­pounded when it be­came clear Van Noten’s other sib­lings would not be tak­ing over the fam­ily busi­ness, ei­ther. “It was very hard on him,” rea­sons Van Noten. As a child he would be made to gar­den with his fa­ther – in the rain, dur­ing the freez­ing cold – which he hated. But as he grew older, he and Vangheluwe started en­ter­tain­ing the idea of hav­ing a larger gar­den, so in the mid-90s they bought a 22-hectare prop­erty in Lier, Bel­gium. “It cre­ates a very good bal­ance in your life, es­pe­cially with fash­ion, which is very fast and some­times quite su­per­fi­cial, and this is some­thing that is re­ally real – it grounds you, lit­er­ally.”

A pas­toral idyll, it fea­tures a 1840s neo­clas­si­cal man­sion filled with a pas­tiche of an­tiques and a sweep­ing gar­den ar­ranged in the English style – slightly over­grown and colour­ful. And it was the gar­den that proved piv­otal for Van Noten’s fa­ther. “For my fa­ther, it was only when I had the house with the big gar­den, which was be­com­ing more and more beau­ti­ful, that he was re­ally im­pressed and said: ‘If you can have a gar­den like that, and have gar­den­ers that look af­ter the gar­den in this way, then you must be very suc­cess­ful. Maybe you made the right choice.’”

Van Noten’s fa­ther passed away ear­lier this year; he re­mains close to his mother. She vis­ited his home the other day with his sis­ter to make jam with peaches that have be­come ripe and plen­ti­ful from the heat. “My mother is 90 years old and it’s re­ally quite some­thing. My mother has al­ways un­der­stood.”

He is the cook at home. And his part­ner? “Pa­trick? Pa­trick eats!” he says with a laugh. “He cleans up and he pre­pares. It’s a good bal­ance.” The jam is a way for Van Noten to de-stress, a re­prieve from fash­ion, which is a longer process. “De­sign­ing fab­rics, plan­ning … and it’s only weeks later you see the el­e­ments come to­gether, so it can be frus­trat­ing.” Jam-mak­ing on the other hand re­quires two hours of hard work. “I do it in the evening and then I have 36 lit­tle jars of jam stand­ing there. You put your mind to it, you have a re­sult, and you eat it. It’s full cir­cle. I love that.”

Con­stantly re­assess­ing his work and striv­ing to push the bound­aries, he points to the his first ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion held at the Musée des Arts Dé­co­rat­ifs in 2014. It was where one could be ap­pre­cia­tive of the ex­pan­sive breadth of his cre­ativ­ity. “You have to re­flect your work, what value it has … is it im­por­tant enough to make two books and use up all that pa­per?” he says qui­etly to him­self. But the al­lure of de­sign and cre­ativ­ity still has him in its thrall, par­tic­u­larly with this re­newed sense of free­dom.

For him, it is all in the tim­ing and sea­son­al­ity. “I’m al­ways asked what my favourite flower is, or my favourite fruit. But in spring I am happy about the tini­est lit­tle flower, and in early June I’m happy be­cause of the huge pe­onies in flower. Straw­berry jam is fan­tas­tic, and so is quince jam in au­tumn. If it is in sea­son, I am happy.” And as with how women change how they dress from sea­son to sea­son in both a cat­e­gory and lit­eral sense, Van Noten will be there to pick up on the prick­ling of shifts in sar­to­rial sen­ti­ment, to read and sort in his head what is hap­pen­ing. And through his taste and aes­thet­ics he will fil­ter and cre­ate, but al­ways with the goal to con­stantly sur­prise – his clients, the in­dus­try, and most im­por­tantly, him­self.

A model on the run­way of Dries Van Noten’s spring/ sum­mer ’19 show.

Back­stage at Dries Van Noten spring/ sum­mer ’19.A hand­bag cov­ered in plas­tic pail­lettes on the Dries Van Noten spring/ sum­mer ’19 run­way.

Dries Van Noten Looks from the Dries Van Noten spring/ sum­mer ’19 show.

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