Dries Van Noten prefers a personal, passionate touch in his fashion shows
Belgian designer tries to steer away from trends
Fashion shows these days have evolved from exclusive, intimate affairs to full-scale PR events complete with celebrities and plenty of paparazzi. Among the few exceptions are the Dries Van Noten shows. Held twice a year in Paris they are hot-ticket events: the Belgian designer has even brought editors to tears with his extremely personal presentations.
In the past he has had models walk down a chandelier-lit dinner table seating 500 guests or lounge across a glossy carpet of moss-like wood nymphs, reminiscent of a scene from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. (The 48-metre-long carpet, custom made by Argentinian designer Alexandra Kehayoglou, will go on display at PMQ this week).
For his autumn-winter 2015/16 show, they glided down the catwalk to a soundtrack of popular songs by female vocal artists sung a cappella.
"It's the only moment when I have 10 minutes to show the world what I want to express through my collections and what my feelings are," Van Noten says. "That's why after each show I go through some sort of postnatal depression.
"I am not afraid of emotion; for me fashion and emotion are kind of linked. There are a lot of designers who try to banish everything which is emotion from their clothes and shows. At the same time, I don't make pieces to put in a museum. I want to see men and women wear my clothes."
It's this mantra that has made Van Noten a favourite with not only editors, but also regular women around the world. Since launching his label in 1986, he has received many accolades, such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America International Award, and has cultivated an empire of men's, women's and accessories collections that sell worldwide.
Last year Van Noten received the ultimate accolade when he became the subject of a major exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Titled Dries Van Noten: Inspirations, it showcased the designer's motivations from people to fiction, highlighting the inner workings of his creative mind. Along with 180 of his creations, there were curated artworks including masterpieces from Yves Klein, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst.
"It was scary when they first approached me for the exhibition," Van Noten says. "Initially, they wanted to combine my work with pieces from the museum's archives. At the same time, I did not want a retrospective; I'm only halfway through my career. We talked about inspiration, and this mixture made sense."
After Paris' successful run, the show opened last month in Antwerp. Van Noten says it is quite different to its predecessor because of new artworks and a more intimate setting.
"It was very intense. We worked on the show for two years, and Antwerp started as soon as Paris was done. It's difficult to say whether it's changed me. I don't know how I would be if I hadn't done the exhibition. I guess I am still who I am, just with an exhibition in my pocket," he says.
Van Noten has stayed true to himself throughout his three-decade career. A third-generation tailor, he grew up surrounded by fashion. His father owned a concept boutique featuring high-end designers and his mother ran a Cassandre fashion franchise.
He attended Antwerp's Royal Academy and was one of the Antwerp Six who put the city on the fashion map. He launched menswear first, then womenswear (both initially featured the same fabrics), and a boutique soon after.
"It's difficult to say why I chose fashion," Van Noten says. "It was a natural choice, because it gives so much freedom ... We can create something that can touch a person in their soul."
From his first collection, Van Noten has marched to the beat of his own drum, producing clothes that favour individuality over trends. His works are characterised by an understated grace and elegance; yet there always seems to be a tension between two worlds: modern or antique, ethnic or Western, masculine or feminine, tailored or free spirited.
But ultimately, his creations are wearable, allowing customers to play around each look as they please.
"I haven't stuck to one aesthetic. I want to move forward, but I don't need to shock to do that. Gentle progression is enough," he says.
"Every season I have to surprise myself and the team. I'll say if we did this last season, start all over again with something else. Even if the end result is or isn't close where you ended last season, the trip of the creation is the most interesting." His autumn collection, Grounded Glamour, is a case in point. Military-style garb, be it military-style bomber, cinched peplum jackets or trailing capes are paired with gilded embroidered skirts or wide legged trousers for a take on easy glamour. As usual, his embroideries and fabrics are mind-blowing from the peacock sequins and embroidered Chinoiserie dragons to the 3D scarab-shaped paillettes.
"It's surprising at the moment to me, but men are more fashionable than women. They dare to go further. Women are just scared to go fashionable - it's not safe, it's boring! The collection is a reaction against that. I wanted to have fun with clothes. We looked at images of Jane Birkin, Isabella Blow, Anna Piaggi - strong women with an opinion who didn't care at all and wore clothes they liked."
While many of his peers produce six to eight collections a year, Van Noten produces only four (two for men, and two for women) due to the labour-intensive nature of his custom fabrics, which are made in countries including India and Italy. There's another reason he prefers to stand apart from today's fashion scene.
"Fashion doesn't exist any more," he says. "Look at what's happening. The high street stores and all the fashion holdings with press ... The whole system has killed itself a little bit I think. The red carpet, the celebrities, so much has changed. I like the fact you show something on the catwalk and have to wait a while to get it.
"This idea of 'click to buy now' is something quite scary for me. The time you have to wait for it to come into store creates such a special feeling ... You won't buy it and feel special any more if a celebrity has already worn it."
This is also how Van Noten runs his business and personal life. The brand is completely self-financed, and although it has various social media accounts, he eschews paid celebrity endorsements and advertising campaigns, preferring to remain discreet and understated.
"I am proud we are completely independent and self-financed," he says. "Now you have conglomerates, so it's hard for young designers to stay independent even if they wanted to. I have my responsibilities to those who have invested in stores with us and our manufacturers. I just want to do what I feel right for me and my company.
"At the same time, I don't think I am an outsider. I am very much a part of the industry. It's not like I don't want to have anything to do with it; I just don't feel I need to attend every party in Paris ... I have other things to do in my life than being everywhere on the red carpet."
Perhaps that's why he prefers to be based in Antwerp, where he shares a beautiful 2.8 hectare estate with his partner just outside the city. He spends as much time as he can gardening, which is his passion.
"I love gardening. It's the right balance of two things," he says. "Life now is so social and fast, fast, fast, while gardening has a slowness, yet you have an immediate result. You can mow the grass and see the results an hour later. Fashion for me is long term. I create the fabric, and it takes weeks before it arrives, or a few months.
"That being said, I don't think I would ever give fashion up for gardening."