a good year for the roses

READY TO WEAR Dries van Noten's creations are not the sort to cause shockwaves in the tabloids. But the Belgian designer's simple, striking shapes and beautiful fabrics walk straight off the catwalks into the wardrobes of ordinary women
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lay people watching designer fashion shows can often feel a little confused. The clothes on the catwalk are wild and weird and they don't look like the clothes normal people have in their wardrobes. Trousers become hats, dresses unfold to become skirts, girls wear things that show their bosoms. All in an effort to get the photographers at the end of the runway (in what's called the pig-pen) to snap like crazy. This ensures press coverage. Easy.

Dries van Noten's shows are not like this. The first time I saw one of his shows (in October 1993) I fell in love with nearly every piece. It made me want to save up to buy the whole collection, it inspired me, it made me want to be rich and live like that always. It was that sort of show. Yet he achieved this not by showing tricksy clothes or trying to be too clever, his clothes were - and are - just stunning. They make you catch your breath.

This is partly because what you see is what you get. "I think I am one of the only designers to show clothes that are actually for sale," says Van Noten, "most of the designers put in extra pieces for the show. Fabric is very important to me, once I have sourced the fabric [most is specially made for him], 50 per cent of my collection is finished. My shapes are simple, because if you have beautiful fabric that drapes well and the texture is nice, that's enough for me."

Van Noten was born in 1958 in Antwerp. He studied fashion design at the Royal Academy of Antwerp, paying his way through college by designing for Belgian and Italian labels. "I worked day and night. It's necessary when you study at fashion school because it's expensive and you have to buy a lot of materials. For me it was very interesting - during the day, at school, I had an artistic way of doing the job and in the evening, at the manufacturers, I saw the reality." His time on active work experience stood him in good stead, he learnt all about production and distribution.

"At that time [in the late Seventies and early Eighties], English designers all made marvellous collections, but they didn't think about manufacturing. They made very creative collections but often had production problems," says Van Noten. "In Belgium we did it the other way round." To surmount this problem, the Belgian government created a contest called The Golden Spindle which promotes young Belgian designers and brings their creativity to the manufacturers. "The government did a study at the beginning of the Eighties which showed that Belgian manufacturers produced good quality garments but didn't believe in creativity. So when you went to other countries and spoke about Belgian clothes they would say 'they're good quality but they're very boring'." Van Noten was a finalist three times (in 1982, 1983 and 1985).

This all changed in 1986 when six Belgian designers got together to show their menswear collection in London. Alongside Van Noten were Dirk van Saene, Walter van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Marina Yee and Dirk Bikkembergs. They had at last successfully fused creativity with good quality; in fact their collections were such a success that today you still hear talk of "the Belgian six''. Van Noten got three buyers from this show, Whistles of London, Barneys of New York, and Pauw of Amsterdam. This event was significant because it moved the fashion focus away from London, Paris and Milan. Suddenly Belgium was on the fashion map. At first the English had trouble with the pronunciation of their names, but today Demeulemeester rolls surprisingly easily off the tongue.

Although Van Noten started off designing menswear, this was not from choice. "Dirk [Bikkembergs] started off doing men's shoes and I menswear. Not because I wanted to, but because I had good links with a menswear manufacturer. In Belgium we do things the other way around to British designers just starting out - first we find a good manufacturer that can deliver the goods and then we make the collection together with the manufacturer. In Britain they design wonderful clothes but often come unstuck when it comes to actually producing them." It sounds boring, but it works.

In Van Noten's slow-but-sure way, he waited until his label was established before branching out into womenswear, "Womenswear followed a year later. The moment we saw that the business was becoming a little bigger and that we could produce the orders we went into womenswear." Then things happened fast. In August 1989 he opened a shop in Antwerp and in 1991 he showed his menswear collection in Paris. Having a catwalk show gives a designer exposure but showing in Paris, which stands way above all other fashion cities, gives a designer credibility. That's why top British designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, have moved their shows to Paris.

It was two years before Van Noten felt ready to have a womenswear show. "I waited a few years before having any catwalk show at all. I wanted to be sure to have enough maturity to do so. Having a show is very expensive and I didn't want my customers to pay for the show by me reflecting its cost in my prices. But the moment the turnover was big enough so that we could absorb the costs, we did it. I waited two years before also having a womenswear show for much the same reasons that I left a gap between designing a men's and women's collection. I wanted to be sure that I could fulfil orders and, you know, organising four fashion shows a year is a tremendous job. I don't like to give boring shows, so every time we look for something different or something new. It's a lot of work!"

Whereas most designers show at the purpose-built tents at the Louvre, which are erected for Paris fashion week, Van Noten and his team have a brain-storming session every year and then his scouts go out looking for suitable venues. The venue reflects the collection; for example the autumn/winter menswear collection is a cross between traditional English tailoring and sportswear and it was shown in a sports stadium. The womenswear collection was shown in an old museum where the lights were rigged so that the colour of the room changed with the colour of the garment.

Roses featured heavily in this collection, either two- dimensionally in prints, or three-dimensionally in the form of silk corsages (as shown in our pictures). "I like flowers a lot. You can really feminise a completely masculine outfit just by adding a rose. There is something very nice about the colour of flowers." This combination, the hard and the soft, the masculine and the feminine, rather simply sums Van Noten up. His clothes will never shock you, but they're the sort of clothes that you will buy and wear.

"My whole idea is to have fun, that is very important. And I like to walk down the street and see people wearing my clothes with something personal that they have added, such as clothes from another designer or something second-hand. It gives me a kick, because this is the way I intended my garments to be worn." Practise pronouncing the name (Drees van No-ten) and flexing your credit card.

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