Meeting Dries Van Noten (or the day my heart stopped beating)

Despite being part of fashion royalty, Dries Van Noten really is an idealist and true romantic at heart. I remember meeting him for the first time in Paris a few years ago, in the run up to one of his menswear shows, and being touched by his honest nervousness. What struck me the most though was his humility and sense of distance. And that there is where Dries’ real appeal lies: in fashion, but somewhat removed from it.

The thing about Van Noten’s clothes is that you can actually wear them – everything you see on the catwalk will end up in stores. His frocks aren’t made to sell more lipstick. This sense of reality is as rare as it is refreshing in an industry where designers often rely on shock value to make the headlines. Blame it on the recession perhaps, but conceptual fashion doesn’t cut it any longer. There’s a yearning for the authentic, qualitative and crafty that Van Noten has come to be synonymous with. In fact, he has enjoyed support from the international press ever since his early beginnings, even though he never advertised in it “I think that, for a very long time, our decision not to advertise was not a choice, but more of a necessity as we simply didn’t have the budget. Since then the company has grown, and our decision not to do it remains, but for different reasons. We do not necessarily want to increase the price of our clothes to fund the advertising and I personally don’t feel that my collections should be associated with a specific image or person. When it comes down to the press, I think that – after 25 years – people get to understand your thought process a bit more. They respect that I’m an independent designer and I respect their point of view, too, whether it be praise or criticism.”

“Independence” is an important factor for the home-grown designer. His company is privately owned and he doesn’t have to answer to anyone, except himself.

In a weird way, Van Noten could be Antwerp’s answer to Giorgio Armani, who still owns his name after more than 35 years in the business. However, Van Noten admits he did consider getting a third party involved when things got challenging, “I remember back in the 1990’s when many young designers – including myself – were under huge amounts of pressure to sell to the big groups. When Galliano and McQueen were sold, my business partner and I did think twice about whether or not it would have been a good idea to seek financial help. We decided to forgo that option, got through the worst part and came out stronger in the end, with the ability to work at our own pace and no constraints. I cannot really speak for anyone else on that matter, because I’ve only ever had to make decisions independently.”

This free-spirited approach also serves to shape the designer’s aesthetic. Indeed, one of Van Noten’s skills is the subtle way in which he astutely balances references in his clothes, avoiding clichés and stereotypes. For his last womenswear collection, he had opulence and collage on his mind “I had the pleasure to see an amazing exhibition on the Ballets Russes at the V&A museum in London last year. I was enthralled by the different ways in which the wardrobe masters were able to create new costumes out of old ones. Sergei Diaghilev – the founder of the Ballets Russes – was also a huge inspiration. This idea of bringing movement and asymmetry to the silhouette was something I found very powerful.” Shown in one of the ridiculously grand reception rooms of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, the collection was a multi-sensory experience, offering a heady and idiosyncratic take on luxury. The Thin White Duke’s “Heroes” played on the soundtrack, giving a fiery and poetic vibe to the presentation. Bowie is, in fact, one of the designer’s major musical obsessions “His music has been an endless source of inspiration throughout my life. He was able to capture the essence of his music through his wardrobe choices. Besides the endless variety of his looks, Bowie was a true chameleon who had this ability to change constantly. I was referring mainly to two of his periods: the “Just a Gigolo” film – shot in the late 70s – for the menswear’s winter collection and “Ziggy Stardust” for the womenswear. It felt perfectly normal to use his music for both shows.”

Despite having both feet on the ground, Van Noten can nonetheless be vulnerable and sensitive at times. He leaves room for doubt in his life and still questions his choices as a designer.

When he talks about the end of a collection – and the whole process that leads to the fashion show – his emotional side takes over “I suppose you could say that there is that element of postpartum remorse.

After working on something for more than six months, it is tough moving on to the next collection straight away. You do feel sad initially, but there is a great sense of accomplishment, too. Then, of course, you wait to see how people will react. This heightened sense of anticipation runs a little longer until you’re fully involved with the next collection.” The increasing speed of fashion is not something that leaves him indifferent either. With the steady rise of mass clothing chains and the amount of product and styles out there, “designer fashion” has had to reposition itself, jump on the collective bandwagon or stick to what it does best. This has led to more and more collections being produced annually by luxury brands, something Van Noten believes clearly affects the designers’ creativity “Look at all the collections people have to design each year, including pre-collections and accessories. If a designer creates 12 collections a year, I do believe he or she will get burnt-out pretty quickly. Ideas should be nurtured and have a chance to grow before being pushed out the door to make room for new clothes. It’s hard enough doing 2 lines each season. I have enormous respect for other designers who – year in, year out – continue to produce excellent work. As a designer, it all boils down to my love for the craft and always wanting to push and grow.”

Van Noten is less forgiving to the fashion circus and its pretentiousness. His clothes work for different body types and nationalities, proving that the industry does not have to be narrow-minded to survive “It would be foolish for a designer to think that his entire client base is sample sized. Sadly, fashion can be too elitist sometimes, often economically, though hopefully never creatively. My main basis when I work on a collection is to create garments that anyone can include into their own wardrobe. I want people to be able to mix pieces up and make them a part of their own style. There is no better feeling than seeing someone walking down the street wearing something you designed in a way you wouldn’t have expected it to be worn.” There is a generosity in Van Noten’s approach that does not apply to other designers’ work. He is fascinated with exoticism and foreignness, letting his fertile imagination do the travelling “The idea of different cultures being incorporated within my collections is obviously something very dear to me. I like to learn more about them, through reading or exhibitions. I guess I’m fascinated with other ways of life, cultures and history. I will often use these rituals and traditions in my work, but always in a contemporary way.”

I have a confession to make: Dries Van Noten is one of my fashion heroes. Season after season, he produces beautiful, wearable clothes I want to have. His shows move me, too. He manages to create the right atmosphere and lures you in, without being pushy or in your face. Walking into his flagship store in Antwerp is like sneaking into an old, cosy English library, full of hidden gems and promises. His generosity as a human being shines through, from the drinks and tasty nibbles he serves his audience at shows, to his support of new designers. In fact, he makes a point of returning what he received “Each year, we hold seminars in the studio with students from the Royal College of Antwerp. This is a time where members of my team and I have the opportunity to show fashion students the ins and outs of running a fashion company. It is an important thing as an ‘established’ designer for me to do, considering the years of support the industry gave me when I was growing. When I was selected to be president of the fashion jury at the Festival d’Hyères in France last year, this was another way for me -with the help of some extremely talented editors, designers and stylists- to advise younger designers on where their energies should be focused on, giving directions to the ones we thought were the most promising.” They say you should never meet your heroes, but, honestly, that’s just a load of BS if you ask me.