July 14, 2024

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Dries Van Noten Discusses Retirement, Design and the Antwerp Touch [INTERVIEW]

About to take his final runway bow, Dries Van Noten confessed to feeling a roller coaster of emotions.

“As nerve-wracking as ever, maybe more because, of course, the pressure is on. I think the expectations are high,” the Belgian designer related over Zoom from Antwerp, referring to preparations ahead of his swan-song show on Saturday night in Paris, some 38 years after he launched his brand.

The day before the interview, Van Noten gave a final inspection of the spring 2025 menswear collection before it hit the runway.

“Everything was hanging there and that was kind of difficult,” he said ruefully. “I usually enjoy that moment, when you confront the whole color evolution and everything you want to show hanging there on six racks. I realized that was the last one, and at that moment, I thought, ‘Maybe not such a good decision.’”

The designer stunned many in the industry when WWD broke the news in March that he would be stepping down after nearly four decades in fashion — and a glorious fashion career plying dignified dressing tinged with lavish color and exotic details.

“Some days I think, ‘Oh, the best decision I could take.’ Then sometimes I think, ‘My goodness, what have I done,” the 66-year-old designer said, admitting he’s still unsure how he’ll feel after Saturday’s farewell show, sure to be one of the most poignant moments of the week.

It is understood many of his designer peers will attend, to cheer a fashion hero.

“Of course, I’m going to miss a lot of things,” Van Noten said. “But on the other hand, I will stay connected with the company. I’m not completely closing the door. I’m going to have an advising role. I’m going to be busy with makeup and beauty. I’m still going to be involved in store designs…but collections, that’s not going to be my job anymore.”

Asked about his final effort, Van Noten didn’t give much away, but said it would not be a retrospective.

“The idea was not to look back. Of course, people who know me will recognize certain themes, small details and certain elements which are coming back,” he said. “But it’s a collection [that] takes a few steps forward. I didn’t want to be nostalgic, but look to the future and make a collection where there’s quite a lot of experiments of materials, and things like that.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Van Noten reflected on a fashion career perhaps best described as a slow build, marveling how he and his classmates in fashion school managed to make their hometown in “the very unfashionable country of Belgium” a beacon of innovative style.

The third generation of his family to work in the apparel business, Van Noten studied fashion at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In 1991, he and Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee piled into a van, drove to Paris to show their wares, and took the city by storm, becoming known as “the Antwerp Six.”

Dries Van Noten and the “Antwerp Six” photographed on London’s Abbey Road in 1987. Photograph by Philippe Costes

“I think it’s a coincidence,” Van Noten replied when asked to account for the phenomenon of so many breakout fashion stars from one obscure little city. “The teaching was not really at a very high level at that time. The fashion school was still very, very small.”

What they lacked in academic excellence, they made up for with hard work, imagination, ambition and hope, knowing a recent graduate of the academy, Phara Van Den Broeck, had achieved her dream of getting a job with Gianni Versace, then a fashion superstar alongside Giorgio Armani.

“As a group of friends, there was a healthy competition between us and we stimulated each other to go forward, to do more and to do better,” Van Noten said. “I think we learned more from each other than from the teachers.”

Upon graduation, success did not come immediately, and Van Noten designed childrenswear, tennis clothes and active for mostly Belgian clients, channeling his earnings into establishing his own label, starting with menswear in 1986. He got his big break when Barneys New York placed an order.

Designer Dries Van Noten photographed in front of his newly opened boutique at ‘Het Modepalais’ in Antwerp  on October 4, 1989.

Dries Van Noten in front of his Antwerp boutique in 1989.

Dominique Maitre/DNR

Attention from Amy Spindler and Alexander Lobrano, then editors at DNR, the-then menswear cousin of WWD, also propelled the profile of his fledgling label, which already displayed Van Noten’s penchant for rich fabrics, colors, patterns and embroideries.

Linda Loppa, formerly head of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts fashion school when it produced a second wave of Belgian talents including Veronique Branquinho, Haider Ackermann, Kris Van Assche and Demna, summed up the essence of Belgian fashion in a 2006 WWD interview, by which time Van Noten was a pillar of the international scene.

“In the shops, Belgian designers have a good sell-through. It’s not always in the window, but it’s what people buy. You always find good trousers, good sweaters, good jackets,” she said at the time. “We’re too focused on a good garment, that the fit is good, the sizes are good, the delivery is good, that it’s selling. It’s a very honest way of working.”

The models walk the runway at the finale of the Dries Van Noten Spring 2002 Ready to Wear collection

The finale of the Dries Van Noten spring 2002 show.

Delphine Archard/WWD

To hear Van Noten describe his approach, it’s easy to understand why ready-to-wear has long represented close to 95 percent of his business. He considers accessories as merely icing on the cake.

“I need shoes and bags to come to complete the image. But I’m still a garment designer, I love to design clothes,” he said.

“First, I create a total image, and a story which I want to tell with the collection. But then afterward, I design all the garments on their own — so the jacket separately, the pants separately, the shirts separately. Every garment must have a sense, a reason to exist, so that you can wear them in a lot of different ways,” he said. “It’s not only clothes [that] work well in certain combination, and certain styling — they all have their own individual value.”

To be sure, Belgian designers ply a range of looks and moods, all the way from Demeulemeester’s dark, goth-tinged romanticism to Van Beirendonck’s playful and wacky avant-garde approach.

Van Noten agreed there’s not a Belgian look in fashion per se. “It’s more the way we look at fashion. It’s the way that we make fashion happen. And the way that we create our companies,” he said.

Indeed, Belgian designers are known for persevering with a business approach that is often the polar opposite of today’s luxury giants: no advertising, no celebrity dressing, no handbag push, no pre-collections and no glitzy destination shows.

Especially at a time when everything is dictated by big groups, that individuality can still exist and work in a very successful way…is an important achievement.”

Dries Van Noten

Van Noten said he simply pursued his design passion — garments — and did not set out with any specific business roadmap or checklist as he grew his independent house, which in 2000 moved into a vast five-story brick building in Antwerp’s port area. Architects added a roof pavilion as a showroom to the 1905 structure, previously a warehouse.

Dries Van Norton

Dries Van Noten

Kuba Dabrowski/WWD

“The company always has been growing in a very organic way,” he said, describing himself as “a young guy from Belgium…trying to see if we could do something [that] would be picked up by stores.”

Van Noten described his business approach as trial and error.

“You know, once we did two pages of advertising. If I remember it well, I think they were in Vogue International, and either The Face or iD,” he said, recalling a moment in the ’80s when his business started to flourish and he could finally afford two pages.

“That was the most stupid thing I could do, because all the other magazines who photographed and featured our clothes were angry,” he recalled. “It was clear that either you do a campaign and you put it in all magazines, or you don’t do it at all.”

His reticence goes further because an advertising image showing a look or two could be offputting.

“If you have to choose the type of men or the type of women, the age, the attitude and everything, some potential clients might think that they are not part of your world, so you limit a little bit the possibility of clients,” he said. “I prefer to design collections for an ageless person. I couldn’t really say, ‘Oh’s she strong or soft, old or young.’ For me, it was really important to keep it neutral.”

Hence he decided to spend his money on fashion shows, at which he could show “a much more diverse group of people” and build his image that way.

Dries Van Noten fall 2009

Giovanni Giannoni

Asked to name some of his favorite shows, Van Noten was reticent but cited a few: his 50th show, formatted as a grand dinner at a long table strung with chandeliers that later became the runway for his spring 2005 womenswear; his fall 2009 Francis Bacon-inspired women’s collection, that tilted him toward a more daring use of color, including “not-so-pretty” ones, and his fall 2011 David Bowie-inspired men’s show at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris, an electrifying display that triggered a more freewheeling, bold approach to styling.

He also gave special mention to his ravishing spring 2020 women’s collection, which he codesigned with Christian Lacroix. “He was so inspiring and so much fun to work with, so humble,” Van Noten enthused. “He’s such a fantastic person and I’m also very proud of that collection.”

The designer credits veteran show producer Etienne Russo for mounting impactful shows with creative staging, and pacing. “We still are a very good team, we stimulate each other to think bigger and bigger — within the financial possibilities we have.

“I’m a storyteller. For me a collection belongs in a certain atmosphere,” he mused. “It’s not only the clothes, but it’s the environment and you can imagine the soundtrack with it.”

A model walks down the runway at the Spring 2005 Dries van Noten show in Paris.

A model walks down the runway at the spring 2005 Dries Van Noten show in Paris.

Giovanni Giannoni

Van Noten went against the grain in remaining independent, resisting overtures in the late ’90s and early 2000s when Europe’s luxury groups — Kering, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Prada Group — were snapping up designers and heritage brands left and right.

The designer admits conversations were held, “but at the end we decided to stay independent….I always thought that our individuality was part of our strength.”

As modest as his forever uniform of navy sweaters, white shirts and chinos, Van Noten demurred when asked about his legacy and proudest moments.

He allowed that he’s proud of the family atmosphere of his company, and that he approached fashion in a way different from most.

“Especially at a time when everything is dictated by big groups, that individuality can still exist and work in a very successful way — and even inspire and stimulate other people — is an important achievement,” he said.

Dries Van Noten and model backstage

Dries Van Noten and Christian Lacroix backstage at the spring 2020 show.

Swan Gallet/WWD

It is understood Van Noten has also been approached for creative director openings at several prominent European heritage houses over the years.

He declined to name names, while acknowledging “there have been requests. But I always knew that that, for me, working on my collections was already so intense. That’s also why I never made pre-collections and things like that. My men’s and women’s collection require all my energy all my time and all my energy….I always wanted really to focus on the collections of my own house.”

Van Noten comes from a family of tailors and launched his label with menswear in 1986. He established his flagship store, known as Het Modepaleis and located on the site of a historic department store, in his hometown in 1989. It remains a destination today for disciples of his aesthetic.

Backstage at Dries Van Noten fall 2011 men’s show.

Delphine Achard

A beloved figure on the fashion and retail scene, Van Noten has won numerous awards, including the WWD Honor for Designer of the Year in 2023, and the CFDA’s International Designer of the Year in 2008. He has also been decorated by Fashion Group International, the Couture Council of the Museum at FIT and the Flemish Royal Academy of Belgium.

A 2014 exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris probed how pop culture, fine objects and paintings shaped Van Noten’s aesthetic, also detailing his career-long collaboration with embroiderers in India.

Pamela Golbin, who curated that exhibition, said the goal was to share the designer’s deep love for fashion, and his wish to bring joy and emotion through exceptional know-how.

“Within fashion’s ecosystem, Dries occupies a special place, choosing the path less traveled.…Dries has always done it his way,” she said, lauding his “indelible stylistic vocabulary where textile design, prints and embroideries were the focal point of real clothes.”

Model on the catwalk

Model on the catwalk at the spring 2020 show.

WWD

Proof that Van Noten always did things his way: He was a ringleader during the coronavirus pandemic to help slow down the fashion system.

A so-called “forum letter,” signed by many top retailers and brands, sought to better align fashion deliveries with seasons and snuff out early markdowns in the name of greater sustainability and respect for the creative process.

“I have to admit, not a lot happened,” Van Noten said of that grassroots movement. “During the pandemic, there was a lot of enthusiasm. But unfortunately, immediately afterward, the power of the big groups became even bigger, the shows became even more extravagant, and the locations of the big destination shows became even further away. So it would be a lie to say that we achieved something.”

But from his side, Van Noten said his company, which already exerted strong control over its pricing, sharpened its priorities and focused on “how we can attract even more customers in stores and what we can do to give a different store experience.”

Dries Van Noten counts 10 retail stores and more than 400 retail accounts globally, with 500-plus doors total. He opened his first mainland China store in Shanghai, and his first U.S. store in Los Angeles in 2020, followed by a location in Chengdu, China, in 2022.

Those latter openings, plus his entry into the beauty category, came to fruition after he sold a majority stake in his namesake house to Puig in 2018. “We knew that we needed strong shoulders to do the next steps,” he said.

Since linking up with the Spanish beauty and fashion group, Van Noten has opened more freestanding boutiques, launched a range of fragrances and lipsticks, finally entered e-commerce, and combined his fashion and beauty worlds in a newfangled boutique concept in Paris that mingles accessories and beauty products. Puig also fortified management ranks at the company, tapping Axel Keller, who had been chief executive officer of Jil Sander, as president.

In disclosing 2023 financial results, Puig flagged that Van Noten ranks as its fastest-growing niche brand. (Its fashion portfolio also includes Carolina Herrera, Jean Paul Gaultier, Nina Ricci and Rabanne.)

“It all went really well. I’m very happy and still very happy with that decision,” Van Noten said of his partnership with Puig, and a transaction that set the succession roadmap playing out today.

“We looked at the brand, its heritage and archive and we said, ‘OK, there is enough material that the brand can continue to exist and that maybe other designers can look at our heritage and do something very interesting with it,’” he said.

Dries Van Norton

Dries Van Noten

Kuba Dabrowski/WWD

As reported, the women’s spring 2025 collection, to be presented in Paris this fall, will be done by the studio team. It is understood Van Noten will not play a role in the selection of his successor or successors.

To be sure, future creatives at Dries Van Noten arrive at a house synonymous with ravishing colors, striking prints and dignified dressing tinged with exotic details and embroideries. The legacy he leaves includes a formidable supply chain that includes a network of embroidery houses around Kolkata, India.

Backstage at Dries Van Noten Ready To Wear Spring 2024 on September 27, 2023 in Paris, France.

Backstage at Dries Van Noten’s spring 2024 show.

Delphine Achard for WWD

Van Noten first visited the Asian country in the early ’80s with a friend who did business there for his mail-order company. “The moment I started my brand, I was interested in working there,” he said. “We do the same with all our fabrics. We work in a very long-term way with all our suppliers.”

But what now for Van Noten, with no more collection deadlines staring him down?

“We’re going to take a rest,” the designer exclaimed, the “we” referring to his partner Patrick Vangheluwe, who is creative director at the company and is also retiring. “During my fashion career, we never went on long holidays, maybe eight or nine days was our longest,” he said, noting their first destination would be Italy’s Amalfi coast. “We’re going to stay at least 10 days immediately after the show, which is the first time that we’re going to stay for such a long time in our house in Italy.”

Dries Van Noten with models backstage

Dries Van Noten with models backstage at the fall 2017 show.

WWD

Van Noten might also spend a little more time poring over restaurant menus. Given his formidable workload at his fashion house, he explained that his sweater and pants uniform freed him each morning from the decision of what to wear, while in the evening he would — without fail — go for the dish of the day.

Beyond that, he has new creative projects up his navy sleeves, though he’s not spilling yet.

“I have a lot of ideas and projects in my head, because I really want a lot of young people around me in my studio,” he said. “I have a very young team of people working with me creatively and they stimulate me, they nourish me, they teach me a lot and I really want to continue that. I don’t want to lose contact,” he said.

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