Dear readers – I wrote the below profile of the Belgian designer Dries Van Noten in 2009 for Haaretz Daily Newspaper. It has never been published online in English.
The Man Who Played with Color
One January evening, before the men’s show of the Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, a crowd bustled outside the Musee Bourdelle, tucked away in a side street near the Montparnasse train station in Paris. Outside, the desperate hangers-on were held back by the implacable PR watchdogs, while inside the buyers and the press were trying to squeeze into the tiny Great Hall, where the most prominent statues of Antoine Bourdelle, one of the most prolific student’s of Rodin, stood.
After a game of musical chairs (if this can be said about jostling to find a standing spot), I finally wedged myself next to a statue and prayed to heaven that no one would stand in front of me. An editor next to me was passing time in anticipation of the show by taking hits from a small metal flask. Despite being spatially challenged, the marbled hall had a ceremonial atmosphere, especially with the statue of a horse-rider looming over those of us still alive.
One of the challenges of putting on a show is finding the venue that complements the clothes. As the show began and models descended the stairs in their double-breasted English suits with strong shoulders, trimmed with fur, and full-leg trousers I understood why we had to endure this claustrophobia – the Duke of Windsor himself would not be ashamed to be on that catwalk.
“I was not planning to use this as a venue,” said Van Noten when we talked the next day, “but when I saw it, I said, ‘This is it.’ I really wanted to have something heroic and this was perfect. The architectural atmosphere of the space, the huge white cube and the horse statue – it all looked unreal. It showed the glamorous and the military side of the collection. The military precision that I wanted to reflect was also present in the space.”
The military elements in this collection were distinctly Van Noten’s – his models were not the soldiers in black combat boots and cargo pants. The elegance of their clothes with its heavy gold embroidery harked back to the officer uniforms of the nineteenth century. “Military is always there in menswear, in one way or another,” said Van Noten. “In menswear I always refer to traditional things, and military is one of them.”
This respect for tradition can also be found in his new men’s store in Paris, where we met for a brief conversation over a plate of macaroons. Located on the left bank of Seine, opposite the Louvre, the boutique is an exercise in reverence. Van Noten and his design team worked painstakingly to preserve the original lacquer of the 1970s interior of this former primitive art gallery. “We had to redo quite a lot of it,” said he. “We found a manufacturer in Belgium who could still do this kind of work. Ten layers of orange paint had to be applied underneath the lacquer to get the original color.”
This is the fourth Van Noten shop, besides the women’s one next door, a store in Hong Kong, and the original boutique in Antwerp. The Antwerp store is one of the most gorgeous shops I have ever been to, something straight out of a Zola novel. “It’s quite rare to find an old shop space in Antwerp,” said Van Noten. “This was the only store where all the original interior was in place. In 1950s the ceilings were lowered in the space, so we had to restore everything to its original condition.”
Despite living and working in Antwerp, Van Noten feels equally at home in Paris. “I love the city, and I love this particular spot. You look outside and you see the river, you see the Louvre, and I think it’s a magical place to be.“ The vibe of the men’s store is decidedly dandyish, and I thought that Oscar Wilde wouldn’t feel out of place here. In addition to Van Noten’s own collection, the front room of the store stocks shaving products by the English barber Geo F. Trumper. “It’s a way of showing my respect for tradition,” sad Van Noten. “I am not nostalgic, but I have enormous respect for the skills and craftsmanship of the old time, which is something I try to incorporate in my collections.”
Van Noten comes from a sartorial family. His grandfather worked as a specialty tailor in the 1920s. Men who had worn out their suits would come to his atelier, where he would take the suits apart, turn the fabric inside out, and put them back together. Having made a bit of money, in the 1930s he became the first Antwerp based producer of ready-made garments for men.
Van Noten’s father had a luxury-clothing store in Antwerp, and so it was natural for his young son to enroll into the fashion program at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Art. Upon graduation, Van Noten was one of the several young designers who took their clothes to the London fashion week in 1986, and who went down in fashion history as the Antwerp Six.
The signature elements of Van Noten’s work are combinations of color that permeate his clothes, especially in his women’s line. Whether subtle or not, they have an arresting quality, as if the most elegant rainbow exploded and spilled its contents onto fabric. His keen eye for color is probably unrivaled in the fashion industry, but he underplays his talent with the typical Belgian modesty. “You just start to work on it, sometimes it just happens,” Van Noten said, “but not always. I like to play with colors, I like to create tensions, unexpected things with color. I also love to garden, so maybe it has something to do with that.”
Besides gardening, Van Noten is also an avid art buyer, although he does not like the word “collector.” “A collector is someone who collects a certain artist – I just buy what I like,” said he. Indeed, out of the several art works from his own collection lined the walls; a painting by Van Dijk sat in an unexpected harmony with an old Japanese calligraphy print.
Despite achieving renown, Van Noten keeps a low profile. I asked him if he travels a lot, because the color patterns in his clothes sometimes resemble those found in traditional Middle Eastern or Chinese dress, and his justly famous scarves are often decorated by Indian craftsmen. “In fashion you can travel as much as you want, you can go to all the big cities,” said he. “But I am also a very hands-on designer. I like to stay in the studio and work with my team on all the fabrics, all the colors.” After a brief pause he added, “Actually it’s the part of my job that I enjoy most.”
Impervious to trends, Van Noten has gained a loyal following over the years without posting a single ad in a fashion magazine and not remaining independent. And as any such designer, being somewhat outside of the fashion game can reap its benefits. In today’s world of fashion cool, dominated by the black-clad show attendees, his colorful clothes take on an unexpected freshness. “I think I can proudly say that we have a loyal audience all over the world,” said Van Noten. “People stay attached to our clothes. They don’t wear them only once or twice, but continuously, combining the old with the new, which is the way I see fashion.”