THE ANTWERP ONE
By Susannah Frankel
Dries Van Noten's company is located in a five-storey former warehouse in the old port of the city of Antwerp. It is here that precious works of art were stored and protected during the Second World War. Once a down-at-heel wilderness - "full of crumbling buildings, this place was old and neglected", as the designer puts it - since Van Noten's arrival at the turn of the millennium, the district has become a fashionable marina complete with quayside museum, bustling cafés and more.
From the top floor of the by-now lovingly restored and quietly impressive place, the views over the city, including the famous cathedral with the Rubens' altarpiece, are spectacular. Much of the raw structure of the building has been preserved and it is furnished by an eclectic mix of antiques. Van Noten is an avid collector and so, when the Antwerp courts of justice chose to rid themselves of any original 1930s fixtures and fittings, he was only too happy to take them off their hands.
There's a black, high-shine 1960s sofa here, oil-painted portraits of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium in gilded frames there, all of which form a perfectly harmonious and relatively domestic counterpoint to a sense of industry and modernity that is also very much in evidence throughout.
On the third floor, bolts of fabric from past seasons are piled up on shelves alongside zips, buttons and labels. Van Noten's labels are distinctive, as the size of the garment is printed beneath his name. Although the complex nature of his design process renders his twice-yearly collections more difficult than most to copy, the archive is a precious commodity and is closely guarded for that.
It is testimony to the fact that Van Noten's rise to success was a gradual one that it dates back no further than the mid-1990s. Until that point, and still struggling to make ends meet, he paid his models in clothes, as was the custom with any up-and-coming name worth his or her credentials at the time.
Van Noten's office and studio is on the fourth floor. He's dressed today in smart blue chinos and sweater and is kept company by his dog, Harry, a magnificent Airedale terrier with a butch bark and a gait like a prima ballerina, all out-turned toes. "Harry is a lot of work," Van Noten says. On weekdays and when he doesn't have the run of the designer's famously lovely garden at his 19th-century home on the outskirts of the city, Harry has his own unusually glamorous dog walker.
It's more than 30 years since Van Noten founded his business. With a turnover estimated at around €50m a year, it is a minor miracle that the label remains entirely independent and ultimately under the control of this unassuming and highly civilised man. In the last decade of the 20th century, when corporate superpowers were snapping up each and every designer name they could get their hands on, Van Noten resisted the temptation to play along.
"I thought at certain points that was maybe the way to go, that that was the future. The big groups weren't only buying labels but also all the factories. Our shoes were made in Italy. The heel manufacturer was sold to Gucci, I think, the last manufacturer to the Prada Group and the producer itself was bought by Armani. My most important yarn suppliers were also bought by Prada. And it's still like that at least some of the time."
In the end, though, he decided against it. "That's not my way of doing things. I like to choose my own way forward. I really do want to create something that I, personally, like a lot."
For similar reasons, Van Noten doesn't design a pre-collection or any subsidiary lines, preferring instead to concentrate on two ready-to-wear collections a year for both men and women - all four of which he shows in Paris. "For me, the show is the only moment when I can tell my story," he says. "It's the way I communicate my ideas to the world." The collections are expansive in that they include both high-end and entry-point pieces.
"For me personally, there's too much fashion around in this world," Van Noten says - not something one might expect to hear from the mouth of a fashion designer. "There are too many images, too many impressions and the danger is that the whole thing is lost in one big blur. That's a pity. Before, you had only images from ready-to-wear designers, now there's Topshop, Diesel... Everyone does fashion shows and produces imagery that is as strong as possible, just to attract attention. In the past, it was twice a year for men and twice a year for women and then there was couture. There was breathing space in between."
Given that today's industry is notoriously driven by money-spinning accessories, it is equally remarkable that less than 10 per cent of this designer's business is based on those. "I'm a fashion designer, not a shoe designer," he says by way of explanation. "I like to design clothes. It seems strange to me that people buy a whole outfit in a high-street store, but they still have very expensive shoes. Okay, shoes and bags are important but not so important. The whole thing, the combination of all the elements, is important."
Van Noten chooses not to advertise or bombard celebrities with his designs, although he has dressed Cate Blanchett and Maggie Gyllenhaal for the red carpet. "Who are the clothes for?" he wonders. "It is challenging to create clothes for people who perhaps don't have the perfect body, who aren't a size 38, and to put those into the collection too. Why not? It's a real world out there."
Dries Van Noten was born in Antwerp in 1958. His grandfather was proprietor of a men's ready-to-wear clothing store in the city, and his father was responsible for a larger designer clothing boutique in the suburbs.
"It was a completely new concept," Van Noten remembers. "Until that point, all the stores were in the city centre. This was destination shopping. On a Saturday people would drive to the store. It was menswear, womenswear, childrenswear and there were small fashion shows every weekend."
Van Noten's elder brother and two sisters were at university studying by this point, so he used to join his father after school and do his homework there. His mother also owned a clothing store and collected antique linen and lace. "During the school holidays, I accompanied my parents on buying trips to Milan, Florence and Paris," Van Noten says. It is fair to say then, that fashion is in his blood.
By the time he was 18, in 1976, Van Noten was ready to enter the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown and to undertake the rigorous fashion course there, presided over by the infamous Mme Prigot.
"She thought the only good fashion designer in the world was Coco Chanel. It was the end of the 1970s. It was punk. Of course, when you have that many restrictions you rebel against them and that makes things quite interesting."
It is the stuff of legend that, along with Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee and Walter Van Beirendonck, Van Noten formed the Antwerp Six, perhaps safe in the knowledge that few outside their native country would remember, or even be able to pronounce, their individual names.
In 1986, with Van Noten having worked as a freelance designer since graduating in 1980, they drove their collections to London in a van and took the British capital by storm. They were all completely different, both personally and professionally, but they shared a belief that it was possible to break from tradition and create innovative fashion without outside financial support.
It says something of those involved that to varying degrees they went on to do just that. Although Van Noten remains friends with most of his contemporaries, he brushes off any suggestion that there is a shared Belgian aesthetic. "But we maybe do look more at clothes piece by piece. That's why shops can easily sell Belgian designers, because they can mix their clothes with other things."
Van Noten says that he is, for the most part, left alone when out and about in his home town. "People recognise me but not too much, which is good, because I like to have my own life. I have my house. I am able to do things I like to do which are not always the most fashionable..." He lives with his long-time partner, Patrick Vangheluwe, and they work together too. Cooking and gardening are both high on their list of favourite pastimes.
"Antwerp is a very easy city to live in, I think," the designer says. It helps that it is lovely to look at, too. As, so too, are Dries Van Noten's clothes. They are a multifaceted, cultural and philosophical reflection of one another in more ways than one. Above all, though, both are somehow modest - this is neither a city nor a fashion designer that likes things loud.
"I don't really want to make clothes that shout," Van Noten says. "I think the people who buy our clothes are quite individual. They're not buying them because they want the label or because they want people to admire that label. They're buying them because they like them."
FR L'homme d'Anvers
Susannah Frankel rencontre Dries Van Noten, l'une des grandes stars indépendantes de la couture
La société de Dries Van Noten se trouve dans un ancien entrepôt du quartier du vieux port, à Anvers. L'arrivée de Van Noten au tournant du nouveau millénaire a marqué la renaissance de cette partie de la ville, autrefois délabrée. Aujourd'hui, s'y déploie une marina branchée, avec en bordure des quais, un musée et des cafés animés.
Cela fait plus de 30 ans que Van Noten a fondé son label. Avec un chiffre d'affaires annuel estimé à environ 50 millions €, c'est un petit miracle que l'entreprise ait pu garder son indépendance, et rester sous le contrôle de cet homme modeste et éclairé. Durant la dernière décennie du 20e siècle, lorsque les grands groupes rachetaient des « noms » à tour de bras, Van Noten résista à la tentation de se faire absorber.
Sa stratégie ? Ne pas faire de pub et éviter de bombarder les célébrités avec ses créations, quoiqu'il ait habillé Cate Blanchett et Maggie. Pour lui « le véritable enjeu d'une collection est de prendre en considération des gens qui n'ont peut-être pas un corps parfait, ni une taille 38. Il s'agit d'être en phase avec le monde réel ! »
Dries Van Noten, né à Anvers en 1958, fait partie du légendaire groupe des « Six » d'Anvers, aux côtés d'Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee et Walter Van Beirendonck.
En 1986, ces jeunes créateurs d'avant-garde débarquèrent à Londres en camionnette avec leurs créations : un véritable coup de tonnerre dans la capitale britannique. Tous - bien que de styles différents - partageaient le même idéal d'innovation dans le monde de la mode, en rupture avec la tradition et sans soutien financier extérieur.
Van Noten réfute cependant l'idée d'une esthétique belge. « Nous regardons peut être plus le vêtement comme une pièce à part entière. C'est peut-être la raison pour laquelle les couturiers belges se vendent facilement. Les boutiques peuvent combiner leur style à d'autres collections. »
Susannah Frankel sprak met Dries Van Noten, een van de briljantste onafhankelijke modeontwerpers van nu
Het bedrijf van Dries van Noten is gevestigd in een voormalige opslagplaats, in de oude haven van Antwerpen. Sinds de komst van Van Noten werd de wijk een trendy marina, compleet met museum, gezellige cafés en nog veel meer.
Ondertussen bestaat het bedrijf van Van Noten al meer dan 30 jaar en met een omzet van naar schatting € 50 miljoen euro per jaar, is het een klein wonder dat het label volledig onafhankelijk blijft. In het laatste decennium van de 20e eeuw, toen superbedrijven elke designernaam die ze maar konden te pakken krijgen, opslorpten, weerstond Van Noten aan de verleiding om het spel mee te spelen.
Hij wil liever niet adverteren of beroemdheden met zijn ontwerpen bombarderen, hoewel hij Cate Blanchett en Maggie kleedde. "Kleren ontwerpen voor mensen die misschien niet het perfecte lichaam hebben, geen maat 38 hebben, is een uitdaging. En die kleren in de collectie stoppen, ook. Waarom ook niet? De wereld is hard daarbuiten."
Dries Van Noten werd in 1958 in Antwerpen geboren. Samen met Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee en Walter Van Beirendonck vormt Van Noten de Antwerpse Zes.
In 1986 reden ze in een bestelwagen met hun collectie naar Londen en ze palmden de Britse hoofdstad meteen in. Zowel persoonlijk als professioneel verschillen ze sterk van elkaar, maar ze geloven dat het mogelijk is om zich van tradities los te rukken en vernieuwende mode te creëren zonder financiële hulp van buitenaf.