THE INTERVIEW | Dries Van Noten

Freedom. This first, fundamental word is the key to understanding the world of Dries Van Noten, to open up a universe where everything matches effortlessly, with the style and elegance that is in the Antwerp-born designer’s DNA. Creative freedom that allows him to fly between art and music, design and dance, travel and food and history and the younger generations. And freedom to grow in a “natural, organic” way, as he himself puts it, to flaunt his fashion house’s proud independence. The designer epitomises this independence, acting as the standard bearer for a business strategy designed predominantly around emotions and feelings, similar to those produced by his fashion shows. Like his most recent menswear show, where the models paraded in front of a wall covered with 1200 old car headlights, in a dazzling, magical expanse of light.


Dries Van Noten Fashion Show Menswear Collection Spring Summer 2017 in Paris


Stefano Roncato: You latest menswear show was once again packed full of emotion...

Dries Van Noten: I think it’s important to create and show my collections with a certain vision. But given how things are going, with all this mixing of this and that, of different genders, it was also crucial that this was a men’s show. A masculine men’s show. Men deserve more than just a presentation of accessories.

SR: What does menswear mean for you?

DVN: I like working on men, and I like working for women. From my very first projects I have always been fascinated by mixing elements of the two wardrobes. But at the end of the day a menswear collection is purely by a man, for men. It’s fine for women to buy items for their man. But my concept, my way of understanding the collection, is based around men, and not some kind of middle way between man and woman.

SR: What is your take on what is happening to men's fashion? Cancelled shows…

DVN: Many firms are concentrating on products and not on creativity. But creation is what starts everything off. Business isn't going very well for everybody, but touch wood, we have never stopped growing. It's a big challenge, especially given the recent Brexit, as we don't know what will happen. A lot of people probably think that to get better returns they have to offer more products. But then you have fashion houses launching pre-collections, another collection, a main collection… And people have simply got bored of it. I love fashion, and I've always kept an eye on what people are up to. And it says it all that I no longer look at other firms’ pre-collections - I'm already fed up of them. It's a shame. It’s better to concentrate and draw attention to yourself than to organise shows to display boring navy suits. It's not what people are looking for.

SR: So what do people want?

DVN: I'll make an analogy with food, which, in my view, is equally important. It’s something people are very interested in at the moment. Five years ago, you'd go into a restaurant with three Michelin stars and 50 waiters around you. Nowadays the top restaurants have one chef, one girl serving and a bottle of extremely tasty wine with an unpronounceable name. People are looking for something local. I remember an Italian film where they went back to producing cheese by hand. And that's what's happening. You don't need to build marble temples for your shops, you just need a different product, a different approach. Something we are learning from food is that you can't buy it on the internet. Food is a good learning curve for fashion, to understand how people have started to think. The same is happening for travel. Five years ago, you'd go on holiday to a five-star hotel. Nowadays you go halfway up a mountain where you have to milk a cow if you want any milk. It's a different approach, but it is having an impact on fashion.

SR: Closer to how people live…

DVN: For this fashion show we worked with a calligrapher, a 23-year-old Russian guy. He spends the day writing. His house is covered in paper with all his different styles. It’s great that people have these passions.

SR: What do you think about the new wave from Eastern Europe?

DVN: People might currently be obsessed with Demna (Gvasalia) and Gosha (Rubchinskiy), but I think nowadays creativity is coming from all over the world. In my studio we have guys from Slovakia, Poland, Italy, England, Holland and America. It's an international group, just a group of young guys. They see the same things, read the same things, and look at the same things on the internet or on Instagram. Nationality is no longer so important.

SR: You chose to plough an independent furrow for your fashion house, with a very personal growth model...

DVN: Our business strategy is to not have a business strategy. Joking aside, we obviously do have plans, but growth has to happen spontaneously. Perhaps ‘organically’ is the best word for it. We meet interesting people and good opportunities arise. The same thing happens with shop openings. Opening a shop in Paris was not in our business plan. But we found this space, fell in love with it and opened a store there. That's how we work.

SR: You said you really love fashion. What particular things do you like?

DVN: Everything. We are spoiled working in a sector like this. We tend to undervalue how lucky we are. With interesting things to see and do, young people to invest in, and the unique opportunity to be truly creative. And it's true that as well as making beautiful clothes, you can also make a decent living. Also, new talents have space to make their mark. If you communicate in the right way, you get noticed.

SR: How did you get into the world of fashion?

DVN: I grew up in a shop. My parents had a fashion shore in the countryside near Antwerp. I always travelled with them to Paris, Milan and Florence to buy collections from a very young age. For me continuing in this direction came naturally. When you're small you only have two ways of reacting. Either you hate it and rebel against it. Or you love it. I had two separate educations, at school and in the fashion store. Not to mention my father forcing me to garden. Every weekend I had to do it for him, something I hated at the time. But I’ve ended up loving it. When I was 18 I ran away to the city and vowed that I would never set foot in a garden again. But when I was around 30-35, I suddenly wanted a terrace, pots and a house surrounded by greenery and plants.

SR: What happened to the famous Antwerp Six?

DVN: They're still around. We still see each other, we are friends and in contact. I recently met Walter [Ed: Van Beirendonck] at a fashion show at the Royal Academy in Antwerp. It's a small city, and so we cross paths fairly frequently.

SR: How did you feel when your name was mooted to design for large fashion houses?

DVN: I'm already busy enough with my own collections. Even though I don't do pre-collections, it's a full-time job. I take it all very seriously, and I love the creation part, even the little things. Some great designers come into the office, set out the guidelines and prefer to be away when the team develops the collection. I prefer to be involved in everything, including deciding the size of the stitching or the right crystal to apply.

SR: From David Bowie to the sixteenth century - where do you get the inspiration for your collections?

DVN: It never comes alone or at a single moment. It is always a group of ideas, an atmosphere I want to describe. This season saw a return to craft, to handmade, with rustic materials like linen. When I think of craft, the natural association is with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Revisiting tapestry, for example. But I keep my eyes open to see what is going on. I go to Freeze and see young artists producing ceramics…

SR: Do you collect art?

DVN: We don't collect anything. We buy things we like. Collecting means being obsessed by a certain thing. For me it can be expensive or cheap, valuable or not, something made of plastic found on the street or a beautiful artwork. It can be furniture or art. I don't differentiate.

SR: What you think when you see someone dressed in Dries Van Noten?

DVN: I like it. And I like to see how it is being worn. It's clearly a huge compliment seeing someone dressed from head to toe in my collection. But it's also nice to observe how certain young people interpret it, guys who have to save up their money to buy it, and who buy a T-shirt and wear it in their own personal style, with rolled up sleeves and jeans. Using the clothes to describe something about themselves. Like the models who receive a T-shirt at the end of the fashion show, and who perhaps wear it to the rehearsals for the next season’s show. Completely faded, because they have worn it and washed it multiple times.

SR: It is important to look to the younger generations?

DVN: Of course, because every generation wants to leave its own mark, and show itself in a different light. And nowadays, with social media, you see it. Fashion is becoming an important tool to express who you are and what you do.

SR: What relationship do you have with social media?

DVN: It's part of the world, you can either love it or hate it. Like cars. Do you like driving? But I'm not obsessed.

SR: Are you obsessed by anything?

DVN: Perhaps. But I don't want to give everything away.

SR: Do you have any regrets?

DVN: I am happy with what I have achieved. But I feel that to get this far, I’ve had to take some decisions and make certain sacrifices. But I can't complain.

SR: Do you like how designers are defined, or is it reductive?

DVN: A definition is always limiting in some way. I prefer to think about freedom. Freedom of action, and freedom to work with my team, which is becoming increasingly important because you can't do everything by yourself. You have to be creative as an individual to create a collection, but you have to be even more creative to choose the right people to surround you. To stimulate and challenge them. But also to give them the freedom to go against what you yourself asked for.


By Stefano Roncato - MFF Magazine for Fashion
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