It’s a beautiful, sunny morning in Antwerp, Belgium. The sky is bright, darkened only by a few clouds that are quickly pushed away by the strong north wind. Facing the Scheldt, the long river that stretches across the city, is the headquarters of Dries Van Noten. His office is located in a stately dark-brick building with big windows that face the port. Sparsely furnished, it seems like an architect’s studio. There are two long shelves with a few books. A sculpture of an elephant, a vase of fresh peonies and a coffee maker sit on his light-wood desk. In the centre of the room is a seamstress table, and there are two bowls next to his dog’s bed on the parquet floor.
Van Noten usually resists talking to journalists. Born in 1958 in Antwerp, he is the most celebrated member of the “Belgian School.” Along with Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Van Saene and Marina Yee, he is one of the legendary Antwerp Six. (Martin Margiela is often considered the seventh member.) In the mid-’80s, they stirred up controversy with their minimalist designs amid the baroque fashion of the time.
The head of the group, Van Noten was the first to go out on his own immediately after graduating from Antwerp’s Royal Academy in 1986. His official runway debut took place in London with menswear. In 1987, he showed women’s prêt-à-porter. Five years later, Van Noten showed at Paris Fashion Week, where his was one of the most anticipated shows. From the invitations to the location, makeup and casting, everything in his shows is characterized by touches of poetry. The collections have been shown in the shadows of clouds circling the crystal arches of the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, under the thunder of tropical rain recreated in a greenhouse, on a long carpet of gold leaves and in a local market—transformed into an Indian bazaar for the occasion—on the outskirts of Paris. His inspiration often flies to distant places: from Morocco to Rajasthan to China to Japan. The Dizionario Della Moda (Dictionary of Fashion) describes Van Noten as "eccentric, but in the right measure.” He chooses precious fabrics, sartorial details and sophisticated colours that contrast with simple and defined forms. ELLE caught up with the designer in Antwerp.
Is it true that if you don’t like a certain colour, you tend to use it the most?
“There are always hues that I don’t love and that I initially exclude, but then I realize that every colour, if used correctly, can be beautiful. There are nuances that may be horrible on silk but fascinating on wool or a synthetic fabric. Nevertheless, I’m often attracted to what I don’t like. For me, immediate beauty is empty. When something disturbs me, I analyze it until I appreciate it. This also applies to music and gardening—my hobbies. Even with flowers, I am always looking for new combinations. For example, I just bought orange roses, which I usually dislike. If I mix them with other plants, I’m sure I’ll find the right combination for my garden.”
How is a collection born?
“Inspirations can be disparate. Sometimes it’s a phrase, a poem, a painting, a film—or even a gesture. Like the time I told my assistants that we had to create a collection by imagining that we were doing it for a woman who drinks dry martinis. A woman with a martini in her hand moves very differently from one who is sipping tea, and her wardrobe is different too. The second step is to choose the fabric. Like tubes of paint for a painter, the rolls of fabric are the material with which I create. There are designers who are capable of creating incredible collections using only black gabardine and white poplin. Not me: I need my wools, silks and embroidered fabric. They are part of my education. I remember that when there was something to celebrate in my family, my mother would set the table with an heirloom tablecloth. Without fail, part of lunch was dedicated to stories about lace and embroidery. Textiles fascinate me, the way they did when, as a child, I listened to my mother.”
When you create, do you have a female icon in mind?
“Absolutely not. And that is one of the strong points of my house. If I were to start by having a specific woman in mind, my clothes would be tied to a single female type. I want to make clothes that flatter many different types of women, in terms of age, lifestyle and shape. Today, women have different expectations; fashion has become too much of a status symbol. For me, on the other hand, clothes are a way of expressing yourself, a way of revealing something about yourself—or something behind which to hide.”
Your shows are poetic…
“I love the poetic aspect in me and my work—and in the shows, above all. For me, the shows are important because they are the only way I have of communicating with the public. The set, the music and the lights all have to really tell the story of the collections. I am very reserved, and I like to think that the shows do the talking for me.”
Maghreb, India, China…judging by your shows, you travel a lot.
“I travel a lot less than you think! For a Moroccaninspired collection, all I need is a photo or small piece of fabric; for the rest, all I need is my imagination. That way, I can make truly unedited connections. I don’t want to take the risk of replicating reality.”
What makes Dries Van Noten fashion uniquely “Belgian”?
“Probably the king’s portrait hanging in the office entrance! Seriously, though, today everything lacks boundaries, so you can no longer speak of fashion as being Italian, French or Japanese. When I began, there was a very strong sense of a ‘Belgian’ influence. But those were the ’80s, when we had a ‘national school.’ Today there is globalization, and, as a result, many of my employees are Japanese, Swiss, Korean and Moroccan.”
What is the “Belgian” look in the fashion of Dries Van Noten?
“Discretion! I was given a very strict education by the Jesuits, and, consequently, I prefer not to show my emotions.”
What were your favourite subjects in school?
“I loved design, but I detested the hours of Latin. During my years at the Royal Academy, I very much loved the fact that during this period, the fashion department was a small section that was part of the Academia d’Arte. Therefore, besides the required courses, we were able to study with artists and sculptors. This opportunity expanded my artistic vision enormously. One of fashion’s defects is to be self-referencing or self-conscious.”
Even though you have shown your collections in Paris, you remain in Antwerp. Why is that?
“It’s my city, and it’s a very charming one. I could never live in Paris, London or New York. Big cities require a lot of energy, and everything is complicated. Here, everything is close at hand. I walk everywhere—rather, I’m pulled along by my dog! Also, remaining in Antwerp has permitted me to be independent. Certainly there are many disadvantages— the production, above all. We lack the private companies and the industry of Italy and France. Belgians have to invent new solutions. Perhaps this is why we tend to be experimental. I try to change, to evolve, even at the risk of failure—in my private life as well. When I enter a library, I don’t only search for the authors and subjects I love; I venture toward unknown areas. In life, every day should be a discovery!”
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