The daily life of Dries Van Noten is dictated not by trends and orders, but by Antwerp trafic jams, and the seasonal shifts in his garden. “In calm periods I arrive here at work after the traffic jam, and in busy periods I arrive before the trafic jam,” he says from his studio, which faces the tranquil water of the Willemdok. “I leave the office after the second traffic jam. And in busy periods Saturday and Sunday are for my work, but in calm periods I stay home and I am quite happy, because calm periods are mostly in the springtime, and that’s the most perfect time to stay in the garden.”
We meet a few weeks before Christmas. Dries recently presented his S/S 2017 collection for women – models walked in embellished Edwardian-esque finery along a runway decorated with flower sculptures encased in melting ice, created by the designer’s friend, floral artist Azuma Makoto – and is working on his A/W 2017 menswear offer. No Christmas break for Dries, he jokes. But he seems content. He works at a human pace. He spends time with his dog, Harry (named after Prince Harry: “He had red hair and a bad character, so we settled that maybe he’s a Harry”), and his partner in business and life, Patrick Vangheluwe.
Today, Dries is clad in cosy navy, and in a good mood, despite the looming press reviews and selling appointments. He works out of a cavernous space where clothes are designed, packed and checked. Sometimes there are thousands of pieces in there, moving about the building on rails, ready for Dries or his team to cast an eye. Normally, after a fashion show is complete, designers send their sketches and samples off to a factory, and never touch most of their pieces again before they reach stores. Not Dries. He likes to be close to his clothes – not just the ones on models on the runway, but the ones that sell on the shop floor, too. He can often be found inspecting finishes, checking buttonholes and beading. On another floor, the same process takes place with fabrics; between stacks and stacks of rolls, workers are inspecting weaves for snags or imperfections. Each corner you turn, there’s colour, texture, eccentric furniture (Dries personally sources unique pieces for his stores, and hand-me-downs end up here) and smiling employees, who greet him cheerfully as he passes. I come to think of Dries as a Willy Wonka type character, running a wonderful fashion factory that inspires and captivates a city. “I wouldn’t get a space like this in Paris,” he says.
Walking around Antwerp, you’re aware of Dries Van Noten’s presence everywhere. He was, after all, one of the set of designers who put the city on the fashion map: the Antwerp Six group of students, including Walter Van Beirendonck and Ann Demeulemeester, who all graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1980–1981. Dries is modest about the cult that surrounds that time in fashion. “The name started because we were all showing together in London, and we simply discovered that people could not pronounce our names. So we thought it would be easier to be the six from Antwerp, six Belgian designers, than Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs, Walter Van Beirendonck and things like that,” he says.
The Dries Van Noten shop, a grand former department store, is a popular monument. When I ask two different local residents what to do in Antwerp, both recommend a trip to the shop, as though it were an historic gem or museum. The day before the interview, I pay a visit to the city’s actual fashion museum, MOMU, to see some of Dries’s clothes on display at the Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia exhibition. The show explores the painter’s interest in the domestic, and his happy intimacy with his wife Nel, a subject in many of his paintings, using contemporary fashion designers to explore the “slow” movement and renewed attention to traditional techniques, such as ceramics, weaving and dyeing. These are themes close to Dries’s heart; he is a self-proclaimed texture and fabric obsessive. Walking around, I’m struck by a sense of distance from the fashion industry. Curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven teases out this notion throughout the display: the way none of the Belgian pack use advertisements, the value they place on creative freedom even at the expense of a bigger audience, prioritisation of clothes over perfumes and accessories, and a love for the mundane, daily life and realism.
Given his knack for staying away from the nucleus of the fashion world – the parties, the dinners, the big city events – it would be easy to miscast Dries Van Noten as a grump. In fact, he’s warm, sensitive and funny. When you interview a designer, usually, an hour max is spared: a hurried conversation in their office, or a meeting room in the studio. At Dries’ HQ, I stick around. I’m not only privy to a tour but, before the interview, we sit down for lunch (sole with vegetables, prepared by a private chef). Conversation turns to current changes in fashion: uncertainty about the future of the catwalk show; the rise of “See now, buy now”, where clothes are sold straight from the runway, rather than six months after their debut; headlines declaring a “system in crisis”; the many brands combining their menswear and womenswear presentations. On the latter point, Dries shakes his head. Not because he’s an archconservative, as many who oppose the current pace of fashion are viewed, but because he cares about clothes and wants to maintain the new focus on menswear design. “It’s simply a pity, a real pity. Menswear deserves better than being thrown into a fashion show – a women’s fashion show – with nearly no menswear press present, or ‘shared’ press. You know who’s going to win – it’s the girls! Gigi Hadid is going to win!” he laughs.
Over lunch, you mentioned that you stay in Antwerp partly because of how beautiful your space is, and partly because of the pace of life. What does this mean for your work itself?
I feel well here. Considering everything, especially considering that I am a fashion designer, I have a very pleasant life. I have my house in the countryside. In the morning, when the weather is good, I take my bike and I ride here to the office. We have here a nice building, we have a nice city to live in. When it feels just a little bit too small, I take the plane to fly to London, as you did, or we take the train and, two hours later, we are in Paris. Or we go to Amsterdam or to Germany. Also, you don’t feel the pressure of living in a big city. I always think that if I’d spent the past years living in a big city, I would have designed different clothes.
Because you’d want to express yourself in a different way.
So you feel that you benefit from a slight sense of separation?
It’s not separation, it’s about creating a distance. Distance can be a border that you can’t cross, which is not good. But a healthy distance means you can look at things from a certain perspective, one step backwards or forwards, and you can see futilities more easily, because you see more important things. It’s natural when you’re in the middle of it to get caught up. Every time I am in Paris, I have to go to parties, I have to go to events and things like that, because, well, you’re in town. So I think when you live in town, it’s going to be very difficult to say, “Forget it, I don’t do that.” I think that makes really a difference.
Is that part of the appeal of your clothing, that sense that it’s more rooted in reality? If you live in a “fashion city”, often you only see people like yourself, and you presume that everyone is this avant-garde liberal. And I imagine being somewhere like here, you see more of a broader scope of real life?
I think today you can’t help but see the world. You’d have to be very naive not to. I think this is partly because of your smartphone or your computer or your laptop. And it’s a strange world at the moment. But I don’t think it’s realistic not to make clothes that are grounded in reality. People live now, not in the past. However much I love tradition and the skills of making, I don’t want to make nostalgic clothes, because I know women don’t walk around in high heels full-time. It’s not like the only thing they do is make a cocktail for their husband when he comes home. That time is finished. So I make clothes that people can wear now, that they can use now, that let them express what they want to express about themselves. For me, that’s my job. That’s what I want to do.
There’s a joyfulness and an optimism in your clothing, I think.
Optimism. Yes. I’m not a sad person. I never think I have all the problems of the world on my back. And, in the end, it’s fashion. And fashion must make you dream. There has be a dream factor, but not a fairy tale. Clothes can’t become costume. Fashion has to stay garments – things people can wear.
Do you differentiate between clothes and fashion in your head?
I don’t like the word “fashion”, simple. Fashion, I think, it’s over, it’s finished. It doesn’t exist anymore. I think fashion was when you could talk about trends. And trends don’t exist anymore. Every fashion designer does their own thing. In the past – 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s – it was one silhouette, one rule, one width of shoulder, one set of colours and, if you liked it or not, for one season you had to wear, say, brown and orange, and the season after, apple green and bright blue. And if you had legs, nice or not, one season it was miniskirts, and the season after it was maxi skirts. And it was on the cover of Elle and all the magazines. Now you can be dressed in Comme des Garçons and look fantastic and be very fashionable, or you can be dressed in Versace and also be completely modern, up-to-date and fashionable. You can wear something from Zara or H&M and also look perfect. So, to me, fashion is over. I think it’s now much more about personal style – that’s what is fashionable. It’s an attitude.
As you say, it’s a difficult time at the moment. How much do you think you bring that into your clothing?
It’s very hard to say: “Now, this part of the collection, this I did because it’s a difficult moment.” I’ve been in business for 30 years, so I have seen some good days and some less good days, when the world went well and when the world went not so well. In a way, there is more attention paid in difficult times. People really go to the essence of things, people go to things with soul, with reality. I just try to do my thing. Of course, in the clothes that I make, automatically the way that I feel is reflected – what I read about what is happening in the world, the elections and all these things. Even if you don’t mean to, you put it in the collections. But also, you have to think about what people will want to have in six months’ time, you have to be realistic. It’s not the time, for instance, to do a collection fully based on Arabic prints. Because people, unfortunately, don’t want to look like that for the moment. I find that very, very hard to say, but that’s the case.
If you were starting your label today, in this climate, do you think you would have succeeded?
I don’t know. Of course, the surprise factor of fashion coming from Belgium isn’t there anymore. But then, we had our problems, people said: “What? Fashion from Belgium? Forget it!” We didn’t have backers or help from the bank, because the principle of fashion was simply not known here. Fashion is a strange business: you must sell, and then you have to deliver your clothes, and people often don’t do advance payments, which all other businesses do. It’s a hard industry. But now you have so many opportunities, things like social media. You don’t even need to do a fashion show, you can also do a very small personal thing as a young designer, something together with your brother or sister or lover or whatever, and you go somewhere in a small village in Scotland, and you do a small collection.
Do you think you would have done it like that?
I think it’s a fascinating way of thinking about clothes and fashion. Why not do a small couture collection? Made to measure? There’s something very nice about made to measure. There are lots of ways of doing things. But don’t try to compete immediately with the Kerings and the LVMHs, because you’re going to lose. Don’t try to mimic their systems, because they have all the money.
You’ve always been proud to exist independently.
Yes, but it was not a goal in itself – like everything, it just happened. At the end of the 1990s, the big groups contacted us. It was a time when everybody like Alexander McQueen and Jil Sander all sold to the big companies. So we had our visitors at that time but then – luckily enough for me now – at that moment, I said no.
Why did you know to say no?
It was a strange time. I didn’t feel very comfortable. It all became more and more about product. At the end of the 1990s, it became clear that handbags and shoes were going to be more important than clothes, and it made me feel uncomfortable. So I had a lot of discussions here, in-house: should we do it? Because, of course, I had never experienced being part of a big group. There are production possibilities that I can only dream of. And the fact that you don’t have to think about all the financial problems and risks. As an independent, with every season, every collection, you take these risks again. I have a responsibility towards all the people who work for me, and my suppliers. It has become, not a big business, but a serious business. I’ve never experienced what it would be without all those problems, but I think there would be other problems. You’d have people watching what you’re doing and saying: “This sold well, you have to do this again now.”
Are you nervous about the state of fashion at the moment?
I’m not nervous about the state of fashion, because I think change is good. We have to embrace change and evolution. In Flemish, there’s this expression “panic football”.
It’s when you’re playing football, and you panic because you’re behind the other team, and you’re so desperate for a goal that everyone is kicking the ball and it’s going in all different directions. That expresses quite well the state of fashion for me. People are running around on the field without really knowing what direction they have to push the ball. I don’t like that as a feeling. It means that decisions are not taken in a conceptual way. The way of thinking is just: let’s cut costs, let’s cut budgets.
Fashion is currently very digital- focused. The show must be live- streamed, e-commerce must be available, and so on. Those seem to be things you don’t feel passionate about.I do feel passionate about it. It’s not that I’m anti-digital and anti these things. We are working on it, we are exploring options in all these things. But I want to do it in the way that seems right to me, where I can be happy with it. I refuse to make products only because they look good on your smartphone or your screen. Like, all the colours have to be a little brighter, and if you do a motif on the back of a bomber, you have to also do a small motif on the front, because otherwise people are not interested: it’s only when they see a small motif on the front that they also click on it to see the back of it! And you can’t do a small motif because it starts to make waves on screens. It’s all these things. You can’t do black, because you can’t see it on screens.
It is scary how much the way we browse the web is now dictating design.
Look at fashion shows. In the past, you could build up a fashion show slowly. Now, you have to tell a story in five looks. Most fashion shows now are different themes, changing after five or six looks just to make people click and click and click further to see what is coming next. It’s a pity. It’s sad.
I wonder if it’s changing the relationship people have with their clothes. Some outfits exist purely online; they’re bought online, then they’re shown off on Instagram. People don’t own things in the way they used to any more – they don’t wear them out.
For special things, I prefer that people still go to a store. You have somebody who can advise you, who knows you, who knows maybe what pieces you have from previous seasons, how you combine it. She won’t show you a black trouser if she knows that you always go to Zara for a black trouser.
Let’s talk about your interests. What are your passions that you feed back most consistently into your collections?
It’s a big blur. It’s not one thing. I have a very wide interest range, going from art to stupid things on the television. I really love to read, I look at my screen, I follow the Instagrams of other people. I also love going to galleries, exhibitions and art fairs.
Do you buy a lot of art?
No. I buy a lot, but not a lot of art. I don’t have to own art. I have as much gratification, as much fun and as much satisfaction when looking at something beautiful in a museum as I would if I owned it. I buy things which I know are going to make my, or Patrick’s and my, life nicer when we own it. With art, I can go to the exhibition or buy a book. That way, for me, the memory is much more enriching, much nicer, than passing it every day on your wall and, in the end, not seeing it any more. Because even something you really like, after a few weeks on the wall, you don’t see it – it’s there but you don’t see it any more. I like to own things that I am personally very connected to. Maybe when people see them, they don’t get it, but for me, there’s a story behind it.
So are you very sentimental, then? Do you hoard things?
Not hoarding. Maybe sentimental, I’d say, yes.
Do you collect anything?
Not really. Maybe I collect fabrics. I’m quite fabric-mad. But I prefer to collect impressions and emotions than actual things.
Do you want people to have an emotional reaction when they see your collections? Do you want to move people?
It’s not really a goal, because then it would become a cheesy trick. It’s not that we say: “OK, let’s put some rich fabrics, some beautiful colours, then a special type of light on it and play a romantic song and there are the tears and everybody is moved.” No. Every decision I take has an aesthetic reason behind it. And when we put the show together, it has to tell a certain story. You never know what the reaction is going to be, if people are going to like blocks of ice on the catwalk or not, if people are going to hear a soundtrack that’s a heartbeat and be moved. Sometimes the reaction is very positive, sometimes the reaction is quite so-so, but that’s a good thing.
Do you bring a sense of morality or a spiritual understanding into your clothing?
I have to feel [good about] the clothes, even if I sometimes have to take commercial decisions. Because, at the end of the day, every week I get the sell-through figures of all the big department stores in the States and in London, so I’m realistic and I know that I have to keep my business healthy, otherwise I have no job any more, and all the people around me neither. But it has to feel balanced. It’s not that I say, “OK, they loved that, let’s go for it. They’re going to get it.” No, I want to challenge myself. It’s very important to me that I can surprise myself.
Do you ever worry you’ll get tired of it all?
Yes. Do you not?
All the time!
Not all the time, but sometimes.
What do you want to happen to the label after you?
I don’t know. I’m thinking about it, I’m working on it, because I’m not getting younger. In the past, I thought I was invincible, and that I was going to live forever. Now I need to see that my creative team, in case something happened to me, could continue – that’s the responsibility that I have. It’s not like I say, “Après nous, le déluge”. If something were to happen to me, even if I just had an accident and I couldn’t work for a month – a few years ago, it would have been a disaster. Now, it wouldn’t be easy – but it would maybe be more difficult for me than my team [laughs].
When you’re not designing you’re usually in your garden. Do you think in a past life you were a gardener?
I don’t think so – I’m not good enough at it! But I am very busy with designing plans and putting lines, and I am a big fan of bamboo sticks.
Is gardening how you stay calm, or do you meditate?
I don’t meditate, I have my garden and my dog. Both were important decisions. Patrick and I decided to buy that house and the garden during a crisis time, when it was tough in the company and also in our relationship, because we always worked from early in the morning to late in the evening. Then we bought the house, which was very demanding – a house like that challenges you to reorganise your life and your job. In the same way, we decided to get a dog. It was around eight years ago. OK, we don’t have children, but a dog also challenges you. It challenges you to reorganise your life and, frankly, be more practical. Is it really necessary that you have to stay so long in the office? Do you really have to know everything about something, or can you leave?
Did you ever think about having children?
Why not? People always ask women designers about children, they never ask men.
Indeed. It didn’t come up in my mind. Being gay, it was not really a priority. I didn’t feel the need to have the next generation.
When you were small, you were educated at a Jesuit school. Are you religious?
I always went to church as a child. I’m not really religious but I think, like most healthy people, I continue to think about it…
And do you bring that thinking into your collections?
I try to make honest collections, I try to make honest clothes so, in that way, yes.
I’m interested in your vision of femininity. Does it come from the women around you, or does it come from elsewhere? I perceive a constant type of woman in your clothing.
I have a type of woman, but I try to create a different woman every season. So every collection, we think about a guy and a girl. I begin with a starting point that can be whatever: a movie, an artist, an artwork, a little scrap of paper that I find, and then I start to work on the character. OK, who is that girl, who is that man? Then I start to define more and more that person. There are always clichéd questions that I ask my team. How does she live? Is she alone? Is she married? Is she a lesbian? Is she married and has five lovers? She goes on holiday? She goes to Scotland, she goes to Barcelona, she goes to Paris, or she goes somewhere in India to a place we’ve never heard of? She drinks? Martinis, cocktails, tea? She smokes? Shoes? High heels? Low heels? She wears heels to walk on the street, and flat shoes in the office, or the other way round? My creative team can then put extra layers on that person and bring more elements. They will suggest something and I’ll say: “Yes, but how does that make sense in our total story?” You have to push them and stimulate them so they know that they’re there to add a lot of things. It cannot just be: “Look what a beautiful image I found on Pinterest.” It may be a beautiful picture, but what do you want to say with it? How can it add something that isn’t purely aesthetic? Because the colours match? No, forget it, it’s wrong. With the person, there’s always an evolution. Like, when we did the grunge collection, really it was half grunge, half couture [S/S 2013]. The starting point there was a couture photo and a grunge photo. I folded both half and half, and I glued them together. I said: “The top half is grunge, and the bottom part is couture. That’s our woman.” And then we said: “OK, then we have to do shoes. How do you do that?” [My team] suggested we do couture shoes and grunge shoes. But I wanted them to be together. So I said: “Think about Courtney Love wearing Manolos, but in the way Courtney Love does. Maybe there’s too much alcohol, or she tripped and her heels are broken, she takes the laces from the shoes from her man and she wraps them around her shoes, and that’s the shoes. That’s the starting point.” So in the end, we had pointy elegant shoes with laces tied together. Just like that. We always have a story.
You must be proud that you attract women of all different ages as clients.
I’m very proud of that. We really have achieved that – there are three generations who will try to wear our clothes. I’m very happy to see Mrs B [Joan Burstein] of Browns wearing one of our dresses, and I’m very happy also to see her granddaughter in one. Why not?
There is always a certain opulence to what you do, there is something quite majestic about it. But you did say before, it can’t be a fairy tale.
There’s a big difference between a dream and a fairy tale. I’m not afraid to say that I love dreaming. I think everybody deserves to dream. I think reality is so hard, especially now, that dreaming makes you survive. But, of course, you can’t live on dreams alone. You have to keep the right balance, and that’s what I hope I do with my collections.
Photography Tung Walsh (2DM Management), Styling Marcus Söder (C F A projects), Model Yana Bovenistier (The Squad), Hair Karin Bigler (Jed Root) using Revlon Professional Equave, Make up Shinobu (CLM) using MAC cosmetics, Casting Megan McCluskie, Production Laura Motta (2DM Management), Photography assistant Daniel Ciufo, Styling assistant Josefin Brandt, Location Columbia Hotel, London.