Dries Van Noten: 'There's too much fashion'

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Too many shows, too many collections, and, simply, too many clothes... So says Dries Van Noten, a designer who has never bowed to convention. Susannah Frankel meets Antwerp's most stylish export.

Dries Van Noten's company is located in a five-storey former warehouse in the old port of the city of Antwerp. It is here that precious works of art were stored and protected during the Second World War. Once a down-at-heel wilderness, "full of crumbling buildings, this place was old and neglected", as the designer puts it, since Van Noten's arrival at the turn of the millennium, the district has become a fashionable marina complete with quayside museum, bustling cafés and more. To be honest, he adds, he doesn't actually like it as much as he once did. "Now it's a bit too clean for me. I prefer a scruffy atmosphere," he says. Authenticity is a very important word in Van Noten's world.

From the top floor of the by now lovingly restored and quietly impressive place the views over the city, including the famous cathedral with the Rubens' altarpiece, are spectacular. This particular area is reserved for buying appointments and all of that profession who attend can expect to be served with traditional Flemish fare – meatloaf with cherries and roast potatoes, to be precise. Much of the raw structure of the building has been preserved and it is furnished by an eclectic mix of antiques. Van Noten is an avid collector and so, when the Antwerp courts of justice chose to rid themselves of any original 1930s fixtures and fittings, for example, he was only too happy to take these items off their hands. There's a black, high-shine 1960s sofa here, oil-painted portraits of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium in gilded frames there, all of which form a perfectly harmonious and relatively domestic counterpoint to a sense of industry and modernity that is also very much in evidence throughout.

On the third floor, bolts of fabric from past seasons are piled up on shelves alongside zips, buttons and labels. Van Noten's labels are distinctive, as the size of the garment is printed beneath his name. Although the complex nature of his design process renders his twice-yearly collections more difficult than most to copy, the archive is a precious commodity and is closely guarded for that. It is testimony to the fact that Van Noten's rise to success was a gradual one that it dates back no further than the mid-Nineties. Until that point, and still struggling to make ends meet, he paid his models in clothes, as was the custom with any up-and-coming name worth his or her credentials at the time. On the second floor, the newly arrived (and vast) spring/summer collection hangs in polythene wraps and is subjected to rigorous quality control before being shipped around the world to upwards of 500 points of sale.

Van Noten's office and studio is on the fourth floor. He's dressed today in smart blue chinos and sweater (I am reliably informed that he doesn't wear jeans) and is kept company by his dog, Harry, a magnificent Airedale terrier with a butch bark and a gait like a prima ballerina, all out-turned toes. "Harry is a lot of work," Van Noten says. On weekdays and when he doesn't have the run of the designer's famously lovely garden at his 19th-century home on the outskirts of the city, Harry has his own unusually glamorous dog walker.

It's more than 30 years since Van Noten founded his business. With a turnover estimated at around 50 million euros a year, it is a minor miracle that the label remains entirely independent and ultimately under the control of this unassuming and highly civilised man. In the last decade of the 20th century, when corporate superpowers were snapping up each and every designer name they could get their hands on, Van Noten resisted the temptation to play along, although "I thought at certain points that was maybe the way to go, that that was the future. The big groups weren't only buying labels but also all the factories. Our shoes were made in Italy. The heel manufacturer was sold to Gucci, I think, the last manufacturer to the Prada Group and the producer itself was bought by Armani. My most important yarn suppliers were also bought by Prada. And it's still like that at least some of the time." In the end, though, "that's not my way of doing things. I like to choose my own way forward. I really do want to create something that I personally like a lot."

For similar reasons, Van Noten doesn't design a pre-collection or any subsidiary lines, preferring instead to concentrate on two ready-to-wear collections for both men and women a year, all four of which he shows in Paris. "For me, the show is the only moment when I can tell my story," he says. "It's the way I communicate my ideas to the world." The collections are expansive in that they include both high-end and entry-point pieces.

"For me personally, there's too much fashion around in this world," Van Noten says – not something one might expect to hear from the mouth of a fashion designer. "There are too many images, too many impressions and the danger is that the whole thing is lost in one big blur. That's a pity. Before you had only images from ready-to-wear designers, now there's Topshop, Diesel... Everyone does fashion shows and produces imagery that is as strong as possible, just to attract attention. In the past, it was twice a year for men and twice a year for women and then there was couture. It was far more definite and there was breathing space in between."

Given that today's industry is notoriously driven by money-spinning accessories, it is equally remarkable that less than 10 per cent of this designer's business is based on those. "I'm a fashion designer, not a shoe designer," he says by way of explanation. "I like to design clothes. It seems strange to me that people buy a whole outfit in a high-street store, but they still have very expensive shoes. OK, shoes and bags are important but not so important. The whole thing, the combination of all the elements, is important." Van Noten chooses not to advertise or bombard celebrities with his designs, although he has dressed Cate Blanchett and Maggie Gyllenhaal for the red carpet. "Who are the clothes for?" he wonders. "It is challenging to create clothes for people who perhaps don't have the perfect body, who aren't a size 38, and to put those into the collection too. Why not? It's a real world out there."

We are talking today about his offering for his spring/summer collection, currently flying out of stores, and something of a departure from Van Noten's signature, more ethnically-informed work. Now, as always, however, the fabrics take precedence, providing the starting point for the collection – although never at the expense of the silhouette, which is just as considerate of its wearer's needs as it always has been.

"The idea was to find things that were aesthetically interesting but which have no connection with fashion at all," the designer says. "I thought: 'What would happen if we use elements on garments that were not created to be printed on garments?'." Van Noten looked at technical drawings of butterfly wings from the 17th century and at 18th-century black-and-white etchings of landscapes. "What's on the etchings? A lake and some houses. So, OK, that's the way they used to do it, now let's look at the modern way of doing it. So we have water from the 18th century and we have 21st-century water, too."

Then there's his collaboration with the photographer James Reeve to consider – Van Noten first came across his work at the Hyères International Fashion and Photography Festival in 2010 when he was president of the fashion side of the event, which is aimed at nurturing young talent. "He obviously has a completely different way of looking at cities," Van Noten says. Reeve's night-time images of everything from London's Albert Bridge to the casinos of Las Vegas have a similar quality to that seen when flying over urban spaces at night. Applied to clothing, at first sighting each piece appears to be scattered with tiny jewels. It is only when looked at more carefully that these patterns reveal themselves to be figurative. "We had to find a balance between the prints and achieving a garment that is nice to look at and, especially, nice to wear."

You do indeed, but there is something uplifting about wearing an oversized cotton dress or vest that turns out to be printed with blue sea, green palm fronds or ancient black-and-white sycamore trees – or indeed all of these things at the same time. "The danger with prints like these is that we would end up with very simple sack shapes – you can't use too many seams," Van Noten says. The solution? The cut of the garment looks to mid-20th-century Spanish and Italian haute couture – and to Balenciaga especially – for inspiration. "French couture at that period was very Cardin and Courrèges," Van Noten explains. "Whereas in Spanish and Italian couture it was more about lace and about ruffles – olé, olé! – and I like that much better."

Dries Van Noten was born in Antwerp in 1958. His grandfather was proprietor of a men's ready-to-wear clothing store in the city. His father was responsible for a larger designer clothing boutique in its suburbs. "It was a completely new concept," Van Noten remembers. "Until that point, all the stores were in the city centre. This was destination shopping ... on a Saturday people would drive to the store. It was menswear, womenswear, childrenswear, there were small fashion shows every weekend." Van Noten's elder brother and two sisters were at university studying by this point, so he used to join his father after school and do his homework there. His mother also owned a clothing store and collected antique linen and lace. "During the school holidays, I accompanied my parents on buying trips to Milan, Florence and Paris," Van Noten says. It is fair to say, then, that fashion is in his blood.

By the time he was 18, in 1976, Van Noten was ready to enter the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in his home town and to undertake the rigorous fashion course there presided over by the infamous Mme Prigot. "She thought that long hair for girls was untidy, that they had to have a chignon, or she just took them to the hairdresser's herself and paid for them to have it cut off. Oh, and she didn't like knees," says Van Noten now. "She thought the only good fashion designer in the world was Coco Chanel. It was the end of the 1970s. It was punk. Of course, when you have that many restrictions you rebel against them and that makes things quite interesting.

It is the stuff of legend that, with Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee and Walter Van Beirendonck, Van Noten formed the Antwerp Six, perhaps safe in the knowledge that few outside their native country would remember, or even be able to pronounce, their individual names. In 1986, and with Van Noten having worked as a freelance designer since graduating in 1980, they drove their collections to London in a van and took the biannual collections in the British capital by storm. They were all completely different, both personally and professionally, of course, but they shared a belief that it was possible to break from tradition and to create innovative fashion without outside financial support. It says something of those involved that, to varying degrees, they went on to do just that. Although Van Noten remains friends with most of his contemporaries, he brushes off any suggestion that there is a shared Belgian aesthetic. "But we maybe do look more at clothes piece by piece. That's why shops can easily sell Belgian designers, because they can mix their clothes with other things."

Van Noten's own pragmatic approach is certainly refreshing. "Doing only the creative part of the job would be boring," he says. "In the end, it's all part of the same thing. What's the point of designing something if afterwards you don't know whether it sold? It's not that if something sells really well we're going to repeat it, because everyone who wanted to buy it has done so already and will want to move on to something else. But it keeps me in touch. I keep in mind what people want and maybe also why they want it. Did other countries buy it? Yes, no. Why did a collection not sell very well in one country when it sold fairly well in another? Maybe the balance of certain shapes wasn't right, the volumes were too oversized or not oversized enough. It's interesting. I like to look at that."

Van Noten says that he is, for the most part, left alone when out and about in his home town. "People recognise me but not too much. I'm more recognised when I walk around in Tokyo or Hong Kong than I am here. And that's good because I'm not really a big fan of that. I like to have my own life. I have my house. I am able to do things I like to do which are not always the most fashionable..." He lives with his long-time partner, Patrick Vangheluwe, and they work together, too. Cooking and gardening are both high on their list of favourite pastimes.

"I think it's the dream of every fashion designer to have six months off," Van Noten says. "To have a sabbatical just once because it all goes so fast. But that's impossible. I'm forced to think about the future because I have a responsibility to the people who work for me and who have been working here for 10 years, as well as to the people who open stores and to suppliers. We have a few thousand people working for us in India who do the embroideries, for example, so I have to make sure that every season I sell so many pieces of embroidery that represent so many hours of work..."

Although Van Noten travels frequently, he's as likely to spend the summer driving around the northern English countryside as fly off to anywhere more obviously exotic. He has spoken in the past of his clothes being inspired "by travel of the mind". Of Paris, where he has a second office and showroom, he says: "I'm always very happy to go to Paris but I'm always, also, very happy to leave. Paris is a city where you need a lot of energy to survive."

Dries Van Noten is Antwerp's most successful designer. His stand-alone store on a corner at the city's centre, around a 15-minute walk from his office headquarters, is a destination for local residents – who queue round the block each time a new collection arrives – and tourists alike. It's an elegant space where staff are attentive and well-informed but never intrusive.

"Antwerp is a very easy city to live in, I think," the designer says. It helps that it is lovely to look at, too. As so too are Dries Van Noten's clothes. They are a multi-faceted, cultural and philosophical reflection of one another in more ways than one. Above all, though, both are somehow modest – this is neither a city nor a fashion designer that likes things loud.

"I don't really want to make clothes that shout," Van Noten says. "I think the people who buy our clothes are quite individual. They're not buying them because they want the label or because they want people to admire that label. They're buying them because they like them."

MODEL: LEAH DE WAVRIN AT IMG

MAKE-UP: EMMA MILES USING JAPONESQUE

HAIR: CHRISTOPHER SWEENEY AT DWM USING BUMBLE &BUMBLE

PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANT: JED SKRZYPCZAK

ALL CLOTHES FROM THE DRIES VAN NOTEN SPRING/SUMMER COLLECTION, AVAILABLE FROM HARVEY NICHOLS, HARVEYNICHOLS.COM; SELFRIDGES, SELFRIDGES.COM; AND BROWNS, BROWNSFASHION.COM.

ALL SUNGLASSES DRIES VAN NOTEN BY LINDA FARROW, LINDAFARROW.CO.UK

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