In conversation with Dries Van Noten


In conversation with Dries Van Noten

Masterfully colliding worlds and ideas, the designer loves dealing in opposites

By Aishwarya Subramanyam  August 24th, 2015

Chinos. I had sworn off chinos  in the ’90s, somewhere between tie-dye prints and band T-shirts. Yet here I was, coveting them in the frantic, breathless way that runways have of making you feel the absence of a suddenly crucial wardrobe piece. It helped that they came paired with iridescent tops, (faux) fur coats, overskirts of elaborate brocade and blooming neck corsages, all against the backdrop of an opulent salon in Paris’ Hôtel de Ville. Between chandeliers, sconces and draperies, the lavishness of velvets, silks and cloques was tempered with the louche simplicity of khaki. Just when you thought it might be too much, it wasn’t.

In the background, an a cappella soundtrack played famous songs by voices we all recognise — Rihanna, Björk, Courtney Love, Debbie Harry. But stripped of instrumentals, the voices took on this powerful quality, letting you listen closely to the words, understand the ideas behind the music. “I was surprised to find, when we were putting together the music, that some very famous women really can’t sing,” says Dries Van Noten, chuckling.

We are at Van Noten’s studio in chicer-than-chic Le Marais, and he is chattering away at top speed in his clipped accent, his plain navy jumper and slacks belying the whirlwind of colour and eclecticism inside him, which bursts forth every time he puts models on runways. This Fall/Winter 2015-16, the theme of the show was “grounded glamour”, in celebration of timeless fashion icons: “Anna Piaggi, Isabella Blow, Iris Apfel, Jane Birkin… people who played with fashion, throwing things together with a kind of nonchalance. I think we have lost that, a little bit. So for me it was really about bringing back some of that enthusiasm, some of that daring. It was a lot of fun to work on.I have never made a collection that created so many opposites and went so far, especially with the fabrics.”

Breaking design rules has been a defining characteristic of Van Noten, whose label will celebrate 30 years in 2016. It’s a long journey for the Belgian designer who, along with five of his contemporaries —including Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs — from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, started by forming a collective called the Antwerp Six, which brought a great energy and experimental edge to the city at the time. In 1988, Van Noten told ELLE in an interview, “We don’t want to become a little Paris. We want to stick to Antwerp and keep our own image and spirit.”

It was a very different time, he admits. And today, there is simply no need for a group like the Antwerp Six. “Fashion was not global when I started out, and Belgium was considered completely lacking in creativity, the most boring country imaginable. So first of all, we had to explain to people how to pronounce our names, and convince them that it was possible for fashion to come from Belgium.” Today, a fashion school in Antwerp is not full of Belgian students, in fact quite the opposite. “Korean, Japanese, Yugoslavian, they come from all over the world. Besides, there is no longer such a thing as French fashion, Italian fashion, Belgian fashion. You have Belgians designing for French houses, Germans at British houses, Americans in my studio; fashion has become completely international.”

 

Whether this is a good thing or not, he will not say, preferring only to muse that it is just how things are in our time, and how things will remain in the future. Van Noten believes that fashion at the moment is going through a kind of crisis. For one thing, as a designer who make clothes for both sexes, he thinks men are doing far more interesting things with fashion than women, who are playing it quite safe. “I think there is some individual style, but not a lot,” he grumbles. “It’s an interesting time, because any time of change is interesting. And being independent, I can maybe do a lot of things that other designers can’t do. I can take risks, I can surprise; but I also have to be careful, because I carry a lot of responsibility on my shoulders.”

In fact it is his independence he values more than anything, as the sole financier of his company, and the now established trend for big houses to snap up young designers is something he bemoans. “I think there is a lot of interesting creative talent out there, but when they are forced into a system, they can’t really develop their own. If given a chance, creative people will even come up with new ways of communication and distribution. But there’s no hope for that, because all fashion students now want to be the next 
JW Anderson, put out one fashion show and get picked up by Kering or LVMH. It’s a pity that this is the world we live in now.”

But the fashion world is cutthroat, and perhaps not everyone has the means or appetite for risk? He pooh-poohs this. “If you’re really creative, you’ll find a way. If you have something to say and you’re determined to say it, there is always a way.” Van Noten is one of those few designers who actually likes to straddle the creative and the commercial. “I find it intriguing,” he says, “And knowing what I know on the business side pushes me to be even more creative on the fashion side. Because sometimes you can lose yourself. As a fashion designer you can do whatever you want, but you need to find your limits, whether it’s about possibilities of production or commercial realities.”

Well, it’s worked. Van Noten has managed to stay unfailingly current in just such a rapidly shifting fashion landscape. His clothes walk the tightrope between wearableand fanciful, always with that undefinable air of coolth. There is no formula to it, he avers, just complete belief in self. Take his decision not to advertise, for example, which comes from a deep understanding of his customer; there is no one Dries woman, and he is loath to put a face to the brand. “I think every woman wants something different from fashion. You can be fashionable covered in Versace logos or wearing a conceptual Japanese designer or an edgy young London designer. It’s about what works for you, and I think people today have more choices than ever to find the fashion that best expresses their personality.”

Van Noten’s women, and I count myself among them, crave the plurality of style that only he can offer. His new collection is the perfect example, clashing casual and couture: “That overdose, an exuberance of fabrics, the brocade, the jacquard, different printing techniques, embroidery, 3D flowers, all these things needed balance. Doing a full outfit like that is just too much to take. But we thought, for a woman who loves these things, what kind of wardrobe do we have to put together for her to wear without people calling her a whacko? That’s when we brought in the khaki and dyed cottons, and started doing couture shapes.”

The designer will happily admit that India has contributed hugely to his particular design sensibility — he started working with Indian craftspeople very early, in 1987, and was something of a pioneer. Like many others before (and after) him, he found the country fascinating, and wanted to bring this very different world into his work; today he employs thousands of workers here. “In those days, India was producing polyester wedding dresses and home furnishings in raw silk, it wasn’t really common to use artisanal skills for fashion. I had to explain some things — that when I said gold it had to be an old gold, faded, not bling-bling gold. They would pump up colour because that’s what they liked. And then I started seeing through Indian eyes and thought that too was interesting. I have designed collections with really bright colours, because it’s a beauty in itself, a different beauty from what I knew.”

It may sound a bit clichéd, but a sari is the most beautiful garment to him, because he loves fabrics and hates actually cutting them up, as that limits their use. “A sari, you just wrap it around yourself and the beauty comes from your attitude, the way you stand and walk. In that way it has been a perfect lesson for me in how you wear fabric, which is an idea I have translated into many elements in my collections. And I’m not just telling you this because you’re Indian,” he says, grinning.

I can’t help liking Van Noten, as much for his fierce independence and disregard for convention as for his honesty and the parade of ankle boots from the fall collection, all of which I now want. He appeals to the chaos inside me, as if giving it physical shape in a way that is both wild and restrained, undercut with a modicum of sanity yet always wantonly beautiful. “I just want to enjoy myself,” he says, “And hold on to the freedom of doing the things I want to do. You have to keep learning every day, though. You can’t say at any point that you know the tricks of the trade, because the world is changing so fast, and you need to be on your toes to follow, have big ears and big eyes to try to understand and listen to the world we are living in now. You’ll never know everything.”

Big ears and big eyes, got it. And not to forget, chinos.    

Photographs: Patrick Messina (Portrait); Imaxtree.com/Alessandro Lucioni (Runway), Davide Gallizio (Backstage)

You may also want to read: Tour Literary Ireland

Chinos. I had sworn off chinos  in the ’90s, somewhere between tie-dye prints and band T-shirts. Yet here I was, coveting them in the frantic, breathless way that runways have of making you feel the absence of a suddenly crucial wardrobe piece. It helped that they came paired with iridescent tops, (faux) fur coats, overskirts of elaborate brocade and blooming neck corsages, all against the backdrop of an opulent salon in Paris’ Hôtel de Ville. Between chandeliers, sconces and draperies, the lavishness of velvets, silks and cloques was tempered with the louche simplicity of khaki. Just when you thought it might be too much, it wasn’t.

In the background, an a cappella soundtrack played famous songs by voices we all recognise — Rihanna, Björk, Courtney Love, Debbie Harry. But stripped of instrumentals, the voices took on this powerful quality, letting you listen closely to the words, understand the ideas behind the music. “I was surprised to find, when we were putting together the music, that some very famous women really can’t sing,” says Dries Van Noten, chuckling.

We are at Van Noten’s studio in chicer-than-chic Le Marais, and he is chattering away at top speed in his clipped accent, his plain navy jumper and slacks belying the whirlwind of colour and eclecticism inside him, which bursts forth every time he puts models on runways. This Fall/Winter 2015-16, the theme of the show was “grounded glamour”, in celebration of timeless fashion icons: “Anna Piaggi, Isabella Blow, Iris Apfel, Jane Birkin… people who played with fashion, throwing things together with a kind of nonchalance. I think we have lost that, a little bit. So for me it was really about bringing back some of that enthusiasm, some of that daring. It was a lot of fun to work on.I have never made a collection that created so many opposites and went so far, especially with the fabrics.”

Breaking design rules has been a defining characteristic of Van Noten, whose label will celebrate 30 years in 2016. It’s a long journey for the Belgian designer who, along with five of his contemporaries —including Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs — from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, started by forming a collective called the Antwerp Six, which brought a great energy and experimental edge to the city at the time. In 1988, Van Noten told ELLE in an interview, “We don’t want to become a little Paris. We want to stick to Antwerp and keep our own image and spirit.”

It was a very different time, he admits. And today, there is simply no need for a group like the Antwerp Six. “Fashion was not global when I started out, and Belgium was considered completely lacking in creativity, the most boring country imaginable. So first of all, we had to explain to people how to pronounce our names, and convince them that it was possible for fashion to come from Belgium.” Today, a fashion school in Antwerp is not full of Belgian students, in fact quite the opposite. “Korean, Japanese, Yugoslavian, they come from all over the world. Besides, there is no longer such a thing as French fashion, Italian fashion, Belgian fashion. You have Belgians designing for French houses, Germans at British houses, Americans in my studio; fashion has become completely international.”

 

Whether this is a good thing or not, he will not say, preferring only to muse that it is just how things are in our time, and how things will remain in the future. Van Noten believes that fashion at the moment is going through a kind of crisis. For one thing, as a designer who make clothes for both sexes, he thinks men are doing far more interesting things with fashion than women, who are playing it quite safe. “I think there is some individual style, but not a lot,” he grumbles. “It’s an interesting time, because any time of change is interesting. And being independent, I can maybe do a lot of things that other designers can’t do. I can take risks, I can surprise; but I also have to be careful, because I carry a lot of responsibility on my shoulders.”

In fact it is his independence he values more than anything, as the sole financier of his company, and the now established trend for big houses to snap up young designers is something he bemoans. “I think there is a lot of interesting creative talent out there, but when they are forced into a system, they can’t really develop their own. If given a chance, creative people will even come up with new ways of communication and distribution. But there’s no hope for that, because all fashion students now want to be the next 
JW Anderson, put out one fashion show and get picked up by Kering or LVMH. It’s a pity that this is the world we live in now.”

But the fashion world is cutthroat, and perhaps not everyone has the means or appetite for risk? He pooh-poohs this. “If you’re really creative, you’ll find a way. If you have something to say and you’re determined to say it, there is always a way.” Van Noten is one of those few designers who actually likes to straddle the creative and the commercial. “I find it intriguing,” he says, “And knowing what I know on the business side pushes me to be even more creative on the fashion side. Because sometimes you can lose yourself. As a fashion designer you can do whatever you want, but you need to find your limits, whether it’s about possibilities of production or commercial realities.”

Well, it’s worked. Van Noten has managed to stay unfailingly current in just such a rapidly shifting fashion landscape. His clothes walk the tightrope between wearableand fanciful, always with that undefinable air of coolth. There is no formula to it, he avers, just complete belief in self. Take his decision not to advertise, for example, which comes from a deep understanding of his customer; there is no one Dries woman, and he is loath to put a face to the brand. “I think every woman wants something different from fashion. You can be fashionable covered in Versace logos or wearing a conceptual Japanese designer or an edgy young London designer. It’s about what works for you, and I think people today have more choices than ever to find the fashion that best expresses their personality.”

Van Noten’s women, and I count myself among them, crave the plurality of style that only he can offer. His new collection is the perfect example, clashing casual and couture: “That overdose, an exuberance of fabrics, the brocade, the jacquard, different printing techniques, embroidery, 3D flowers, all these things needed balance. Doing a full outfit like that is just too much to take. But we thought, for a woman who loves these things, what kind of wardrobe do we have to put together for her to wear without people calling her a whacko? That’s when we brought in the khaki and dyed cottons, and started doing couture shapes.”

The designer will happily admit that India has contributed hugely to his particular design sensibility — he started working with Indian craftspeople very early, in 1987, and was something of a pioneer. Like many others before (and after) him, he found the country fascinating, and wanted to bring this very different world into his work; today he employs thousands of workers here. “In those days, India was producing polyester wedding dresses and home furnishings in raw silk, it wasn’t really common to use artisanal skills for fashion. I had to explain some things — that when I said gold it had to be an old gold, faded, not bling-bling gold. They would pump up colour because that’s what they liked. And then I started seeing through Indian eyes and thought that too was interesting. I have designed collections with really bright colours, because it’s a beauty in itself, a different beauty from what I knew.”

It may sound a bit clichéd, but a sari is the most beautiful garment to him, because he loves fabrics and hates actually cutting them up, as that limits their use. “A sari, you just wrap it around yourself and the beauty comes from your attitude, the way you stand and walk. In that way it has been a perfect lesson for me in how you wear fabric, which is an idea I have translated into many elements in my collections. And I’m not just telling you this because you’re Indian,” he says, grinning.

I can’t help liking Van Noten, as much for his fierce independence and disregard for convention as for his honesty and the parade of ankle boots from the fall collection, all of which I now want. He appeals to the chaos inside me, as if giving it physical shape in a way that is both wild and restrained, undercut with a modicum of sanity yet always wantonly beautiful. “I just want to enjoy myself,” he says, “And hold on to the freedom of doing the things I want to do. You have to keep learning every day, though. You can’t say at any point that you know the tricks of the trade, because the world is changing so fast, and you need to be on your toes to follow, have big ears and big eyes to try to understand and listen to the world we are living in now. You’ll never know everything.”

Big ears and big eyes, got it. And not to forget, chinos.    

Photographs: Patrick Messina (Portrait); Imaxtree.com/Alessandro Lucioni (Runway), Davide Gallizio (Backstage)

You may also want to read: Tour Literary Ireland