Dries Van Noten on a Life of Fashion, and What Comes Next: “I Loved It, and I Still Love It”

Approximately 36 hours after Dries Van Noten waved goodbye at the closing of his last-ever runway show, the legendary Belgian fashion designer is sitting in his sunny showroom in Paris. It’s another Monday morning at the office, with chicly dressed employees clacking away at computers. Wearing his signature navy jumper with khakis and tan leather shoes, the 66-year-old is brisk and well-rested. “I slept last night, which was not the case the nights before,” he says with a smile.

As we settle in for a wide-ranging discussion about his menswear legacy, his thoughts about the fashion industry, and his future plans, Van Noten starts telling me, almost by reflex, about how he had to split the footwear collection that lines the shelves around us into two parts, something to do with their Italian footwear supplier. “I have to say,” I tell him, “you don’t seem very retired yet.”

Van Noten made headlines earlier this year when he announced his decision to step back from the day-to-day grind of designing four runway collections a year. In this profession, designers don’t tend to know when or how to make a graceful exit. But the clear-sighted Van Noten has always done things on his own terms.

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Photographed by Sam Hellmann

His grand finale took place in front of 800-plus friends, fans, customers, admirers, and peers, including several fellow members of the Antwerp Six, the group of Belgian fashion designers who graduated from the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1981 and proceeded to take the industry by storm. (The crew of longtime friends includes Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee. Martin Margiela is often considered the seventh member.)

In classic Dries fashion, the show was full of clothes designed to make you the most interesting person in the room, intelligent in cut and artful in color, pattern, and texture. But it was not a retrospective of greatest hits, though the cast included several gray-haired former Dries Van Noten mainstays. Backstage after his bow, a clearly overwhelmed Van Noten couldn’t help but gush about the new materials (like crunchy recycled polyesters) he juxtaposed with classic English wools, and in our conversation his eyes glint when he mentions the ancient Japanese printmaking technique he utilized for the first time to create a garden of beautifully muted floral trenches, trousers, and tops. It was a tender offering to the fans who have made his work a part of their daily lives, and a clear message to the as-yet-unnamed successor who will build on his legacy. “They have to dare, they have to move forward,” he tells me. Following the show and an endless number of backstage hugs and selfies, Van Noten danced under disco ball lights until well after midnight.

The next phase of Dries Van Noten’s life will officially start when he returns to Antwerp, before embarking on an eight-day vacation to the Amalfi Coast with his partner, Patrick Vangheluwe, and their dog. As he dispenses with the small talk, I can tell that the designer is eager to go home. But I also sense that he’s not exactly leaving this all behind. “I still have a lot of plans, I’m still going to do different things,” he says in his clipped Flemish accent. “The fashion world and everything, it’s my soul, it’s my life. So it would be strange to now close the doors completely. So, I won’t.”

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