Fashion: Backdrop: This man is what he wears: Dries Van Noten - What's good enough for his collections is good enough for him. Tamsin Blanchard reports
Friday 14 October 1994
We are in his clean, white Paris showroom the day after his show. He apologises for looking 'a little tired' as he agrees to be photographed. Designers have been known to have nervous breakdowns around collection time, but not Dries Van Noten. He is as calm and cool today as he was backstage during the show.
His eyes are glued to the video. 'Look at this,' he says, hitting the freeze-frame button. 'These are really the underskirts of Fifties couture dresses,' he explains of his wispy tulle and satin evening gowns layered over starched cotton skirts. 'They were fun to make.'
For Dries Van Noten, work is fun and he rarely stops. In his unassuming, introverted way, the designer keeps the strictest control over his company. 'If I lost control, it would scare me,' he says. It is important that everything has his personal touch.
His reputation is as great for his menswear as his womenswear, a rarity in fashion. He wears his own menswear (surprisingly many other designers do not). And in each collection for women, there are enough different silhouettes to flatter a range of tastes and shapes. The knee-length skirts might be cruel for a woman with chunky legs, but for her there are skirts falling to mid-calf or ankle.
He is Belgian, and a product of his country - fastidiously organised and approachably egalitarian. He designed not just the clothes, but the elegant, peachy shoes as well as the hand-embroidered and beaded scarves. And Dries himself searches out all the prints, whether from Fifties Italian souvenir scarves, men's ties, or Asian sari prints.
Van Noten is rare in being a fashion designer who appeals to three different camps: the young and fiercely funky, the more grown-up fashion establishment and women who simply stumble across his clothes in department stores.
'People are surprised at this collection,' he says. 'Surprised because I decided to present it in a couture atmosphere in the George V Hotel, with hair-dos and high heels.' But it is an evolution, not a revolution. His womenswear connects with his menswear - is almost its fiancee - with tailoring bound by tradition while at the same time being relaxed.
His soft, gentle suits appeal to those men who do not really like suits and would not normally buy obvious designer clothing. His male fans, especially Europeans, now recognise one another as members of a secret club.
His womenswear appeals chiefly because of Van Noten's unusual feeling for the sort of elegant but forgiving clothes that women want to wear. On the invitation to this week's show was an 18th-century French quotation that translates as: 'Every woman needs a touch of the coquette, just as every strawberry needs a grain of pepper.'
The clothes are subtle; he wants women to wear these clothes as they like. 'Women want to be women again,' he says. And that does not exclude anyone with hips wider than a broom handle, legs shorter than a giraffe's, or anyone over 22. Modelling in his show this week were young and not-so-young women, women who weren't models, skinny women and curvy women - heights ranging between five and six feet.
The 36-year-old designer graduated from the Royal Academy of Antwerp and became part of the 'fashion famous' Antwerp Six, formed purely because it was cheaper to show as a collective than alone. Its members were renowned as much for their unpronounceable names as for their clothes. The group also involved Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs.
Their first joint collections were shown in London in 1986 and are remembered for their romantic presentation and exquisite tailoring, unusual in young designers. Even the invitations looked like wonderful worn old books. Dries Van Noten's collection then was whimsical and sold immediately to Whistles in London and Barneys in New York. It was a more than promising start and a wise move to make a debut in London, which, he says, is better for young designers than Paris: 'Buyers go to London for new things but in Paris, they don't have time.'
It was in 1991 that he held his first catwalk show in Paris. Since then, he has become an internationally established name and a creative and commercial success. Dries Van Noten's turnover last year was around pounds 13m, which is moderate compared with Paul Smith's current turnover of pounds 65m. However, the pressure of being designer of the moment - to produce a hit parade each season - is daunting to him. 'I don't like success so much. It is not a comfortable situation.'
But while other designers have their moments only once, Dries Van Noten's star promises to shine on.
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