TRIED & TRUE
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
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.