The Life, Liberty and Legacy of Dries Van Noten
The Life, Liberty and Legacy of Dries Van Noten
- Words Skylar Bergl
- Date March 21, 2017
The best fashion designers are able to navigate the crowded industry with no gimmicks, who rely only on the ability to distill their vision into well-crafted garments that do the talking instead of themselves. There may be no better modern example than Dries Van Noten.
One of fashion’s most revered names and a member of the iconic Antwerp Six, the Belgian fashion collective that famously made a name for itself in the '80s, Van Noten has been a long-standing icon within fashion. Since he showed his first menswear collection in 1986, he’s been a constant, almost steadying influence on the industry and he’s done so all on his own.
In an era defined by revolving doors at the biggest fashion houses, hyper-trendiness and the instant satisfaction of social media, Van Noten's brand remains independent and his clothes refined. The recipient of numerous awards, designer of choice for many red carpet celebrities and one of the most cerebral designers of our time, Van Noten has ebbed and flowed his way to success for decades and that is only just the beginning.
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Dries Van Noten was born in Antwerp in 1958 to a family of tailors and textile industry workers. Naturally, he spent most of his younger years working in the family business, learning the skills needed to design clothing and helping out at the fashion boutiques the family would come to own, selling Salvatore Ferragamo and Ermenegildo Zegna. That work and education led straight to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts where he enrolled in a fashion course, met the other students who would later become the Antwerp Six and applied some of his skills as a freelance designer outside the classroom. From the beginning, Van Noten’s life has been defined by some form of fashion.
In 1986, five years after graduation, Van Noten officially started his label, beginning with menswear, and opened a small boutique at a gallery before moving the store to a larger shopping mall called the Het Modepaleis where his flagship remains today. The building itself evokes many of the same descriptors as Van Noten himself. Retaining many of its original fixtures and regularly undergoing restoration, Het Modepaleis is something of an elegant classic, which describes much of Van Noten’s work.
In the more than three decades since its founding, the Dries Van Noten brand has become the gold standard for many designers looking to emulate a successful independent label. He’s opened boutiques in select cities around the world, from Paris to Hong Kong, the list of his awards ranges from the 2008 CFDA International Designer of the Year to the Gold Medal from the Flemish Royal Academy of Belgium, and he's presided over multiple film festivals and the 2014 museum exhibition featuring his designs at Museé des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Part of Van Noten’s approach lies in flouting the unspoken rules of fashion. He refuses to bow to trends, focusing instead on translating his vision into simple, elegant collections. At a time when big-name fashion houses produce collections year round in locations around the world, Dries Van Noten shows just four collections per year because he doesn’t like showing anything you can’t buy in a store, saying “it would be impossible to develop any sort of interesting fabrics” if he did more. Purposeful or not, that mentality helps make each collection timeless and each piece covetable in its own way. He also shirks advertising and when celebrities want to wear his designs on the red carpet, they’re often bought by the star themselves, not loaned to a stylist. Meanwhile, he could rack up millions by licensing the Van Noten name to fragrance companies but instead chooses to work with boutique fragrance maker Frederic Malle on just a single scent.
Still, even with all these self-imposed limitations on the brand, it still reportedly brings in nearly 50 million euros per year. All that success led to a beautiful 1840s home in Lier, Belgium Van Noten has shared with his partner Patrick Vangheluwe since the late ‘90s. If anyone in this world has earned it, Dries has.
Van Noten’s ability to juxtapose unexpected fabrics for both men and women is matched by few and his tendency to combine the casual with the elegant—playing with both ends of the spectrum, offering entry-level and luxury pricing within one collection—defines his approach.
As some designers, like Thom Browne, have achieved success by diligently adhering to a single look, Van Noten experiments often and while he avoids the trend cycle, his designs run the gamut from elevated basics to embellished outerwear fit for royals, who he does occasionally dress. His calling cards are elaborate embroidery, ornate prints and beautiful fabrics often inspired by cultural research he and his team do during the design process. Looking over Van Noten’s many collections, you can clearly see how his color choices transition not necessarily from season to season, but over the course of years with subtle shifts. Staples like navy, khaki, and white are threaded throughout, but other tones, like deep burgundy, darkened gold, stately violet, and radioactive orange splashes, are all favorites of his.
Van Noten is considered by many to be one of the material masters within fashion. His use of silks and sheer along with traditional suiting wools and jacquard makes for collections that are incredibly well-rounded though occasionally unexpected. For example, his Spring/Summer 2013 ready-to-wear collection offered a take on the classically grungy life of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. The opposite end of the spectrum in this situation—a well-off, high-fashion designer offering a take on a man who wore faded flannels—typically comes off as a disingenuous homage, but Van Noten was able to effortlessly pull it off to much-deserved praise.
Some designers get lucky to craft a seminal collection that’s often referenced later on. Van Noten, on the other hand, shows consistently great, regularly elegant work that feels more like getting a “greatest hits” every single season. The idiosyncratic menswear of Fall/Winter 2012 had Dries at his most ‘70s, while, personally speaking, Fall/Winter 2015 is a show I will never forget.
As mentioned, Van Noten’s ability to turn his brand into a successful enterprise on his own is what separates him from many labels in business today. He speaks about it in almost every interview, citing how it’s helped his creative energy and let him remain true to himself: "This independence and liberty meant I was, and still am, able to grow as I wish and to do exactly what I want in a creative sense. It leads me to be able to really do my best to bring out a different personality in each collection that I produce."
While the big fashion conglomerates started buying up smaller brands in the ‘90s, Van Noten avoided being absorbed and remains both the creative director and CEO of his company. This control has helped him avoid the pitfalls of designers working today who sometimes feel like they trade more in social media influence than they do in actual clothing design. Van Noten once told Vogue that the Internet has altered the way many brands order their shows—that today designers put the flashiest look first so readers will click on them.
Van Noten is an ardent opponent of the fact that there is “too much fashion” happening at any given time, which is why he sticks to just four seasonal collections. But perhaps the most important aspect of his independence is that it has helped him stay close to his hometown of Antwerp, where his brand is still based, rather than relocate to any number of the other fashion capitals around the world like many of his peers. We should all be thankful that Van Noten’s beautiful mind wasn’t so driven by money that he sacrificed his creative integrity for a few dollar signs. This unwavering dedication has made his work, and fashion as a whole, better.
There are so many memorable fashion designers working today, but there are few that cut through the noise like Dries Van Noten can. While he doesn’t describe his work as “art,” in favor of designing clothing that is meant to be worn and last longer than the latest trends, Van Noten will go down as one of the seminal fashion designers of our time. He is perhaps Belgium’s greatest and the love for him in his home country is so strong that his Antwerp store has become a destination for locals every time a new collection releases, attracting lines around the block. If that doesn’t tell you how he’ll be remembered and revered, nothing else will.