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The fans of Dries Van Noten are a devoted crew, and they’ve had plenty of chances lately to geek out over their favorite Belgian. Earlier this month, he opened an exhibit of his design inspirations, a sort of 3-D mood board, at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris and it spawned a coffee-table book as well as inspired the windows at Barneys New York for six weeks stretching into May.
His really, really, really special fans — his biggest shoppers at Barneys, private buyers like Rebecca Restrepo, Joyce Rifkin and Warner Bros. bigwig Sue Kroll — got to have the ultimate fan experience Tuesday night, a meet-and-greet at the Manhattan Chelsea penthouse of Barneys chief executive officer Mark Lee and KCD president Ed Filipowski. Van Noten’s thriftier clients still got an audience with the designer Wednesday morning, at a book signing.
“He designed my wedding dress. Like, I’m really a fan of his,” said Maggie Gyllenhaal. About five years ago, Gyllenhaal dialed up the designer when she was about to marry actor Peter Sarsgaard. “I told him what I wanted,” she said. “I didn’t want to be super wedding dressy, and then we want back and forth.” Easy, done.
“And then I got the dress and it was nothing like what we had talked to about,” she said. “I had another dress of his that I had brought the night before, and I was like, ‘Forget it, I’m just going to wear this to the wedding.’” Her mother and friends were forced to stage an intervention.
“They were like, ‘Are you f—ing crazy? This is an amazing dress. You’re out of your mind,’” she recalled. She wore the dress. “And he was completely right. It’s like he knew more than I did about what would have been the right dress to wear to my wedding. Obviously. Of course he did. In fact, I was completely wrong. It couldn’t have been anything but that.”
Van Noten, a designer who has for most of his career flown under the radar of the wider public, always more appreciated by fashion’s cognoscenti, clearly savored the moment.
“The last two years have been crazy because it’s not only the exhibition and the book that goes with it. In the meantime, I have to make collections,” he said. “On the other hand, now that everything’s happening, the reaction is so fantastic.”
He is mostly leaving bridal to the experts. “A wedding dress for a girl is always very complicated to make because she’s dreaming nearly all her life about it and it has to be then so perfect that it’s nearly impossible to fulfill all the wishes,” he said. With Gyllenhaal, “it worked out in the end.”
Van Noten has earned the admiration of other designers — Diane von Furstenberg, Narciso Rodriguez, Phillip Lim all turned up to dinner at Lee’s — because of his designs, but also because, against all odds, he has remained independent of luxury conglomerates in his nearly 30 years in business, an accomplishment that is not lost on a younger generation of designers.
“It’s a testament to how, if you’re in this business and you have your own brand, especially with your own name, how difficult it is to maintain it and really keep that business going and to do it in the artful way that [Van Noten] does,” said Dao-Yi Chow of the Paris exhibit, which he saw when it opened. “It really is an inspiration as a young designer to want to protect your brand, to really grow it, to explore every option without — selling out is such a bad term — but there’s nothing overly promotional about Dries’ work when you think about it…To do it over and over again is something we certainly strive to.”
Shortly after that, Chow’s design partner at Public School, Maxwell Osborne, arrived. They were still enjoying the afterglow of their CFDA Fashion Award nomination for men’s wear.
“While we’re humbled and honored, we’re still taken back in shock by it,” Chow said. “In that it is early for us, especially being here looking at Dries’ work, it’s mind-blowing and humbling.”
It’s a long road ahead though — Van Noten won his own CFDA International Award in 2008, when his business was just entering its second decade.