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designer-luxury

M: Dries Van Noten, The Secret Genius of Design

M makes a case for Antwerp's outsider artist.

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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.’”

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