An original member of the avant-garde Antwerp Six, Belgian designer Dries van Noten celebrated thirty years in the fashion business with the unveiling of his autumn/winter 2017 women’s collection. For Van Noten, the runway is the primary, almost exclusive, locus of communication of his design vision. Unlike most designers of his stature, longevity, and prominence, Van Noten does not advertise, nor has he opened many mono-brand boutiques around the world (as of 2019, there are only six). Moreover, to date he has refused an e-commerce platform to attract a wide consumer base. As a result, the runway takes on added meaning. From industrial, barren spaces to hallowed cultural venues such as l’Opéra Garnier, all of Paris is a site for the display and performance of fashion. As with his collections for both men and women, Van Noten’s runway presentations espouse asymmetrical visions, incongruous analogies and an off-center aesthetic where things never seem to belong with each other. More importantly, a part of Van Noten’s incongruous, mix-match aesthetic, is a focus on global cultures seamlessly merged to fashion a global fashion citizen. Dries simply displays incongruent patterns, fabrics, shapes, ideas, places, things, and temporalities, challenging us to rethink our parameters of what constitutes good design, beauty, and taste.
Having graduated from the Antwerp Academy in 1980, Dries van Noten presented his first collection for men in London in 1986 as part of the original avant-garde collective “The Antwerp Six.” Although the cohort share nothing in common stylistically, their training and ambitions were shared by all members, who wanted to collectively impact the fashion world as the Japanese (with Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo) and the Italians (Krizia, Walter Albini, Missoni, Gianfranco Ferré, and Giorgio Armani) had done before them in the previous decade.
In 2017, the same year King Philippe I of Belgium named the designer a baron, Van Noten celebrated thirty years in the fashion business with the unveiling of his autumn/winter 2017 women’s collection. His 100th collection, in which he delved back into his own archives, and when iconic models such as Amber Valleta, Michelle Hicks, and Stella Tennant walked his runways (they began gracing his shows as of the autumn/winter 1995 season), returned to his previous collections but was not nostalgic. Rather, it was a reinvention, reinterpretation, or even a renovation of previous ideas, superimposed with modernist, geometric patterns in bright, dayglow colors overtop of these once previously sourced precious fabrics. In many ways, Van Noten’s 100th runway show reaffirmed a consistent theme that sees fashion not as static but as an engine of spatial, cultural, artistic, and creative transformation. Rather than celebrating the anniversary as thirty years, that is as a simple temporal marker of success, Van Noten chose instead to celebrate his one hundred runway shows, marking a spatial, conceptual as much as temporal anniversary of sorts. Three distinct projects marked the special anniversary. The first was the women’s autumn/winter show itself in which the designer delved into his “greatest hits” and revived them by overlaying graphic digital or simple repetitive geometric prints in bright, neon, or florescent colors. Here past and future came together to re/create the present. In the second project, the company made available for viewing one runway show per day for one hundred days on the house’s website. The soundtrack for each show was only made available, however, for one day, leaving it to then merge into a so-called “silent archive.” The third and final project was a two-volume book recounting through image and text the one hundred runway collections. What all three projects share is an, albeit, different engagement with the designer’s own archives. Random rummaging through the archives, those previous remnants of the past, or of other cultural sources, is the hallmark of the Van Noten aesthetic.
In relation to the designer’s autumn/winter 2018 collection, Sarah Mower (Vogue.com) mused how liberating it would be if Van Noten chose not to showcase his collection on the runway. Although an odd comment for a collection that saw Van Noten continuing to hone his mastery of eclectic glamour under the gilded canopy of the Hôtel de Ville, the designer’s runway presentations mark a vital, significant, and even, one could argue, solitary vehicle to articulate what is always a concise and yet abundant and rich message. Given that he does not advertise, has a rather limited social media presence, has never invested in an online commercial platform, the stage management of his runway shows becomes a critical venue to showcase his atmosphere and vision. Mower’s assessment is to think of him as a global brand and mere financial enterprise and ignores the uniquely subjective, immersive, affective, and experiential dimensions of Van Noten’s presentation. With his first showing in Paris for the spring/summer 1992 season, his runway shows have long been lauded not simply for the clothing presented but the entire thought processes involved and atmosphere achieved.
Whether for his menswear or women’s wear, shape and cut are, for the most part, of little consequence in Van Noten’s work. In many ways, it begins and ends with textiles which help conjure atmospheres, distant times, and faraway places. Textiles also help to construct a design ethos that is entirely premised on individual pieces rather than complete looks, making it easier for customers to effortlessly absorb new pieces into a preexisting wardrobe; this mix-and-match attitude is coupled with an imaginative and eclectic sourcing of inspiration. With this lack of complete looks, references are then never literal but multilayered and multivalent, formed through imagination rather than concrete inspiration creating improbable juxtapositions. As a result, Van Noten is often described, rather problematically, as an “ethnic designer.” His quest for authenticity within this is born out from the fact that the designer has a deep relationship with India, a country of infinite and continuous inspiration. Having visited on several occasions and built important relationships in the country, the company purchased an apartment in Calcutta for his staff very early on. Despite the still-prevalent negative perception of “Made in India”—which is often understood as a source of poorly made products and unethical working conditions—Van Noten works directly with two different manufactures and helps to employ thousands of local artisans throughout the country, helping to promote India as a source of high caliber craftsmanship. This mutual partnership has, indeed, benefitted both sides.
Van Noten’s shows migrate throughout Paris every year, in each season, and with each collection. From here to there, from iconic cultural landmarks to industrial sites of decay and abandonment, Van Noten uses and transforms Paris as a never-ending site and sight of/for fashion. In the majority of his runway shows, Van Noten avoids altering the space. Historical sites (whether as the locations of his six boutiques) used for his runway shows are never infused with a sense of nostalgia, but re-enlivened and reinvested with a modernity that is all Van Noten’s own. Here the industrial and the cultural vie equally as seemingly mere backdrops against which to stage an eclectic fashion performance. As part of his use of various spaces, Van Noten is also known for collaborating with various local and overseas artists. Whether it is with Argentinian artist Alexandra Kehayoglou who specially created the elaborate carpet used as the runway and conjured a mossy forest floor for his spring/summer 2015 show, or the floral arrangements frozen in transparent blocks of ice by Japanese artist Azuma Makoto for his spring/summer 2017 collection, Van Noten sets himself apart from his peers to create shows that are unique, romantic, and meaningful. For Van Noten, the runway is the primary, almost exclusive, locus of communication of his design vision. As a result, the runway takes on added meaning. Rather than social media—which has pretensions of eradicating international boundaries—Van Noten chooses to collaborate with international agents to create global, international objects of worth.
In September 1985, Dries van Noten opened its first boutique in an Antwerp arcade and in 1989 moved the store to the historically significant Het Modepalais, which Van Noten himself had restored. The five-storey building continues to serve as the company’s global flagship. Unlike most designers of his stature, longevity, and prominence, Van Noten has not expanded at a voracious pace by opening numerous mono-brand boutiques. Like his collections, his boutiques are filled with antiques and objects from around the world creating an eclectic and highly inspiring retail landscape for his customer. The assembled furniture in these boutiques, not unlike his eclectic array of garments for each collection, betray Van Noten’s tendencies toward collecting. His boutiques, the manner in which he presents his collections, his attitude toward the growth of what remains a small- to mid-size business is tacitly premised on an intimacy rarely seen in the fashion industry that is today dominated by multinational conglomerates. As a result, each show, each boutique, each collaboration with an artist or artisan, each garment offers us a cherished, authentic, unrivalled, and precious experience
Odd though this may first appear, Van Noten has much in common with Giorgio Armani who is perceived, even if erroneously, as a classicist. In fact, they share a mutual idea that each collection is interchangeable, whether through classicism or through an eclecticism in which each garment is interchangeable precisely because of its incongruity. Both designers eschew intellectualizations of their work; rather, their interests, coming from disparate sources, remain in the materiality of the garments, the evocation of feeling and affect in the spaces they create transform or occupy, even if only temporarily. The Belgian designer possesses what might be described as a certain “old-world” charm which is seen in the eclecticism of his interiors (domestic, boutiques, and runways) as well as the motley crew of shapes, colors, and fabrics that are assembled to construct a collection, season after season. Each object within the collection is meant to stand on its own; representing a memory, time, place, or space. Together they create a composite impression of the occupant or the wearer. As with his collections for both men and women, Van Noten’s runway presentations espouse asymmetrical visions, incongruous analogies, and an off-center aesthetic where things never seem to belong with each other and yet at the same time appear as if they had been together forever. Van Noten simply displays incongruent patterns, fabrics, shapes, ideas, places, things, and temporalities, challenging us to rethink our parameters of what constitutes good design, beauty, and taste. In this way, the mood, atmosphere, and the collaborative happenings of his shows take on further resonance. Despite the ethos of incongruity and eclecticism that has long defined the brand’s identity, each collection is so different as to necessarily suggest an entirely different interior in which to showcase it. Always purposefully atmospheric, the space is always, unsurprisingly, chosen to compliment and best display the clothes as well as provide the collection’s thematic thread. From industrial, barren spaces to hallowed cultural venues such as l’Opéra Garnier, all of Paris is a site for the display and performance of fashion.
Consistently in all his collections, Van Noten searches out things that have been around, have been used, and possess a degree of patina. Together these objects, sources, and textiles conjure a new story for the wearer, which is Van Noten’s desire. The relationship between interior design and fashion is critical in Van Noten’s search for textiles not only for his collection but also for his own home A salmon colored pink silk first used for his spring/summer 2001 collection, for example, was transformed into drapery for the entrance gallery of his home, while a rich brocade used for the autumn/winter 2006–07 collection was transformed into a tablecloth. While Van Noten is not unusual in developing a coherent and consistent relationship between interiors and fashion (although he has never ventured into an interior design collection), in his hands anything and everything becomes a viable resource ripe for transformation.
Without question some of Van Noten’s most cherished collections remain from autumn/winter 1997 for men and women. Having toured India and the culture of Bollywood for autumn/winter 1996 and Morocco for spring/summer 1997, he continued his world tour and drew clear and direct inspiration from Afghanistan for this autumn/winter 1997 collection. Showing both runway presentations, for the first time, at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris, around the corner from where he would eventually open his Paris men’s and women’s boutiques (in 2007), both collections beautifully celebrated a culture known for its textural layering, rich fabrics, subtle use of color, and refined patterns. Walking to a soundtrack of Pierced Heart by Win Mertens, Van Noten’s menswear collection was a sober affair with each model asked not to smile. Each outfit, whether a long fine gold lamé jacket and white trousers or an oversized navy jacket and trousers, was capped off with a wool knit tuque. The end of the show seemed to announce the designer’s ability to create at once an intimate and yet spectacular experience when gold confetti fell down on the models as they were flooded with white light. The references to Afghanistan were not nearly as direct or pronounced as was in his womenswear collection which celebrated oversized garments that were both austere and exuberantly rich with patterns typical of the region. In many ways, the clothes were not simply a cross reference to the country but also a cross-sex allusion to nomadic herdsmen with many models wearing variations on the varied-length tunic known as the Khet partug. Ornate beaded headdresses adorned many model’s foreheads. the aesthetic was also seamlessly fused with historic Topkapi motifs from Istanbul and Maharaja grandeur transformed into a wardrobe suitable for the end of the twentieth century. Gold, a central motif and alchemical metaphor, was not only used for the runway floor but was also incorporated in countless outfits, whether in the jewelry designed by Vicky Sarge (for Erickson Beamon), passementerie belts (by Madame Pouzieux), or as part of the intricate and elaborate patterns of the rich textiles used throughout. This women’s collection will forever be celebrated not only as an exquisite example of the way cultures can come together in modern clothing and textiles but also in the way it displayed a tour de force of the depths of an imagination yet to be fully tapped.
For spring/summer 1998, Van Noten continued to draw inspiration from cultures other than his own, turning to Africa and specifically is drumming cultures, to inspire his aesthetic. Employing the live performance of the thirty drummers of Les Tambourines du Burundi (brought in from Brussels) as his soundtrack and grand finale, this collection presented at the Odéon Ateliers Berthier was a much less rich and extravagant collection. As if to celebrate the heat of the summer months, the final mass exit of the models, as is the custom at his shows, had them all wearing white tank tops and long, simple monochromatic skirts made of humble fabrics. Although, as with all his collections, he took inspiration form a specific source, once again one could clearly discern motifs and delicate floral patterns evocative of Japan and China. Long, often belted, tunics were layered with jackets of varying lengths, again reminiscent of Afghanistan and Indian menswear shapes. Despite the constant travel around the world that each season engenders, the continuous and eclectic references to multiple locations and textile traditions lent an unconventional sense of consistency.
For spring/summer 2000, the designer turned to both Mexican folklore and Pedro Almodóvar for inspiration. Soundbites from the filmmaker’s movies served as the soundtrack to a runway show that was appropriately staged at the Ancien Musée du Cinéma. The collection, the first for the new century, was also an emotional homage to Christine Mathys who was not only Van Noten’s business partner and co-founder of the business, she was also one of his closest friends. The collection comprised exclusively of ankle-length skirts, some with underskirts to add fullness and movement, and each outfit was finished with simple, humble sandals and often included a pinned wrap. Despite being created for summer, there was an ampleness and abundance of fabric, which also clearly borrowed from folkloric patterns. As much as Van Noten’s collections travel around the city of Paris every six months, so too does the designer tour space and time for inspiration through his imagination. Below a floating ceiling of 4,300 bright lights, Van Noten presented an autumn/winter 2000 women’s wear collection, which also featured menswear shapes and fabrics that drew inspiration from the radical artistic and sexually liberated British enclave of the Bloomsbury Group of the early twentieth century. “Oxford Bag” trousers, for example, were paired with black roll necks and juxtaposed seamlessly with 1950s-inpsired wool coats finished with fur collars.
For the company’s fiftieth collection anniversary, the collection itself and its presentation perfectly embodied the ideals of the Belgian designer. As a company, Van Noten is a relatively small player, though highly respected, and as a result his runway collections tend to be rather intimate affairs. This sense of intimacy was best showcased in his fiftieth show for spring/summer 2005—the culmination of twenty-seven menswear and twenty-three women’s collections—and his most ambitious showing to-date. For the show, 500 guests were treated to a three-course feast on a 140-meter long banquet table festooned with white linen, lit by 125 antique chandeliers, and attended to by 250 waiters. Once the dinner was complete, the chandeliers were raised and the show began. Equal to the beauty of the setting, Van Noten sent the models down the table-top runway in voluminous skirts with exotic embroideries. Resplendent floral patterns and Indian beading were paired and juxtaposed with at times harsh monochromatic menswear-inspired jackets, tops, and shirts. The clothes continued to celebrate the eclecticism and single-piece ethos that the designer sees as ideally suited for his customer. Like each individual client, a Van Noten collection, whether for men or women, is always premised on unique pieces that have a life well beyond the way it is paired or styled on the runway. His exuberant use of patterns, color, textiles, and sources of inspiration are always incongruent and yet appear as if they had always been together. What results, season after season, is a bazaar-like offering to his clients, wherein rare and “hard-to-find” pieces appear as if curated rather than simply “designed” by him. After the show, each guest was gifted a scrapbook of reminiscences of each of the fifty collections, a fitting memento of the designer’s imaginative travels, eclectic juxtapositions, and scraps of inspiration.
For his autumn/winter 2006 collection the Belgian designer continued his theme of intimacy and splendor when he delighted his audience with ginger tea and cakes before being dazzled by a runway ornamented entirely with gold leaf adding an additional level of preciousness to a collection that wedded oversized and delicate Eastern prints and patterns, and typical and familiar Western shapes. For the collection, the designer continued his journey in juxtaposing clothes that either seemed as if to strap in the body or move away from it with fluidity and swagger. Sober menswear fabrics and shapes crossed with feminine, fluid fabrics and Eastern design motifs, mostly floral patterns again, ensured, however, that in this continuous mixing no traces of the original sources were discernable. The golden pathway for the models he created was a perfect setting for a collection that also included golden border prints and lush embroideries. As the models moved down the runway, they loosened and kicked up the gold leaf. With Van Noten’s deft touch, autumnal foliage was transformed as if through alchemy into a golden experience. Surely, herein lies Van Noten’s success; that is, his ability to transform, as if through alchemy, objects, textiles, sources, and images into something entirely different, novel, and unexpected.