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Art of Style

The designer interview: Dries van Noten

Dress, and ring, both Dries Van Noten

Whether he’s empowering diversity through his collections or reimagining the digital landscape, DRIES VAN NOTEN has always been a champion of change. Here, he looks to the future of fashion with OSMAN AHMED

Photography Gwen Trannoy Styling Kristen Neillie
Designer Dries Van Noten is an advocate for change within the fashion industry (Portrait, Jorre Janssens)

There are few designers for whom the way they show their clothes carries just as much weight as the garments themselves. Dries Van Noten is one of them. Throughout his 35-year career, his shows – and the sophisticated clothes he has debuted – have been defined by their humanity. They are always a celebration of culture and craft, inherently permeated with emotion and authenticity. Guests have lounged on bolsters and mattresses, sipped mint tea, tucked into goulash or Belgian beer and fries, and picked from abundant bowls of fresh fruit. Curtains of thousands of twinkling Christmas lights have risen and fallen to set the scene or, in the case of his 50th show, a dinner for 500 with models parading down the 140-foot-long tables in clothing inspired by Eastern European folklore, lit by 130 chandeliers. Poetic is the word that always comes to mind when one thinks of a Dries Van Noten show. Little wonder that people have often been moved to tears by them.

Yet, last year, Van Noten’s was one of the first shows to dispense hand sanitizers and face masks in Paris amid whispers of a strange new virus. Less poetic, more ominous. Today, fashion shows have been digitally reimagined and we’re living in an unprecedented, all-encompassing age of Zoom, where designers have become content creators as well as dressmakers; costume designers for short films as well as SEO-savvy sartorial auteurs. “The whole mentality has changed,” begins Van Noten over (you guessed it) a Zoom call from locked-down Antwerp. “The way that you look at everything in life has changed. Values have changed, especially in fashion, which already had so many things wrong [with it]. Now it’s more urgent that things have to change. Sometimes you have to go through something unpleasant to be forced to notice that things haven’t been right, and we have to dare to change.”

Shirt, skirt, and ring, all Dries Van Noten

Indeed, change – in some cases, total upheaval – has been brewing for a while now. Fashion has been in an existential state of flux, with issues such as sustainability, diversity, inclusivity and globalization becoming the vital impetus for a seismic shift. Yet ultimately, the industry is an old boat, as traditional as the mills that Van Noten produced his hand-loomed jacquards in. The fashion system was becoming deeply unfashionable, but it kept accelerating towards oblivion, bringing to mind Mark Twain’s take on atmospheric conditions: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Shirt dress, skirt, headband, and bag, all Dries Van Noten
I want to go forward. I’m not a romantic designer who wants to live in the past – I respect the past, but I always look to the future

As one of fashion’s great independent artisans, Van Noten has welcomed a reflective moment of pause, not least because it has allowed him and his loyal team to focus on creativity at a time of chaos. “I think fashion shows are a fantastic thing but, in the end, it stays quite empty even if we try to put a lot of emotion in the themes,” he says. “Seen from a distance, you see a row of 50 girls or boys with perfect bodies, all perfect shapes and between 16 to 24 years old. Is this a reflection of real life? No. Is it creating a dream? Yes, but maybe not the right dream anymore.”

The 62-year-old designer is now at a crossroads for the future of his beloved label. “There is such an overload of information and images, and we're bombarded. I want to go forward. I’m not a romantic designer who wants to live in the past – I respect the past, but I always look to the future.”

To go out and dance; to celebrate the clichéd symbols of summer was a story I wanted to tell right now
Embroidered shirt dress, black-and-white jersey dress (worn underneath), shoulder bag, and bangles (hanging from bag), all Dries Van Noten
Jacket, shorts, bag, and ring, all Dries Van Noten

A taste of his brand’s future can be found in his debut capsule line, which we’re here to discuss. “We have had to make smaller collections,” he points out. “We have to see where we put our energy. We can’t do everything, so we have to choose and get rid of the clutter. A lot of the things, at the end, you don’t need. So, what is the essence?” For his High Summer 2021 collection, it was the idea of escapism and joy. He describes it as “a capsule collection about dreaming, which is so important for a future – for new life”. Full of floral prints that are brighter and bolder than Mother Nature could ever imagine, as well as nods to postcards of palm trees, beaches, tropical fish and sunshine – it is an ode to Los Angeles and its “easy way of life”, as Van Noten puts it. The prints on breezy silk Bermuda shorts and Cuban-collared shirts are like digital scrapbooks, with sun-bleached surfer neons and old Hollywood black-and-white retro patterns in abundance. “LA was on my mind,” he explains, noting that he was designing his first store in the city alongside the collection. “To go out and dance; to celebrate the clichéd symbols of summer was a story I wanted to tell right now.”

This is a capsule collection about dreaming, which is so important for a future – for new life

Storytelling has been the defining characteristic of Van Noten’s career since the very beginning. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1981, started his business in 1986 and staged his first fashion show (which was actually menswear) in 1991. From the start, his work has drawn on a broad, eclectic universe of references, offsetting opulence with the simplicity of a white cotton shirt or black pants – much like his native city’s quixotic dichotomy of Dutch Protestant austerity, mercantile exoticism and Burgundian richness. Of course, Antwerp is central to Van Noten’s story because he is one of the original members of the legendary ‘Antwerp six’, a group of designers including Walter Van Beirendonck, Marina Yee, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene and Dirk Bikkembergs (plus unofficial seventh member Martin Margiela), who jolted fashion with a radical vision three decades ago.

Together, these designers introduced deconstructed, raw clothes that spoke to a grungy new reality in the aftermath of Black Monday, which burst the bubble of blinging froufrou fashion that spoke to the grandeur of ’80s power dressing. “Nobody could expect that Belgians could create this kind of fashion,” Van Noten reflects, noting that the limitations of lockdown have reminded him of putting together collections in those early days. “What happened was that we were a bunch of friends in the same year. The school was really small and we had a lot of lessons together. We went to New York and Tokyo together on holiday; we went out together. It was ‘us’ against the world,” he explains. What united them all, he adds, is that their outlook on the concept of luxury and style was distinctly foreign and pragmatic. “Our foundations of what clothes can be were the same, but the final visions were completely different. It’s about the relationship with the garment and the person wearing it, and the garment as an individual piece.”

In 2018, he sold a majority stake to the family-run Spanish fragrance and fashion conglomerate Puig, which also owns Nina Ricci, Carolina Herrera and Paco Rabanne. For more than 30 years, he was completely independent – and that sovereignty still very much informs his approach. “We are part of a group, but we still function completely independently,” he assures me. “I don’t have a lot of managers and merchandisers behind me saying, ‘This is what sold well last season, so you need to do it again.’ We have the possibility to start every season with an empty table and decide what story we want to tell now and what story makes sense.”

Storytelling has always been at the heart of the Belgian designer’s career (Portrait, Jorre Janssens)
Luxury is something that should be special, and something that has meaning to you and makes you feel well
Top, briefs, and ring, all Dries Van Noten

To this day, Van Noten doesn’t advertize in magazines. He doesn’t need to, considering that customers queue around the block at his jewel-box Antwerp and Paris boutiques every time a new collection arrives. Unlike many designers, his sales are driven by actual clothes – not accessories or perfume (though he has those, too). Ironically, even that is rare in fashion, which is dominated by top-heavy branding and pyramidical business structures. So why has Van Noten been so successful? Well, his clothes are beautiful – they are full of color and texture, eclectic in their motifs, and brimming with romantic touches of exuberance (sequins, jacquards, velvets), as well as the sharpness of androgyny (white shirts, smart tailoring, double-breasted overcoats) and the humble warmth of traditionally handcrafted fabrics. But, ultimately, it is his humanity and empathy that make him a brilliant designer.

Hat, top, shorts, and flip flops, all Dries Van Noten

“Early on, I decided to design for the customer and not myself,” he says. “I think it would be very sad if I designed for only a certain type of woman, and say she is the Dries Van Noten ‘woman’. That’s not who I am. That’s why we have different sizes, ages and all kinds of models in the shows – it makes the clothes more interesting and valuable. When you say you design for a specific woman, it becomes dictatorial. I love to create garments that are building blocks for people’s communication in expressing who they are. You can’t overwhelm the personality.”

In that sense, the kaleidoscopic Van Noten world is the epitome of Coco Chanel’s maxim that “luxury is not the opposite of poverty; it is the opposite of vulgarity”. Indeed, “respect” is the word he uses to describe his label. It applies not just to the respect with which he shows his customers, but also to the people who make his clothes and fabrics – be it in Lyon or Rajasthan – and to the final products themselves.

When you say your clothes are for a specific woman, it becomes dictatorial. I love to create garments that are building blocks for people’s communication in expressing who they are. You can’t overwhelm the personality
Sunglasses, and polo shirt, both Dries Van Noten

“Luxury is something that should be special, and something that has meaning to you and makes you feel well,” he affirms. “The best explanation is [the fact] that 10 years ago, luxury was being in a five-star hotel and now luxury is being somewhere in small huts, on the top of a mountain, without connection on your mobile phone. Luxury was a three-star restaurant and a telephone book of a wine list – now it’s a small restaurant where it’s one set menu, a paired selection of wines, and one guy who cooks and serves you dinner. There’s been a big shift in food and travel, but it hasn’t happened for fashion.”

At least, not yet. As Van Noten surmised at the start of our conversation, change is very much in the air – and he’s ready to lead the way.