ANTWERP, Belgium--Dries Van Noten glides through the construction enveloping the top floor of his new headquarters here with the grace of a seasoned dancer. He skips over a power drill, slides behind a tangle of wires and hops over a discarded two-by-four as he leads the way to a sprawling wrap-around terrace overlooking the city's historic port. "I love this view, it's one of the city's best," enthused Van Noten, gesturing over the Sheldt River and down to the freighters docked neatly in the marina. This burst of exuberance may seem out of character for those familiar with the usually reserved 42-year-old Belgian, who over the last decade has quietly become one of his country's preeminent designers. But then it is indicative of the joie de vivre he has rediscovered after weathering a series of psychological setbacks recently that pushed him to the brink of asking whether he should even continue to ply his trade of the last 15 years. Van Noten's world began to seriously teeter last August when his trusted friend and business partner, Christine Mathys, died at 49 after a battle with cancer.Relying on Mathys's support and business acumen, Van Noten had built his business from the ground up. People close to the designer said he was devastated by her death. "When Christine died, I started to ask myself a lot of serious questions," Van Noten confided. "She had contributed so much to my business's success. I wondered if I should continue for another few years and then sell, say 'bye, bye,' and move on to something else, like gardening. I wondered if I still had the energy and desire to continue, to grow, to reorganize the business and start to change." Additionally, in the period leading up to Mathys's death, Van Noten said he began to feel stymied creatively because he had become so strongly identified with a certain style: overtly romantic designs with a strong ethnic influence. He started to feel obliged to continue in that vein in order to please clients and grow the business. "When I first showed my women's collection in Paris in 1993, I was doing something different than other designers," he recalled. "I showed delicate, fine dresses with rose prints and a rather Indian influence." On one hand, this earned the designer recognition. "On the other hand, it became problematic," Van Noten said. "The press and buyers started to put a stamp on me, and I found myself neatly tucked into a cage. They said: 'This is the Dries Van Noten cage, and he can't come out of it.' I started to think that I couldn't come out either." When he did deviate from what had become his signature style, Van Noten said he was met with reproach. "When I tried something that wasn't so ethnic, the buyers and press were so angry with me. They said: 'You have to keep doing ethnic.' Ultimately, it wasfrightening. I think it was so scary that it finally forced me to come out of the system I had created for myself." Emotionally drained and creatively challenged, the designer found himself at a crossroads. But instead of packing up his needle and thread, Van Noten cut a new pattern. After all, the business he had started in 1985 had blossomed, with $25 million in annual turnover and some 500 points of sale worldwide. He owns a 3,500-square-foot flagship in his hometown and has stand-alone stores in Tokyo and Hong Kong in partnership with Raika and Joyce, respectively. Furthermore, along with such Belgium designers as Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela, both members of his 1981 graduating class at Antwerp's Royal Academy, Van Noten has helped put this small Flemish-speaking town on the fashion map. So, after mulling a possible exit from the business, he committed himself to fashion anew. He signed a deal to buy a former shipping warehouse and started to reorganize from a series of disparate buildings in Antwerp's city center to a single locale. Taking his typical hands-on approach, Van Noten conceived the stark, modern design for his six-story, 70,000-square-foot space, opting for cement floors and gray stucco walls, wide-open work spaces and massive windows. He expects to finish the last bit of construction later this fall. "It's been an interesting process reorganizing the way the business is physically run," said Van Noten, dressed in a white shirt and khaki trousers. "Now we have production, design and commercial services in the same building. When I want to tell the different design teams to focus on a certain idea, I don't have to repeat myself. It's more efficient." Meanwhile, Van Noten reevaluated his creative process. "I decided to give myself more liberty. If I didn't make a clear break to something else, I would've found myself stuck with the label ethnic and Belgian, and not in the positive sense." After a period of introspection, Van Noten turned to modern and contemporary art for inspiration. "It got boring working exclusively with countries or historical periods," said Van Noten. "With art, I can work more with translating an atmosphere, nothing concrete. It's a new starting point that has freed my way of designing." This fall, for instance, his collection of straight skirts, delicate knits and voluminous coats in rich colors and fabrics was inspired by Twenties London's Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, which included novelist Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. The spring-summer 2001 men's collection played around with the work and personal style of British artist David Hockney. "The collection was inspired by the Bloomsbury Group, it was all about finding new freedom," he said. "They were really the first hippies. They were precursors to the sexual revolution. I wanted to take that spirit of freedom and translate it onto my garments." So far, retailers applaud the new direction. "Fall was a move forward for Dries," said Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandising manger for women's ready-to-wear at Barneys New York. "But it was genius because it stayed within his own genre. Instead of playing with the idea of the bohemian as bohemian, he looked at the artist as bohemian. "Unlike the spring gypsy collection, with full skirts that were hard to wear, this one is also more wearable. The cut is fantastic and it's selling incredibly well." Collinson said the collection has a lighter spirit, too. "It's not tongue-in-check humor, but more the humor of someone delighted with the idea with which they are working." "Dries didn't have to go in a new direction," noted Armand Hadida, owner and buyer of the Paris designer stores L'Eclaireur. "He was doing ethnic magnificently, and it was selling. But I salute him for his courage and resolve. He doesn't follow any of the trends. He sticks to his own vision. And the new direction, which still is full of his special personality, is a success." Not wanting to get stuck in a new creative rut, Van Noten said he already feels compelled to make another stark style departure. "The October show [spring 2001] will be the next big change," he said, while declining to give details. "I don't want to sit back and wait before I change again." Van Noten said he is reinvigorated and he has rediscovered the pleasure of design. That's why he has no intention of selling his company, even though he said he has been tendered discreet offers recently. He declined to say from whom. "I don't want to follow that model. Look what happened to Jil Sander," he said of the German designer who, following the sale of a majority stake in her business to Prada Group, quit after butting heads with the Italian firm's chief executive, Patrizio Bertelli. "I'm really afraid of losing control of my business. Someone comes in and dictates how it should be run and how to make the business profitable. Owning my own company means I can make a difficult collection one season if I choose because I only have to answer to myself." Additionally, Van Noten thinks joining fashion conglomerates like Gucci Group, Prada or LVMH quashes creativity. He said the ability to push his ideas in new directions has recently assumed an even more important role in his business. "I like being able to take the time to experiment with fabrics and colors, to work seriously on the form of a coat or a skirt," he said. "Bertelli said recently that houses don't need fashion designers. There may be some truth in it, but I still think it's vital to have a single person who provides the creative pulse. "When a designer has five lines and in these five lines you have like eight collections a year, it makes me wonder what is the sense of it all. Everything is focused on business and money. What has happened to the creative process?" The designer said he's hesitant to introduce a perfume or expand his accessories lines, a tactic many fashion houses pursue to boost the bottom line. "I don't want my shoes or bags to become more important than my clothes. And I don't want to do a perfume--that needs a big publicity campaign--because, in the end, people may start recognizing me as the guy who does the perfume, and who coincidentally also does a few garments. That scares me," Van Noten said. Instead of following these traditional models, Van Noten said he wants to continue to enlarge his business slowly, aiming for small, incremental increases every season by expanding his creative scope as well as increasing profitability through better organization. Last season, business grew by 10 percent, according to the designer. "If we grow much more, though, I won't be able to control everything myself. That's not really how I operate," he said. "We work very closely with our clients, charting sell-throughs and helping them come up with in-store displays, etcetera. For me, it's important that I continue to play a direct role in that aspect of the business." By market, Van Noten currently does about 20 percent of his women's business in the U.S., with Japan accounting for 12 percent; Germany 11 percent; Italy 16 percent; Benelux 18 percent; Southeast Asia 6 percent; the U.K. 6 percent, and France 8 percent. He said he has no immediate intention of opening any new stores. By keeping the business a manageable size, Van Noten said he has time for pet projects, like cultivating the garden at the 18th-century castle he resides in just outside the city, or helping new Antwerp designers spread their wings. Recently, Van Noten dug into his pockets to help finance collections by fledgling Antwerp designers AF Vandevorst and Angelo Figus. "Dries helped us enormously," saidFilip Arickx, who with his wife, An Vandevorst, makes up the AF Vandevorst label. "Without his help, it would have been virtually impossible to do our first collection." "It's important to sponsor the next generation of Belgium fashion," Van Noten noted. "We have to make sure someone will be there to replace us when our time comes. We're not getting any younger."
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