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For decades, Belgian designer Dries Van Noten has created sumptuous, singular fashion. In an age of tattered luxury, he has also become an icon — of independence, idiosyncrasy and, above all, the enduring power of creative freedom, writes Hanya
N BELGIUM, in the meadows outside Antwerp, in a garden stalky with delphiniums, the fashion designer Dries Van Noten is considering a rose.
Van Noten, who is 59, is one of those rare people who actually resembles his photographs; not coincidentally, perhaps, he also has a face and a form that look like they might be easy to draw, a single pen line dragging down the page, an image blooming beneath it. He is slim but not skinny, tallish but not tall, greying but not grey, with a spare, symmetrical, planar face and small, dark eyes. His hair is neat, parted to one side and scraped back from his forehead, but the effect — like that of his white button-down shirt — feels less severe than, somehow, touching; one can see in him the echoes of the good Catholic schoolboy he once was.
The rose Van Noten is frowning at is a vivid, deep pink, a Schiaparelli shade, and as he lifts it, gently, with his fingertips, it’s unclear what he wants to say about it. He looks almost angry at it, but when he speaks, it’s to praise the flower; it opened late, and stayed open longer than he anticipated. He hadn’t expected it to deliver on its promise, but in the end, without him noticing, it had. He lets go of the flower gently, the blossom nodding on its stem.
It’s a cool, damp late afternoon in July; the sky is vast and low, a hammered pewter.
We move on. Along with the delphinium garden, there are, among others, an early-summer rose garden (now mostly deadheads, the few remaining flowers ragged and wind-stripped); a Piet Oudolf-designed border of grasses in various shades of yellow and gold; a centuries-old wall against which trees bearing fat, vaguely erotic, doughnut-shaped nectarines have been trained to climb, vinelike; a plot of tangled, prickly gooseberry bushes; a canopy of sweet-smelling linden — an organised patchwork of different styles and species.
The 55 acres surrounding the designer’s house have been planned so that some part of the grounds will always be fecund and some part will always be fallow: birth following death following birth. The effect is like moving through the botanical realisation of a symphony — one section ends and the next begins, so that while you experience the garden as a whole, there are certain passages brighter with colour than others.
For anyone who knows and appreciates Van Noten’s clothes — 64 seasons of men’s wear, 60 seasons of women’s — these gardens feel both familiar and startling. Familiar because in them, one finds the colours, the unexpected juxtapositions, that one recognises in his designs; startling because it is rare to see, in such an intimate way, the origins of a creative mind’s inspirations.
But if the gardens are, at least to some extent, the source of some of Van Noten’s inspiration, they are also a metaphor for the daily difficulties of running an independent fashion label with the degree of autonomy and oversight that Van Noten has. As we walk through an allée of topiaried cypress, Van Noten says that he and his longtime partner in both business and life, Patrick Vangheluwe, often joke that they’ll someday write a book titled “The Depressed Gardener,” about all the things that can go wrong in a garden, no matter the allowances made for changing climates, unpredictable weather, rapacious insects and on and on.
You plan and plan, he says, and something always goes awry anyway. The depressed gardener knows that. He also knows, however, that it is simply what happens when you try to control what cannot be controlled — to be a depressed gardener is to live in a state of constant humility. But it also means a heightened ability to appreciate the strange gifts that circumstance sometimes affords. It means living a life of unknowns, large and small, and yet never ceasing in one’s attempts to coax beauty from even the most forbidding, the meanest of places; spots of earth everyone else has overlooked.
Trying to explain the fever that Van Noten’s clothes induce to someone who’s never seen them is an unsatisfying task, because they in many ways defy what we’ve been taught to admire in contemporary fashion. You don’t, for example, buy a Dries Van Noten dress or shirt or skirt simply for its cut. The shapes, some of which appear season after season, are conventionally feminine and invariably flattering, smartly crafted and architecturally sound.
A Dries Van Noten midi-length dress will always be draped in just the right way, so that it allows the illusion of a waist without actually defining it; a Dries Van Noten skirt, a straight sheath of lightweight silk, will always be slim enough to just skim over the hips, but not so slim that it impedes movement. But they are never transgressive, and they are not invitations to reconsider the female form. Cutouts, extreme dimensions, shoulder pads, extravagant volume — you will rarely find these in a Van Noten garment.
And yet in a strange way, Van Noten’s closest peer might be his apparent opposite, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, whom the designer admires and who is, like Van Noten, a member of the very tiny 100-percenter club, internationally-recognised fashion designers who own and oversee virtually every aspect of their businesses. (Other members include Giorgio Armani and Raf Simons.) Not aesthetically, of course — Kawakubo’s work is consistently, defiantly avant-garde — but what defines both of their work is an inimitable perspective, a refusal to concede to trends or whims.
Their work is instantly recognisable as their own, and because the pieces they produce originate from a single mind, a single vision, they are almost impossible to copy or duplicate (not well, anyway) — a Dries Van Noten piece will never be mistaken for anyone else’s. Fashion, these days, is often meant to stand for something — it is meant to disrupt, to challenge (sometimes literally), it is increasingly expected to have a political statement to share; Van Noten’s fashion, however, stands for nothing but itself, and for the obsessions of the man who created it. It is cool instead of hot; it encourages interiority instead of provocation. In an age that rewards the person who can shout the loudest, the truly radical act is the embrace of the subtle.
Van Noten’s great gift is colour. No living designer understands it as well as he does; no other designer has such a rich vocabulary of tone and hue that certain shades, once seen, are impossible to associate with anything other than his clothes. Dior may have had his New Look; Van Noten has a particular blue — brighter than indigo, blacker than a cornflower, deeper than the Pacific. There is also a Dries Van Noten yellow (a rich, yolky marigold); a Dries Van Noten green (the gleaming, dense color of an emerald placed on a square of dark velvet); a Dries Van Noten red (cinnabar-ish and slightly chalky) and a Dries Van Noten purple (a dusty eggplant).
But it’s not just the colours themselves that make Van Noten’s clothes so memorable, so resonant; it’s what he does with them, forcing them into strange relationships and juxtapositions that, if you encountered them only as words — persimmon and seashell; compost and moss — might sound unlikely, even occasionally unpleasant. In reality, though, the couplings are revelatory, so effortless that they ask you to reassess the limited way we’ve been encouraged to see colour in the first place — why, after all, can’t iris purple pair with camel? Why can’t dulce de leche brown coexist with kelp blue?
VERY one of Van Noten’s shows force these reconsiderations, but my favourite is probably his fall 2009 ready-to-wear women’s collection, which appeared, if you blurred your vision a bit, as a series of tonal, Rothkoesque blocks, each hue dyed to just the point where it almost became some other color altogether: a claret-y red-purple sweater above a lichen-y blue-green skirt; a peachy pink-orange skirt worn beneath a grassy gold-green shirt.
The clothes in that collection were lovely for other reasons, too — there were sharp, cinch-waisted coats and slouchy, insouciant sweaters (a Van Noten specialty) and a skirt made of soft tiers of shirred and frayed silk that seemed to float in the air like milkweed fluff — but it was dominated by an abstraction, the suggestion that fashion might be not just about how a garment feels on the skin or how it intimates the figure beneath, but about how it tries to express and make sense of colour — the natural world’s most enduring, bewitching and elusive bestowment.
We have grown used to speaking of designers as loving a woman’s body — this usually means that they either make clothes that are very sculpting, or clothes that are deliberately unsculpting — but Van Noten’s clothes seem made not so much for a woman’s body as for a woman’s mind: You are drawn to his work because you want to find yourself closer to the person who, you imagine, shuts his eyes and sees such a glorious jumble of colour.
Along with colour, Van Noten also has an unrivaled sense of pattern. The designs that ornament his clothes allude to everything from Qing Dynasty decorations and the paintings of Francis Bacon to Ottoman-era iconography and the artist James Reeve’s photographs of cities at night. All designers take from cultures and periods and artists foreign to their own experience, of course, but too often, their tributes feel costume-y, suggesting an invented passion rather than a real one. Van Noten’s borrowings are less literal than they are gestural — yes, the pieces in his fall 2012 collection were covered with stylised Chinese dragons and phoenixes (rendered in a vivid, imperial saffron), but they were pieced alongside shimmering stripes of vermilion and jade of the sort that adorn the canopies of tantric Buddhist temples in Nepal, and Japanese cranes stitched in gold and frozen in midflight. The difference between a designer and a copyist is that a designer makes his source material into something else, something his own; he doesn’t just present it, unchanged and unsynthesised, as work he’s created himself.
Curiously, it is in his wide-ranging eye, in his knowledge of textile and artistic traditions from the world’s great civilisations, that Van Noten announces himself as Flemish. Designers these days rarely work where they were born or became adults — to be in fashion now is to exchange actual citizenship for the parallel universe in which the industry operates, a universe consisting of Milan, Paris, London, New York and maybe Tokyo — and yet Van Noten, who is as well-travelled as any of his peers, continues to reside and work in Antwerp, where he was born, raised and educated. (His current estate, Ringenhof, an 1840s neo-Classical stone house built for a local beer brewer, is a peaceful 30-minute drive from the city centre.) When Van Noten was a child, Antwerp was mostly a quiet, bourgeois town, and yet fashion, the idea of it, wasn’t an impossible concept for him. His father, himself descended from a family of tailors, owned several boutiques and made regular trips to Milan and Paris to buy polite, well-constructed Italian and French wares: shoes from Ferragamo, shirts from Charvet.
As a teenager, Van Noten acted as the buyer for the children’s department. The stores would occasionally host Saturday-afternoon shows, local models spinning through the space while wearing the season’s new offerings. In making their lives in textiles, in fabrics, in goods from all the countries and cultures surrounding tiny Belgium, the family was following in the Lowlands’ centuries-long legacy of trade, joining the generations of burghers who let their fingertips trace over foreign silks and foreign wools, who measured foreign dyes and foreign powders. If you were a wealthy 13th-century merchant in Bruges, 60 miles west of Antwerp, you would, in a real way, spend your lifetime encountering patterns and colours from lands you could only imagine through their material goods; wonderment would be in your blood. To be Flemish — as Van Noten adamantly is — was to spend your life looking outward and beyond.
This perspective may explain in part why the arrival of the so-called Antwerp Six — a group of early ’80s graduates of the fashion school at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts that included Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Walter Van Beirendonck, who together mounted a now-legendary, semi-guerrilla-style show in London in 1986 — was more of a surprise to the rest of the world than to the participants themselves. (Martin Margiela is a contemporary of the Antwerp Six, though he wasn’t part of that initial presentation.)
AN NOTEN crossed into adulthood in the 1970s, in the early years of modern cultural globalisation, when ideas and aesthetics and music and art travelled faster and farther than ever before in human history. You could be an adolescent in Antwerp and hear punk music from London or West Berlin, and suddenly you would understand that someone out there was creating something that you could be a part of, that you could participate in, that seemed to communicate directly to you. You were seeing images in magazines and on television of people your age or a little older or a little younger doing things that you too might be able to do, and it was transfixing, transformative.
For Van Noten, that person was David Bowie, and years later, he paid homage to him — his narrow, bladelike suits, his languor and loucheness — again and again. And it wasn’t just in fashion: All over, in countries both free and not, young people were realising that what might unite them wasn’t family or heritage or nation, it was music or art or theatre or film. They were creating the new wave, the avant-garde, but they had begun doing so as a way of seeking some sort of greater connection — as a way to reach somebody else.
After the London show, Van Noten returned home and started selling. He had begun his business in men’s wear, and one of his first (and most enduring) clients, Barneys New York, had simply bought the smallest sizes from his collection and sold them as women’s wear. Three years later, in 1989, he moved his small boutique into a five-floor former department store in a run-down section of town and began in earnest the business of being a fashion designer.
He never stopped. Absent from Van Noten’s three-decade career are stories of bankruptcy, strife, irresponsibility, overleverage, overexpansion, overspending or unhinged, dangerous effulgence. He worked slowly and carefully; he did only what he wanted to, when he wanted to. Along the way, there were challenges (global recessions, a luxury market that grew ever more fickle, trends and fads and gimmicks to withstand) and triumphs: a women’s boutique in Paris in 2007; a second in Tokyo and a men’s wear boutique in Paris in 2009; a sumptuous exhibition, “Inspirations,” one of the few granted to a living designer, at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2014. But what remained constant was Van Noten’s discipline, his aversion to self-indulgence, to folly, his adherence to a rigour that announces itself in his designs and in his conduct: a sense of discipline that, paradoxically, has earned him extraordinary artistic freedom.
He has to make compromises — every creative person does, in one way or another — but he rarely has to make concessions. Today, he controls every element of his business. (He collaborates on the line’s shoes with a manufacturer.) He will tell you, without apology, that he wants his clothes to sell; that he makes his clothes to sell. His business, its longevity and health, is a reminder that one of the most seductive fictions of fashion is that it exists as a pure aesthetic expression — and yet those who believe this are those who disappear after a year or five, comets whose tails fade quickly into the glittering black.
VISIT to Van Noten’s offices, now headquartered in a 60,000-square-foot, six-floor waterfront warehouse, recalls in many ways a visit to his gardens — here is Van Noten’s other world, or a continuation of it, the place where he executes those ideas, those images, those strange colours he imagines while strolling among Ringenhof’s hollyhocks and smoke trees.
If you begin at the top floor showroom and work downward, you can see the entire operation unfold before you, from the design team’s desks, some fitted with a little cabinet stuffed with scraps of deliciously coloured swatches of silks, jacquards, wools, jerseys and cottons, and continuing down through the financial department, the sales department, the production and distribution departments and the archives. But it is the ground floor — the shipping department — that is somehow both the most moving and most impressive.
When I visited, the first deliveries of the fall collection were arriving. Each garment is sorted, inspected and then boxed. Van Noten wandered through the maze of boxes — stacked several high, almost scraping the ceilings — pointing out which was going to Moscow, which to Hong Kong, which to Singapore, which to New York; along with eight boutiques, the collection is sold in more than 400 stores worldwide. He appeared, in those moments, a touch bewildered — or maybe simply awe-struck. It was a Willy Wonka kind of fantasy, to stand in a building in your hometown among hundreds of cartons packed with things you had dreamed up, all of them destined for places that you might never have imagined visiting as a child growing up not far from here, but now would be worn by people you would never meet in lands your ancestors would never have been able to see for themselves.
By now it was time for lunch, which would be served in the studio. Back upstairs we entered a high-ceilinged, near-empty room, where the page proofs of one of the designer’s upcoming books, a career survey, were laid on the ground. Last March, in Paris, Van Noten mounted his hundredth show, a joyous anthology of his signature, most Dries-like patterns and textures from across the years, many worn by some of his earliest models, now mostly in their late 40s. It was a reminder of the totality, the singularity of his vision, of how each season is in conversation with the last, of how, when you see a Dries Van Noten collection, you are seeing the latest installment in the sartorial equivalent of what the novelist David Mitchell calls an “über-book”.
All of his works (in Mitchell’s case, fiction; in Van Noten’s case, fashion) are part of some grander mosaic that is visible only to its creator, and yet, equally, are revealing of some invisible part of its creator’s mind. This is why you can wear a Dries Van Noten dress or shift or skirt from any season at anytime, and although fellow members of the Van Noten tribe will recognise it as his, it will always look relevant, and surprising — a chapter in a book you love, but not one that is immediately nameable.
Here, at our feet, were images from every season, every collection Van Noten has ever designed, all arranged in neat rows. Here was the Turkish-inflected fall 2006 collection, with its patterns of Mughal-esque tulips, blown up exaggeratedly large, and the India-inspired fall 1996 show with its translucent, shocking chartreuse blouses and fragile, sparkling, sari-like column skirts. Together, we ambled up one row and then down another, looking at the photos at our feet, bursts of colour against the cool cement. I asked him the lazy question you should never ask any artist — did he have a favourite look, a favourite show? — and he, like most artists, demurred. But then he corrected himself — most of the collections were represented by only six pages, he said; if he really liked them, he might have devoted eight to them, or 10, or even 14.
Once again, we began to move, counting the pages, calling out to each other — 10 — 12 — and pausing at particularly striking works: a chiffon and burnt velvet caftan, a men’s coat so heavy with embroidery it resembled armour. If every life is a collection of images, too many to process and too many to remember, then this book was, in a real way, his life, or part of it, anyway — a beautiful life, one perfect in its wholeness and conception. To see the world as Dries Van Noten does — what would that be like?
We stopped before a picture of one of my favourite dresses, a gently draped silk sheath, its top a pattern of slashy lilac dashes against a bark-colored background; its bottom an almost Impressionistic blur of blue irises. I remembered this collection, this piece: It was from spring 2008, and I didn’t have the money to buy it. I would go to the store and try it on, and then I would have to leave it behind.
“This is one of the most gorgeous things I’ve seen,” I said.
Artists, no matter how well they might learn to project otherwise, are rarely humble people. Or rather, they are and they aren’t — to be an artist is, often, to live in the thin, unhappy space between arrogance and self-hatred, with one word tipping you over the line in one direction or another. Maybe that’s not the case for Van Noten, who doesn’t brag, doesn’t boast. But for a few seconds, he didn’t speak. His handsome face twitched into a suggestion of a frown. He stared at the dressas he’d stared at that rose, that rose that had so surprised him.
“A beautiful dress,” I repeated. He continued looking at the picture of that dress on the ground before us, something so lovely — the dull shimmer of the silk, the Dries Van Noten blue of the flowers — that not even he could claim otherwise. Sometimes, even the Depressed Gardener’s only move is to surrender to the enchantment of the thing before him.
“It is,” he said.
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