Dries Van Noten

After more than 30 years designing collections, Dries Van Noten says he keeps challenging himself to embrace ideas and esthetics outside his comfort zone — including ones from which he might initially recoil.

He said it’s akin to eating an olive for the first time.

“At first you have to taste it, and you might say, ‘Oh this is really not good.’ But then you start to appreciate the taste of an olive, and then you see also the possibilities that you can mix it in dishes and things like that,” he related, arguing it’s the same for fashion. “People around me have to teach me things, and show me things which I don’t know, which they may find interesting. It’s not necessary that I always have to like it.…I might say, ‘This artist I don’t like’ or ‘This musician, I don’t think it’s very right for me.’ But at a certain moment you start to hear, you learn to appreciate, and that for me is always the most interesting thing: There has to be an evolution. We can’t stand still. I think there’s always the surprise, the novelty which you have to add, and I think that’s the exciting thing about fashion.

“I have to surprise my team, I have to surprise my clients, the buyers, and I also have to surprise myself,” he continued. “The last thing I want is that my creative process becomes some kind of a trick, becomes kind of a system. We always say, there’s one golden rule here in the house: When you see the trick, you lose the magic.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley, Van Noten reflected on his illustrious fashion career, and the very strange year 2020, which compelled him to get behind a grassroots efforts to better align fashion deliveries with seasons and snuff out early markdowns.

The loose-knit consortium, operating under the generic web site Forumletter.org, gathered hundreds of signatures from a host of luxury retailers and designers committed to slower fashion in the name of greater sustainability and respect for the creative process.

While Van Noten long resisted the treadmill of pre-collections, preferring only two collections a year, the designer said the forced slowdown amid the pandemic allowed him to shrink the size of his seasonal offering by about 30 to 35 percent.

The pandemic also scuttled runway shows, which have been the primary communication tool for the Belgian fashion house, which published a photo book in 2017 showcasing 100 of them.

The designer confessed that he initially found the prospect of unveiling his spring 2021 collections without a fashion show “quite confounding,” worried how to transmit emotions with a new, unfamiliar format. (The brand has never done an ad campaign.) But he ultimately embraced the challenge, and cited positive feedback to the images and short film he conceived with Viviane Sassen.

He disclosed that he probably won’t do any fashion shows for the fall 2021 season either. “We have to find a different way to present. When you have limitations, you can look at them as problematic, or you can also look at them as very positive  and embrace it and that’s what we try to do now.”

In fact, Van Noten applauded the varied creative solutions other designers unfurled during fashion weeks in September and October, which saw a mix of physical shows, fashion films, boxed collections, art installations and even a puppet show.

“I think we haven’t seen the beginning of it,” he enthused. “I think everybody is learning now, and everybody has to find his or her own truth, to see what’s working for their brands. For next season, we are going to really discover all those new opportunities to show collections. And I think that that’s a great, great situation.”

The designer argued that the changes brought on by the pandemic must be embraced, and they should ultimately be good for fashion.

“It makes no sense to pick up where we stopped,” he said, sitting in his vast, brick-walled office with its hulking wood furniture, a bouquet of colorful flowers propped on the desk behind him. “We have to really hope for a big change in fashion now.”

Part of the solution is returning to “the essence” of fashion, reducing waste and also “explaining to the final customer how beautiful fashion can be, the skills that go into it and what the difference is between us and the high street.”

Van Noten confessed that his online discussions with a “mini cross-section of the industry” for the Forumletter petition were exhilarating, hashing out “practical problems” with peers, who are usually perceived as competitors. “It was really like a new feeling because before it was not done,” he marveled.

Belgium was once again under lockdown at the time of the summit, meaning Van Noten was designing shoes and choosing color cards via Zoom. He said he misses “playing creative ping pong” around a big table with his team in person, when subtle gestures drive the creative decision-making. “But on the other hand, we manage,” he said.

Asked about his loyal customer base, Van Noten expressed gratitude for that, while stressing the need to attract new customers all the time. “It was never my idea to age with my collections,” he said, noting that “very early on in my creative process, I took distance, especially from the men’s wear collection, which I was at a certain moment designing for myself.”

To be sure, the designer’s passion for his craft hasn’t diminished one iota, his inimitable embellishments a “backbone” of his aesthetics. “Like a painter has his paint, I have my colors, my fabrics and my prints,” he said. “I think fashion is a very important way of communication. And it’s part of our culture. So for me everything [that] is cultural is important.”

Asked which fashion designers he admires, Van Noten didn’t drop any names, but noted, “I really follow what’s happening in fashion. For me, it’s very inspiring and interesting to see how everybody approaches garments in a different way.”

Van Noten also spoke briefly about his business journey, recalling how Barneys New York became his first wholesale client in 1986 when Bonnie Pressman wandered into his booth at a trade show in London and placed an order for his men’s collection. He expressed remorse and sadness that the luxury retailer closed its doors for good last February. “It’s a pity, because it was such an institution. I think it was a very special store,” he said. “But now maybe this creates possibilities for other people who own stores to pop up.”

Long vaunted as one of the industry’s larger independents, Van Noten surprised in 2018 when he sold a majority stake to Spanish fragrance and fashion firm Puig. Asked what was behind the decision, he cited a “combination of things,” but mainly his wish to secure the company’s future as he entered his 60s.

He confessed that the moment the deal was signed, a lot of people thought he would “become a designer like anybody else and start using a lot of logos and these type of things.”

He stressed that nothing has changed and he still takes risks with collections — his spring 2020 collaboration with Christian Lacroix but one example — and with his new Los Angeles flagship boutique, which sells past collections and boasts rotating exhibition spaces, a music room and a tropical garden.

“I still feel very independent now. They give us that freedom,” he enthused, lauding that Puig is a “family business.…It’s a big, international business, but there’s a very human approach about it.”

Asked if he might consider another blockbuster collaboration like the Lacroix one, Van Noten replied: “Never say never. I don’t know,” he said. “I think that’s the fun thing about fashion. There’s always the next step. That keeps you sharp.”

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