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The imaginarium of Dries Van Noten
The Belgian designer's vivid imagination knows no bounds, resulting in collections that are kaleidoscopic in their references. On the eve of a new exhibition of his work in Paris, Tamsin Blanchard is granted a glimpse into his world.
By Tamsin Blanchard
There is a corner of Antwerp that belongs to Dries Van Noten. His shop, Het Modepaleis, with its original 1881 sign’s gold art nouveau script lovingly restored, sits on the corner of Nationalestraat, a busy street filled with trams and cars. The distinctive triangular five-storey building (a bit like the Flatiron building in miniature) has all the grandeur of a small department store. When it came up for sale in 1989 Van Noten, who had launched his label in 1986, decided to buy it. It was an audacious move for a fledgling fashion company, yet the shop is now a landmark, the designer’s
indelible stamp on the city.
But when I visited recently the shop was closed, empty apart from the last few boxes of autumn/winter stock being packed up ready to be replaced with the new collection for spring/summer. "Here in Antwerp we have a tradition that we do sales and then we clean up the store," Van Noten told me. "We put the new stuff in and then we open up with the new collection." It is apparently busier than the first day of the sales, with die-hard fans queuing to be sure to get the particular pieces they want.
There is something charmingly old-fashioned about this tradition. There are very few fashion houses that would shut up shop for a week to give it a lick of paint and change from one season to the next. But Van Noten likes to do things his own way, running his business entirely independently. He has two more standalone shops in Paris and more than 500 stockists worldwide, and his annual turnover is estimated to be about €55 million. His core business is still clothing, which makes up more than 90 per cent of his output (in contrast to the big luxury fashion houses, which focus their sales on bags and shoes). Van Noten takes his collections to Paris four times a year (twice for women and twice for men), working with the show producer Etienne Russo, who started out as a house model in the 1980s. Van Noten asked Russo to help with his first men’s show in 1991, and Russo went on to set up his own show-production company and now works with Lanvin, Hermès and Chanel. The Dries Van Noten headquarters are in an impressive 43,000 sq ft warehouse he bought in 2000. "In Paris or London, this building wouldn’t be possible," Van Noten said. "We are independent and we are successful, but I don’t have the financial power of the big groups."
I met Van Noten at the end of January. It was just over a week after his men’s show in Paris for autumn/winter 2014, and a month before his next women’s show and the opening of the first major exhibition of his work, on March 1. Dries Van Noten – Inspirations will occupy two floors of Les Arts Décoratifs, next to the Louvre, in Paris. It will display Van Noten’s work beside relevant clothes from the museum’s archive as well as paintings, film, and art and photography from Van Noten’s own eclectic collections.
Van Noten’s red-brick warehouse overlooks the grey water of Willem Dock. His office is at the front of the building, on the fourth floor – a raw industrial space with bare brick walls and a large desk, which he told me came from the boardroom of a leading Belgian brick manufacturer. The tall cupboards behind the desk were salvaged from the city’s Court of Justice. They were designed to hold barristers’ robes. Van Noten bought the court’s entire contents to furnish his headquarters; the oversized cabinets and dark wood furniture give the cavernous space the atmosphere of an old clerk’s office.
Van Noten was dressed conservatively, in a navy jumper and khaki trousers, with a checked scarf tied around his neck as though he was feeling the cold. His grey-brown hair was neatly cropped. He poured us each a glass of water and we sat at the smaller worktable in front of the boardroom desk. Next to us was a long strip of black fabric keeping the swatches for his next collection tantalisingly hidden from view.
Harry, the handsome five-year-old Airedale owned by Van Noten and his long-term partner in life and business, Patrick Vangheluwe (who joined the company as Van Noten’s right-hand man in 1987), was lolling in his basket. Harry occasionally gave a bit of a howl when he wanted some attention, and at one point Van Noten held a napkin around his chin as he noisily lapped up water from his bowl. "He has a beard, and if I didn’t do this he would clean it on somebody’s pants," he said.
"The exhibition is a bit scary," Van Noten said when I asked him about his preparations for the upcoming event. "It’s not an identity crisis, but you start to question yourself. Is my work worthy of being shown in a museum? Do we have enough pieces to show? But also you go back to things you did 20 or 25 years ago and try to analyse why you did certain things, why you made certain decisions. The good thing about fashion is that you always go ahead, the next, the next, the next – you don’t have time to look back."
His early archives are sketchy; they don’t really start until 1994. Before that clothes were too precious a commodity to hang around in the studio. "At that time every garment represented money, and as a young company we needed money, so of course we paid models with clothes and we sold as much as we could," he said. He managed to get his hands on two pieces from his final degree collection in 1981 when his sister-in-law came upon them while moving house.
Working with Les Arts Décoratifs has been an inspiration in itself. "When Pamela Golbin [the chief curator of Fashion and Textiles at the museum] approached me, her idea was to confront my work with pieces from the museum." As well as 16th- and 17th-century textiles, which he loves, the archives are full of rare pieces of 20th-century fashion history. "They have a lot of personal collections, so if they have pieces from Coco Chanel, quite often they are from her personal wardrobe," Van Noten said. "So of course being able to work with all that and to dive into their archives – that was amazing. That really made me feel like a spoilt child."
Dries Van Noten was born in Antwerp in 1958. His father was a fashion retailer and his grandfather had a tailoring business. Dries is the youngest of four – he has two older sisters and an older brother. "I was a kid at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, so a lot of things changed. You had pop music coming up, with David Bowie, you had new television programmes and all these things. I was fascinated." At that time his father started Belgium’s first high-fashion destination store, so he travelled with his parents on buying trips to Paris and Florence. "It was an amazing world."
His father had hoped that he would do a business degree and continue the family business, but Van Noten opted for design instead, and his parents told him that if that was what he wanted to do, he would have to pay his own way. That was probably the making of him. He started at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1976 and financed himself by designing for other companies. Not only did he want to design clothes, he wanted to prove that he could make a business out of it, too.
Van Noten’s class went to Paris to see the shows. "It was very exciting to sneak into the shows and I am still grateful to Bill Cunningham [the veteran New York Times photographer], who always helped us. He used to say, 'Shows have to be seen by young people – it’s for you to be stimulated, not just all those old people who are sitting there.' I have really nice memories about that."
With ready-to-wear becoming more important than haute couture, the fashion establishment in Paris was breaking down. "That was such a change in thinking about fashion," Van Noten said. In Italy Armani and Versace were shaking up men’s fashion; in Paris, there was Claude Montana, Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier. "Then you had Westwood, you had Galliano, you had Katharine Hamnett with the big T-shirts, you had the Japanese, you had the Spanish. You had punk, you had New Romantic. All these things happened in those six years [from 1976], so it was incredible. Going from [wide] shoulders by Montana like that to black sweaters with big holes in them from Comme des Garçons. We just wanted to see and understand and learn all these things."
Despite all that, not to mention the burgeoning punk scene in Antwerp, for the head of fashion at the Academy, the formidably strict Madame Prijot, fashion meant one thing: haute couture. "Chanel was her goddess," Van Noten said. "It was good that Madame Prijot was really old-school; the combination with the new times worked very well."The new guard needed something to rebel against, and rebel they did.
Van Noten’s contemporaries at the Royal Academy included Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Marina Yee, Dirk Van Saene and Dirk Bikkembergs. In 1986 the Antwerp Six, as they became known, hired a van and drove their collections to the London Designer Collections. They managed to attract the attention of Barneys (which bought Van Noten’s first collection) and were invited to show together at a trade show in Florence the same year. In 1988, in an interview with the Six, Van Noten told Elle magazine, "We don’t want to become a little Paris. We want to stick to Antwerp and keep our own image and spirit."
In 1993 Van Noten presented his first women’s show, in the ballroom of the Hotel George V in Paris. He later described the collection as "delicate, fine dresses with rose prints and a rather Indian influence", which was very different from what anyone else was doing at the time. One of the most seductive things about his work is his ability to transport his audience to far-flung corners of the world. In any one collection there might be elements of folk costume from Uzbekistan, silks from Japan, traditional embroideries from India, or a photograph of a cityscape in LA. Over the years his shows have been staged to feel as though they are part of an Indian street market, or a Moroccan souk. But he doesn’t have the time to go off on long adventures. He may drive to England, making a circular trip from Andover to Hull, taking in some English countryside – "England, even in the rain, is really beautiful," he said, "the countryside is so amazing" – but for more exotic climates he travels in his mind, transported by a painting, a location in a film or an image in a book. "Sometimes to stimulate your imagination you have to be
careful you don’t have too much information. You can Google something and it’s in your face, pow! You don’t have time to dream any more about it. I like it when you have something happening by coincidence. Just something in a book is enough. But I prefer a fragment of an image so you are far more free to bring in elements of your own."
For his spring/summer 2012 collection Van Noten incorporated images by the British photographer James Reeve, whose work Van Noten had seen at the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography when he was on the jury in 2010. The collection mixed images of tropical jungles with antique etchings, Balenciaga couture shapes and the photographer’s atmospheric Lightscapes images. "It was a great experience collaborating with Dries," said Reeve, whose work will be part of Les Arts Décoratifs’ exhibition alongside the dresses he helped to create.
Van Noten invited Reeve to Antwerp to see test prints to ensure that he was happy with the quality of the printing, and for Reeve it was great exposure, leading to exhibitions and a commission from Louis Vuitton. The collection was, according to Van Noten, also one of the most imitated he has ever done, with close copies appearing on the high street. "Even with all those fairly complicated prints, that idea was easy for high-street companies [to copy]. You take another photo of the sea and another etching and another jungle print and you combine these in stripes and hey, there you have it!" He laughs, but it is obviously not really a laughing matter. Ultimately, all a designer like him can do is move on. "Even if [the collection] sold well, what sense is there to redo that? We do something else. Let’s surprise ourselves and push my creative team further so it doesn’t become too much of a formula."
There are always surprises, and pieces that are more fanciful than practical: a dress so heavily beaded that you can barely lift it off the hanger, or a tunic trimmed with enough feathers to give the wearer a sneezing fit. There are always pieces that are breathtaking in their craftsmanship as well as the elegance of their design. And there are always opulent fabrics that make no business sense to create. For spring/summer 2014 there is a tulip brocade that is a replica of a piece of silk brocade from 1889 that Van Noten found in the archives of Les Arts Décoratifs. "We got permission to remake it completely – as close as we could get, because even with the technology we have now we can’t make what they did in the 19th century," he said. He worked with the specialist Mantero silk factory in Como, Italy, to reproduce it. "We could then use it to make contemporary clothes, which to me was an incredible idea." He loved it so much he used it inside out as well as the right way round. "You get those bunches of silk yarn hanging and that was for me as beautiful as the right side. It’s not really wearable because it will get caught on a handbag or you won’t be able to get into a car without it being stuck somewhere. But it was too beautiful a thing [that shows off] the skills and craft of making fabric."
But Van Noten is not a self-indulgent designer. He also makes clothes to be worn. There is always a perfect balance of the masculine and the feminine, the ethnic and the urban, the antique and the modern. He must be credited with the trend for wearing skirts over trousers and even makes an all-in-one version with a skirt built into the waistband of the trousers. And every piece has been thought about to the point where the position of every pocket and the size of every stitch can be justified. It is for this reason that, while most fashion houses produce commercially lucrative extra collections to bridge the seasons between their main collections, Van Noten refuses to show more than the two collections a year each for women and men.
He leaves nothing to chance. The spring/summer 2014 Dries Van Noten collection for women comprised 50 looks shown on the catwalk and 600 pieces for the world’s most prestigious stores to choose from. "I want time to mature the collection and make a selection so it’s not rush, rush, rush. I don’t want things that are obvious in the collection. I want to rethink it, rework it, add other elements, take things away – and that takes time."
For autumn/winter 2014 he started working last October on fabrics, which are made by mills from France to India, to ensure they were ready to be signed off before Christmas. The collection then had to go into production and he would be selling it from the fifth-floor showroom by the end of the following week. "How could I do a pre-collection in between? You could do that but you become more like an artistic director, and you have a team working out your ideas, and that for me takes the fun part away, because I like to be creative and to create and to work with my team."
Preparations and painstaking organisation go on before every collection shows, but this week will be one of Dries Van Noten’s hardest. His show for the autumn/winter collection is on Wednesday afternoon, and there will be a party to preview the exhibition the following night. I asked him if he still gets nervous before shows. "People always think that after all the shows you do and all the crazy things you do, you have to be confident." He laughed. "Forget it! It’s getting even more scary every time." Just to emphasise the point, Harry let out a bark. "It goes from worse to worse. In shows we like to take risks, and of course you don’t know how the press and the customers are going to react."
And in the end that is perhaps what keeps Dries Van Noten fresh, and why his exhibition will be worth a Eurostar ticket. "It’s rare that a creative person is willing to allow people behind the scenes and share that creative process," Pamela Golbin said. "Dries is quite discreet in the way he works and the way he lives so it is astounding that he opened up."
Even if it is just a gold ruffle or an embroidered belt, a small piece of Van Noten’s endlessly textured world goes a long way. "It’s playing with ideas, thinking about elements, playing with fabrics. I think now even more with the movie of Saint Laurent," he said, referring to the newly released film Yves Saint Laurent, "people get this very romantic vision of a fashion designer who in one night makes 25 sketches and in the morning throws them on the table and there are a lot of women in white aprons with the pins on the lapel and they start to grab the sketches and..." He paused. "It’s not like that. Forget it! It’s lists, it’s computers, it’s meetings, it’s planning, it’s organising. It’s all these things."
Dries Van Noten – Inspirations is at Les Arts Décoratifs from March 1 to August 31