Very few fashion designers—no matter how clothes-crazy they are—can say they’ve been going to Pitti Uomo since the age of 12. Indeed, Dries Van Noten might be the only one. Is it any wonder that his love for Harris Tweeds, flannels and other old-school fabrics runs deep?
“For me, one of my biggest joys is to go into an archive of old suit materials and try to find all the incredible things—hoping they can still reproduce it,” says Van Noten, a stealth force in men’s wear around whom buzz has been building steadily for years.
Time spent at the Florence trade fair figures among Van Noten’s earliest memories because the affable designer—still boyish at 52—comes from two generations of tailors. His grandfather reworked second-hand clothes during the lean years between world wars, turning them inside out to get further mileage out of the fabric, and later began importing ready-to-wear to Antwerp. His father, having inherited the fashion gene, ran upscale boutiques in Belgium, and his son was often in tow as he toured the runways and showrooms of Milan, Düsseldorf and Paris. “I was the youngest in my family,” Van Noten recalls. “I had the choice of either staying at home alone or going with my mother and father on buying trips.”
What he still appreciates most about men’s wear is “the respect for tradition—the skills are always very present.” Yet he’s also proven adept at making it contemporary and desirable, with just the right dose of fashion excitement.
David Bowie’s Slim White Duke persona was the jumping-off point for the designer’s hit fall 2011 collection, a blend of military and other classic styles spiked with luxurious and graphic touches, including fur collars and contrast lapels. “I wanted to do something with kind of an edgy elegance,” says Van Noten, elbows resting on a hulking antique table, near a long side counter strewn with looped fabric swatches, at his Antwerp, Belgium, headquarters.
With his perky, two-year-old Airedale terrier, Harry, forever under foot, Van Noten is right at home at his vast, 58,000-square-foot base of operations in Antwerp’s port district, where he enjoys panoramic views of the city from his sixth-floor showroom and an in-house chef he imports from Brussels during his sales campaigns. His 25-year-old, privately owned business is on a solid growth track, and men’s wear is starting to generate as much editorial and retail interest as his women’s fashions.
Last fall, Van Noten opened his first freestanding men’s wear store, a 1,100-square-foot boutique on the Quai Malaquais in Paris where customers have to ring a bell to get in—“as if you’re paying a visit to someone,” says the designer. He also opened a 900-square-foot corner at Bergdorf Goodman Men in New York, another sign of momentum for his men’s collection, which accounts for about 35 percent of the business. The brand won 30 new clients for fall, bringing the number of doors worldwide for men’s to 180.
“He continues to be relevant and set the bar for what is cool and desirable in men’s wear,” says Nickelson Wooster, men’s fashion director for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.
It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when Van Noten catapulted into fashion’s big leagues, but—like all Belgian designers, who don’t advertise, chase starlets or do logos—he made that leap in the most understated manner.
A fashion graduate of Antwerp’s celebrated Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Van Noten gained early recognition as one of the influential Antwerp Six, who, in the early Eighties, put the small Flemish city on the international fashion radar. The collective included Ann Demeulemeester and Walter Van Beirendonck, with more avant-garde fare, as well as Van Noten, whose small collection of blazers, shirts and trousers immediately caught the attention of Barneys New York, his first customer.
His self-financed business has since grown gradually and at modest dimensions, staying within Van Noten’s comfort zone, but his star has risen considerably in recent years as his women’s designs, initially prized for their ethnic character, have become more urbane and modern. In men’s wear, Van Noten mines a classic vein, but gives it the pulse of today. “I’m not nostalgic,” the designer says, citing his penchant for juxtaposing “very advanced” materials—such as the papery nylons that figure into the fall collection—with his beloved tweeds and flannels.
During men’s fashion weeks in Milan and Paris earlier this year, a striking number of the assembled buyers and editors were sporting Van Noten, a flash of white felt under the collar of coats and blazers among the subtle signifiers of his designs.
“Every designer has their time, and this is definitely Dries’ time,” says David Walker-Smith, buying and merchandising director for men’s wear, beauty, fragrance, home and leisure at Selfridges, who observed plenty of contrast-sleeve shirts, checkered scarves, striped blazers and bleached denim among the fashion flock. Walker-Smith notes that Van Noten’s clothes, while of-the-moment and distinctive, transcend age and seasons. “It’s very individual to who wears it,” Walker-Smith says. What’s more, “the fit is brilliant and it’s not hugely expensive.”
“The way he puts things together—tailored with casual—is totally on point,” adds Wooster. “Nuance is everything. Nobody understands this better than Dries. As a designers’ designer, he has an incredible eye for color, fabric and proportion.”
“In men’s wear, it’s a lot about details,” explains Van Noten, an earnest sort who is more apt to proffer a jar of homemade jam than a designer bauble as a gift to important editors. “The shoulder width, for example—it’s not centimeters, it’s millimeters.…By changing the point of the collar on a shirt, the message is different.”
Van Noten himself is the perfect billboard for his style. On this day, he’s wearing gleaming, heavy-soled shoes the color of caramel; loose-fitting khakis with utility details in a shade between fatigue green and tobacco, and layered sweaters in black and navy, finished off with a small tartan scarf loosely wound so that the fringe spills out artfully. “I feel a bit naked without a scarf,” he says about his signature fashion flourish. “Also, living in Belgium, it’s cold—you sometimes need a scarf.”
That sense of practicality and decorum is part of the fashion ethos in Belgium, where designers never forget that their first job is to make good garments. “I always do the things I like to do,” Van Noten says. “It’s really what I feel, whatever’s going to be right for the moment.”
There was an undercurrent of military style in Van Noten’s fall collection, in the colors, the tailoring of his greatcoats and the comportment his clothes conveyed. “Just putting the collar up can be something protective, but it can also be something proud, something quite present,” he says.
Within the fashion industry, Van Noten is well known to have a green thumb, and indeed he pours lots of energy into his garden. Yet he’s just as willing to shed those gardening clothes for a tuxedo, as the rituals of formalwear put the wearer in a certain mood. “That’s something which I always enjoy: looking for the right pair of cuff links,” he says, a smile coming over his face. “OK, maybe nobody is going to notice, but it’s just for yourself.”