Dries Van Noten presents his collections twice a year in Paris, but to meet him, you have to travel 200-odd miles northeast, to Antwerp, the seat of Flemish Belgium, where his headquarters is a five-story former wine and spirits warehouse on the waterfront. Graffiti uncovered during its renovation showed that it sheltered both German and Allied soldiers during various parts of World War II.
When the designer moved his company here in 2000, the area was not yet the home of Belgium’s new multimillion-euro MAS museum or its Michelin-starred restaurant; it was just a seedy strand not far from the bustling port that has made Antwerp a hub since the Renaissance.
But fortunes change, and landscapes change with them. The fortunes of the Dries Van Noten company have been on a slow but steady ascent throughout its existence—including during the global recession.
From the very beginning, he has owned his business and has never deviated from that model. As conglomerate groups like LVMH and Kering developed around him in the nineties, he remained independent. “Our business doesn’t have to grow every year a huge amount like when you are a part of a big group,” he said. “I don’t need to have a store in every city. It’s a luxury that I can say I just want to continue the way that we are doing…to be creative and be busy with things I really love and not be forced to do all the bags and the shoes and the sunglasses and things like that.”
He is also steadfast in his loyalty to his home city. “Antwerp has a lot of advantages,” he told me. “A few years ago, maybe it was more strange to be outside of the centers of fashion. Now, with the Internet and traveling that you can do, I think I’m more central than some people in Paris.”
There’s a telltale nape among men’s fashion editors, to judge from a glance around the Paris shows. The under-collars of their jackets (often navy, often double-breasted) flash a panel of pure white. That’s the sign and symbol of Van Noten, who has been applying it to his jackets since it first featured in his Fall 2009 collection. The effect is as if some unseen hand had held you by the scruff of the neck as you were dipped in blue dye.
“It became kind of a signature,” Van Noten told me. “Me, even myself, I wear the jacket with the white under-collar. Quite often when we walk around the city with some of our team and it’s cold, we put our collars up; you see from the back four guys with white under-collars. You think, oops, maybe this is quite obvious.”
It’s a characteristic of Van Noten to back away from even the suggestion of label-mongering. His is a brand without a ubiquitous logo. He makes clothes, and while he does design shoes and accessories, he says they account for only 10 percent of his sales. He doesn’t advertise, which keeps his pieces more frequently on the backs of editors than it does in the pages of their magazines.
He sniffs at what he calls product—logo T-shirts, branded ephemera—that is the bulwark of many
designer businesses. He doesn’t make fragrances, another cash cow, though he was recently the subject of one: His friend, the perfumer Frédéric Malle, did the first in his series of “portrait” scents of Van Noten.
“I admire his discretion,” Malle told me. “Dries doesn’t try to be a star. His work speaks for itself and has made him one.”
White-collared jackets aside, it’s hard to predict what a Van Noten collection will comprise. Unlike many other designers, Van Noten is not overwhelmingly associated with one style or type of clothing—no Burberry trench, or Gucci loafer. At his own stores, associates say, his suits sell briskly, but so do what they call his “special pieces”—which may be, from season to season, a hybrid jodhpur/track pant in a tricolor orange-navy-and-white stripe, from a collection inspired by hunting and fishing gear, or a fencer’s jacket in a splotchy, ectoplasmic camouflage Van Noten custom designs.
After the all-camouflage Spring show he staged last summer, Van Noten abruptly shifted gears for Fall and plunged into the feminine. In January, he showed a Fall collection inspired, he said, by a “walk of shame”: He imagined boys rolling out of their girlfriends’ beds, throwing on whatever on the floor is closest to hand—a mix of paisley pajamas, beaded sweaters, and muzzy robes.
The gentle blur between men’s and women’s pieces is echt Van Noten. In 1986, his very first client, Barneys New York, bought his men’s collection in small sizes and sold it as womenswear. He launched the label with menswear, but, he said, “only for the practical reason that I found only one manufacturer who wanted to help me to produce my clothes, which was by coincidence the menswear manufacturer.” He added a full women’s collection in 1993.
Van Noten continues to champion a louche brand of elegance that nudges against the accepted borders of menswear—a world still largely divided between all-American sportiness and Savile Row stiffness. A show he recalls as a favorite was inspired by David Bowie in his besuited Thin White Duke period. “Until [then], everything had to be ‘cool’ menswear to be accepted,” he said. “And what was cool quite often was related to sportswear. So I thought, is there a way I can make menswear elegant but still that guys would consider it cool? Cool to be elegant, which is different than wearing the right sneakers, or wearing the jeans that you need to have, or the polo shirt from Lacoste or Fred Perry with just exactly the right color of logo and right size of logo.”
The danger of such an approach is that it can quickly lead a designer into the weeds, staging the kind of “editorial” runway fantasies that flop once they reach the sales floor—or dividing his output between two collections, one for artistry and magazine spreads, one much simpler for commercial production.
But Van Noten insists that everything he shows on the runway is destined for life in a store—either one of the five that he owns, in Antwerp, Paris, and throughout the Far East, or one of his longtime wholesale partners. But he doesn’t pretend to be sure. “That’s the nice thing and the unpleasant thing in fashion,” he said. “You don’t know. For instance, the embroidered shirt from this winter in silk georgette. I thought, nobody’s going to buy this. For the show we have the silk georgette, but for commercial reasons, we’re going to do the same one in cotton voile to have a more masculine one. Silk georgette we sold very well, cotton voile we didn’t sell a piece. So if you think that you know why…” He smiled and opened his hands. “I don’t know why.”
Clothes may make the man, but cotton doesn’t make the manhood. “That’s changed quite a lot,” he said. “I think men are really busy now with what they put on, and I think that’s one of the reasons why men’s business is doing quite well.” He likened it to the heyday of men’s fashion in the late seventies and early eighties—the era of Versace and Armani, Ray Petri and Buffalo, Gaultier and Westwood—when he was studying at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. “For me it was really influential. In the seventies you had things like Versace and Armani who changed fashion completely. You had leather for men’s clothes, which was completely new. I bought for myself during school times a leather tuxedo jacket from Versace, which was incredible, really daring.”
His own collections have, at times, traveled to the nearer shores of over-the-top. (His Bowie collection was trimmed with acres of fur.) But even when they flirt with excess, the spirit resides in the finer details—like the white under-collars. “I think that’s what menswear is about, to find small things that just give a little sign that you are…in French they have a nice word for it,” Van Noten said. “Soigné.”