Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Dries Van Noten (Feb 2005)

Very few of the many women who wear and love Dries Van Noten's clothes would recognise the man himself if he sat next to them on the bus. He does not go in for paparazzi-friendly celebrity friendships (Donatella, Stella) or spotlit and styled star turns on the catwalk (Ford, Galliano).

He makes beautiful clothes and stages unforgettable fashion shows, and then he pops his head out from backstage for the quickest of blink-and-you'll-miss-it nods to the audience.

This is not because Van Noten is particularly shy. Nor is it because he is unphotogenic - on the contrary, he bears a passing resemblance to George Clooney. It may be because he is Belgian. Belgian fashion designers - compatriots include Ann Demeulemeester and Veronique Branquinho - are united in a reluctance to use personality and lifestyle as leverage for the brand.

Van Noten has been showing in Paris for 24 years but remains, in manner, closer to the dry reserve of Arsène Wenger than to most designers on the Paris catwalk schedule.

In fact, he is about as far from the Ab Fab image of a fashion designer as it is possible to get. Over lunch in his local Antwerp restaurant, he dissects his sole with military precision and drinks sparkling mineral water, raising his eyebrows at the table next to us who are tucking into the chablis.

The only hint as to his profession, as he expounds on his favourite subject - holidays spent visiting England's National Trust gardens - is the tiny wisp of red silk that has attached itself to his sweater during a morning spent choosing bolts of fabric. One espresso later and he is bounding along the cobbled dockside back to his HQ, a converted 1904 liquor warehouse.

Antwerp is the epicentre of Van Noten's life and work. "Living here, you can't live in a fashion bubble," he explains. "You have to speak languages, otherwise you get nowhere. And we don't have much Belgian press, so we buy magazines from all over the world. So we are open to the world, and well-informed, and this impacts on the clothes."

He lives with his partner in an 1840 house outside the city, where his pride and joy is an English-style landscape garden, complete with follies. "Gardening is an aesthetic pleasure, but it also keeps your feet on the ground. You can't ever completely control or predict your garden. You depend on the weather. And you have to think of the long-term future. I think these things are healthy."

Van Noten is steeped in the clothes heritage of this city. His grandfather and father ran boutiques here; his mother collected lace. He rebelled, just a little, by becoming a designer rather than a retailer, but still enjoys the business element. "I like to have a store, and to see what is selling and not selling."

Van Noten came to international notice as part of the Antwerp Six, a group of prodigiously talented Belgians making moody, clever clothes. He has a lighter, less severe aesthetic than most of the other designers with whom he is grouped, but he acknowledges that there is still, decades after graduation, a link between them. "It's a way of looking at clothes, of designing piece by piece, rather than for catwalk effect, so each piece has its own value and can be worn how you want it."

The Antwerp Six were, for a while, the height of chic. But their understated approach drifted out of fashion until it was dangerously at odds with an industry obsessed with glamour and branding. "There was a time, around 1997 and 1998, that was scary for me as a designer and for us as a company. Suddenly, the big luxury groups had all the power, and I was just this guy doing ethnic collections. I did wonder about selling the company, at that stage."

Things changed after the September 11 attacks. "Suddenly, people wanted something they could feel attached to. I wanted the clothes to feel like something that had been inherited from a grandparent. We had a huge response. People came round to our way of thinking."

Now, the pressure on Van Noten comes less from the supergroups than from the high street. "People like H&M and Zara are pushing us very hard. People start to think those prices are normal, that you should be able to buy a man's shirt for £20. But you can't even buy the fabric for one of our shirts for £20, let alone make the shirt or live off the profits."

While Van Noten's clothes are subtle, his shows are occasions of grandeur and emotion ("I put my soul into the shows"). This was never more evident than on the evening that his 50th collection, the women's range currently in store, was unveiled.

An empty warehouse in the Paris suburbs was the setting for a surprise dinner for 400 guests who had arrived expecting a catwalk show. A refectory table, laid with white linen, stretched as far as the eye could see. As dinner ended, the chandeliers were raised and the table became a catwalk. "For me, it was a metaphor for having fun, for getting up and dancing on the table after a dinner party," says Van Noten. "The collection was based on Romanian and Hungarian folklore, but the ideas for the show and for the collection grew together, a kind of cross-fertilisation. I wanted the white embroidery to look as if the chandeliers had dripped on to the table."

It was, as fashion people say, a moment. None the less, that is not what Van Noten's clothes are really about. Recently, he held a party in New York. "I was so proud, because there were lots of people in my clothes, but none from this season. To me that's the ultimate compliment, if someone is still wearing something years later."


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