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M: Dries Van Noten, The Secret Genius of Design

M makes a case for Antwerp's outsider artist.

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Dries Van Noten

Dries Van Noten

Photo By Matthew Brookes

Dries Van Noten Fall 2013

Dries Van Noten Fall 2013 collection.

Photo By Blair Getz Mezibov

Appeared In
Special Issue
Menswear issue M Summer 2013

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.”

Dries Van Noten Antwerp studio
Dries Van Noten Spring 2009

Dries Van Noten Spring 2009

Photo By Patrice Stable

Summer 2013 Dries Van Noten
Appeared In
Special Issue
Menswear issue M Summer 2013

The personal experience is paramount at Van Noten’s boutiques. He likes stores, the live experience of them, and labors over their design. His Paris men’s store, opened in 2010, was conceived as the ideal gentleman’s home. He rotates art and antiques he collects through it. (A recent acquisition is a small portrait by van Dyck.) “I think buying fashion must be a treat,” he says. “I think it must be fun to go to a store. You have to do nice windows. You have to be well-received. The whole experience has to be there.” In an era when brands are selling their goods online, Van Noten has largely resisted doing so. The impersonality of it seems to rankle him.


At the same time, Van Noten’s Paris fashion shows, which once tended toward the baroque, have come down in scale. Etienne Russo, the production maestro who now stages extravagant shows for the likes of Chanel, Hermès, and Moncler, got his start doing so for Van Noten. Longtime followers remember the earlier, wilder shows fondly. “I wouldn’t go to very many shows because I didn’t have the time,” said Nina Garduno, then the vice president of menswear at L.A.’s Ron Herman, who was one of Van Noten’s earliest U.S. clients. “But one of the shows I would go to would be Dries. For me, it was the fantasy of what it’s all about—what it’s all supposed to be.” One show put models on bicycles in a park; another, staged in Moroccan tents at the outskirts of the city, continued even as snow started to come down. “It was just absolutely romantic, memories you just never forget,” Garduno said.


Van Noten seems regretful of the change, which is largely due to the difficulties of working within the ever-more-crowded fashion calendar. “Sometimes it’s a pity,” he said. “I’m also nostalgic. It would be nice to do that. Everything’s changing, so we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but we will see. It would be nice to do an extravaganza again.”


When Van Noten began his label, the very idea of “Belgian fashion” was somewhat suspect. His father owned a chain of fashion stores, which stocked men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing, much of it imported from European labels like Ungaro, Ferragamo, and Zegna. “It was early seventies,” Van Noten remembered, “so you can imagine it was a lot of brown carpet and Plexiglas and smoked mirrors.”

 

As the youngest child of the family, with a brother and two sisters at university, Van Noten would do his homework at the shop and spent school holidays traveling with his parents to fashion shows and buying trips in Paris, Florence, and Milan. It was something of a foregone conclusion that he would go into the family business. But when he went to Antwerp’s Royal Academy and announced his intention to study design rather than preparing to take over the store, his father was so incensed that he withdrew his support. “It was a little bit like an experiment, becoming a Belgian fashion designer,” Van Noten recalled. “Still very absurd and quite surrealistic.” It took, he estimated, ten years for his father to get over the slight. “For fathers, it always takes a longer time,” he said gently.


In fact, it was Van Noten himself, along with a handful of classmates from the Royal Academy—Dirk
Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Van Saene, and Marina Yee, together with Van Noten, the so-called Antwerp Six; a young conceptualist named Martin Margiela who followed shortly thereafter—who helped normalize the idea of a Belgian designer. Now plenty of fashion talent is grown in Belgium—like Raf Simons, who was named creative director of Dior in 2012, or Christian Wijnants, who won the International Woolmark Prize for fashion in 2013—but the path was laid by Van Noten and his contemporaries.


“Dries was a kind of example,” said Linda Loppa, who worked at Van Noten’s company in its early days and headed the Royal Academy’s fashion department from 1982 until 2007, when she moved to Florence to become the dean of Polimoda. “Dries is always that kind of father figure now in Belgian fashion, how he constructed the company.”


The company, in addition to being independent, remains small and concentrated. Those around him tend to stay around him a long time. Stylist Nancy Rohde has been a part of the team for14 years; even the menswear salesman at his Antwerp boutique has worked there for 12. “I prefer that they become a part of the family,” Van Noten shrugged.


Business and family, in fact, commingle: His partner in business is his partner in life, Patrick Vangheluwe. The third member of their nuclear family is their adored Airedale terrier, Harry, who joins the couple in the studio every day, where he has free rein.


For Van Noten, whose blood runs deep in Antwerp, the past is always present—not just at the headquarters on Godefriduskaai, where the second floor is given over to an enormous archive. Van Noten credits his grandfather, a tailor, with introducing ready-made suiting to Antwerp; his shop, on Antwerp’s Kammenstraat, sat across the street from where Van Noten’s own store now stands. When Van Noten and Vangheluwe invited me to their favorite restaurant in Antwerp, they were greeted warmly by the waitress, the line cook, and the host. One quipped that they had been coming to the restaurant, in its various iterations, for 40 years. It was a joke, Van Noten explained. They’d actually been coming for 36.

Fashion may be a changing marketplace, but at Van Noten Andries NV, business is done as business has been done. How feasible this independence will remain, Van Noten admits, isn’t clear. “I don’t know, of course, for the future, how possible it’s going to be,” he said. “Because the world is changing fast, and sometimes you see also that it would be easier if we joined forces.” By the same token, despite his aversion to selling online, he admits the company is investigating ways to do just that.


But a kind of holy compromise is the heart of the Van Noten label. “I think men always try to find something that they recognize,” Van Noten said. “But you have to surprise them also at the same time. You have to create things that are not alien to them, that they have reference, that they know. But on the other hand, you have to surprise them; you have to say, like, ‘Shut up, put this on.’ But in fact, it’s OK, it looks good.


“It’s always that kind of thing,” he went on. He gave the example of Cole Mohr, the lavishly tattooed, chain-smoking punk of male modeling. “He’s coming in wearing a hardcore T-shirt and jeans,” he said. “What can we put on him that is still believable? What is the furthest we can go? This season, we put a silk georgette shirt with diamond embroidery and leather pants. For me, it was perfectly acceptable. And he thought also it was perfectly acceptable. So I said, ‘OK, that’s good. That’s what we need to do.’”