Hubert Burda Media

Dream weaving with Dries Van Noten

Is Dries Van Noten a hopeless romantic or living proof that success can happen while staying small and independent? We meet the reserved Belgian in Paris.

A look from Dries Van Noten's autumn/winter 2016 collection
A look from Dries Van Noten's autumn/winter 2016 collection

This is not the greatest time for fashion and its acolytes. Talk to journalists, and they won’t hide their fears about what their role is going to be in this era of Instagram stars; meet designers, from creative directors of big brands to the heads of niche labels, and they’ll reveal how they’re still grappling with changes such as the “see now, buy now” shift; interview CEOs and – well, the litany of their fears and uncertainties is too long for this space.

It is, then, quite refreshing, amid this often blown-out-of-proportion doom and gloom, to come away from an interview with a beacon of hope, a sense of optimism about an industry that’s clearly in a state of transition.

Dries Van Noten. Portrait: John Dolan

Dries Van Noten, the Belgian designer who’s been in business for three decades, is a rare bird: an independent who decided to stay small and by doing so has managed to find a niche in a field dominated by large luxury groups. He’s the perfect example of how – if you don’t bow to the pressures of the system and only cater to your clients without trying to take over the world – you can make it without selling out or, even worse, burning out, as has been the case for many others.

While designers keep complaining about the number of collections they’re expected to create every year (six at least and eight if the brand they helm also makes haute couture), Van Noten has never veered from the now-obsolete practise of delivering two yearly collections, autumn/winter and spring/summer. Cruise and pre-autumn, those mid-season ranges that for some brands warrant shows as elaborate as their fashion-week spectacles, are nowhere to be found in his repertoire. 

But how can the designer get away with it, one wonders, while other brands keep replenishing stores with new merch on an almost monthly basis? Well, for one, everything that he shows on his runways is actually meant to be sold and not just conceived to generate buzz among bloggers, to dress celebrities or to be featured in magazine shoots, obviating the need for pre-collections.

“Every designer should find out for themselves how they want to make fashion,” says Van Noten when I meet him in his Paris showroom, buzzing with buyers, the day after his autumn/winter 2016 women’s show. “But now most designers don’t decide that; it’s the big groups that decide how fashion is made. There are so many images, and those images have to be stronger and stronger just to stand out. So many shows, and when the shows are not even finished then it’s couture, and when it’s not couture it’s pre-collection, so it’s just too much. There’s an overdose of images, which sometimes creates saturation, and looking at maybe some houses it’s a solution to have the direct-to-consumer fashion show and then click to buy all these things. Good for them. But not for us. For me, making a collection is like building up from a starting point, creation, styles, shapes, all these things ...”

A look from Dries Van Noten's autumn/winter 2016 collection

So what about fashion consumers’ unending thirst for the new? How does he satiate their hunger and how does he keep them from being bored? “I can’t give them more, so they have to do with what they get, sorry!” Van Noten dismisses the question with typical politeness, equanimity and poise. “I want to have a life and I think I already work very hard. I’m a perfectionist and I want to have time to work on my collections and to develop the fabrics, do tests, and again printing tests. And I know that if I don’t like something it has to be changed, like the heel of a shoe, everything, it’s really just done right. We need months, we can’t do this in six weeks, forget it.”

It’s a strong stance from a designer who sells at some of the top department stores in the world and who, unlike others, doesn’t rely on revenues from entry-level products such as fragrances and accessories but has built his business on clothes, which, you’ll be surprised to find out, is a rarity in fashion. 

“For us, it’s 92 percent clothes,” he says proudly, adding that his clients are some of the most faithful around. Van Noten’s easy silhouettes and flattering prints, which are often inspired by the textiles of places such as India or Indonesia, have become wardrobe staples for countless women, and men who don’t wear clothes as an armour but as a complement to a strong personality. “What I always like is that they maybe wear a lot of my collection but they don’t always only wear this season; they mix things and sometimes they go to a high-street shop just to buy an easy sweater or something, they buy some vintage, but they combine it and it’s not always like they dress in runway looks, but I prefer that people tell something about their personality with the clothes I make,” he explains.

It’s this attitude of respect for his patrons that has built Van Noten a loyal following of women who refer to him as just “Dries” and are willing to invest in his embroidered shirtdresses and well-cut trousers. Lavish embellishments are a signature of Van Noten’s oeuvre, whether it’s trousers covered in tiny sequins or a silk blouse embroidered with birds and botanical patterns. But what may at first appear just a whim or a personal preference originates from Van Noten’s commitment to his workforce, which, besides his ateliers in his home country of Belgium, includes India, where his pieces are painstakingly decorated in a workshop near Calcutta.

A look from Dries Van Noten's autumn/winter 2016 collection

“Some seasons I don’t feel like doing embroidery,” he says, “but I still do it because I know that otherwise people are going to lose their job, so in that way every season you’ve got to have it. So when I don’t feel much like embroidery, I hide it in a way that you don’t really see it’s embroidered; it’s more tone on tone or it’s more like yarn embroidery, so there’s always enough work for those people.”

Such a sense of responsibility and such respect for the craft are integral to Van Noten’s label, which is still based in Antwerp and has always been at odds with the grandeur and showmanship of French couture, even though the designer shows in Paris. 

Van Noten is a son of the trade – his father had a fashion boutique in Antwerp and often took his son on buying trips – but he is and will always be an outsider, beloved and admired by industry players but never praised as a groundbreaking genius, as is the case for designers of his vintage whose creative exploits earn them rave reviews and accolades, but often fail to translate where it matters most, the retail floor.

“I don’t want to be the biggest fashion house in the world, that’s not my thing,” says Van Noten matter-of-factly. He’d rather spend his days making timeless clothes and tending to his beloved garden than disrupt his seemingly idyllic lifestyle with the demands of an industry that is literally making fashion victims of some of its biggest stars. Admitting that he only reads five work-related emails per day – “If I get more than five, then there’s something wrong in my organisation,” he says – Van Noten may come across as an out-of-touch dreamer living in a beautiful Belgian bubble, but he’s managed to stay relevant for all these years by focusing on his work and forgetting about all the nonsense. 

Van Noten has nothing to prove; he’s a true creator, the model for what a 21st-century independent designer can, and should, be. When he broke out in the early ’80s as part of the so-called Antwerp Six, he perhaps made less of an impact than fellow group members Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester, but things turned out quite differently: while their eponymous brands may still be in business, they’re no longer in charge of their companies. Van Noten is still thriving at the head of his label, delivering one beautiful collection after another without aiming for world domination, and unfailingly fulfilling his mission to enrich his many acolytes’ wardrobes – and lives.