Dries Van Noten does things differently. Talk to anyone familiar with the Belgian designer and it won’t be long before you hear the word “integrity” and a sigh of appreciation. For 30 years his intelligent designs, in lush artisanal fabrications, rich colours and flattering silhouettes, have been worn by independent women who care deeply about looking stylish but little for the currencies of extreme fashionability. Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Rihanna all wear Van Noten’s clothes. One esteemed Pulitzer-winning fashion writer schedules her Paris Fashion Week diary to incorporate numerous visits to his Left Bank boutique. I know, because we share a car.
“There’s a real sense of freedom with Dries Van Noten,” says Selfridges’ buying director Sebastian Manes, who describes it as “one of the most successful independent labels in the world”. The department store has carried the brand since 2007. “Commercially, it’s an anchor that consistently performs well for us and appeals to a cross-section of our customers,” Manes continues. “His collections are thoughtful, extensive and versatile – easily worn as a daily uniform, or when majestic, comfortable glamour is needed. His client is educated, understated, but with a penchant for the decadent or unusual.”
Van Noten’s self-owned label, of which he is designer and chief executive, is as independent in spirit as it is in execution. In the rapacious world of fashion, where designers now churn out collections every six weeks, Van Noten delivers only four a year, two for men and two for women; and unlike at some brands where the catwalk bears little relation to the clothes you see in store, Van Noten shows only the things he sells. What you see is what you get.
“Dries has carved his own path outside the normal fashion system and has always worked in an individual way,” says Laura Larbalestier, buying director at Browns, which has stocked Van Noten since his first collection in 1986. “Each season he takes risks and explores new inspirations, but he also manages to maintain a strong sense of unity – his exceptional use of colour, incredible print and detailed embroideries run through every collection. Every piece has timeless appeal.”
Consistency has paid dividends. At a time when many other luxury brands are seeing their figures stagnate or decline, Van Noten’s has continued to rise. And while he won’t release exact figures, the designer says the business has enjoyed double-digit growth for the past three years. “It’s a relief that when a lot of other people have been having difficulties, we have been growing really fast.”
The 58-year-old designer is sitting at a large wooden desk at his headquarters in Antwerp, a vast 60,000sq ft warehouse on Godefriduskaai that incorporates his showroom, design, marketing and accounts departments, salesroom and archive – its rooftop terrace offers an unspoilt view over the docklands, a few domed churches and the flat Flemish landscape. Today, like most other days, Van Noten is dressed in a neat navy sweater, with a scarf carefully knotted around his neck, and dark trousers. His salt-and-pepper hair is styled in a schoolboy crop with a tidy side parting. He is ambitious for his company, but cautiously so.
“I really want to control the growth,” he says. “We are not big on the internet, for example. In ecommerce, we have been very, very careful, very controlled. We have 550 selling points in the world, which is a lot and it’s not a lot. We don’t have our own store in the States and we have only limited distribution in China. So we have a lot of opportunities and it’s all there to play for.” Van Noten won’t be rushed though. “When we have time, when we feel the market is right, when our organisation can follow it, we take the next step,” he says. “We expand little by little. But right now that growth is growing a little faster than expected.” His approach is surprisingly careful – and typically north European. “My aim is not to have a huge fashion empire.” And yet he appears to have one anyway. “No, no. I don’t consider it like that,” he says. “For me it’s still the balance that has to be right.”
We all talk about finding balance in our lives, but Van Noten seems to have been particularly successful at doing so. Every day, he commutes from his home in Lier, about 40 minutes from the city centre. Ringenhof, the house he shares with his partner Patrick Vangheluwe and their dog Harry, is a magnificent 50-acre estate with exquisite landscaped gardens and a large lake. When they bought the 19th-century neoclassical summer retreat it was a crumbling wreck, with chronic damp, rotten floors and mouldering cornicing. They have since restored it and crammed it with treasures. It is breathtakingly beautiful, though a little chilly in the winter due to the lack of central heating. When I visit for a candlelit dinner the night before our interview the whole place is shrouded in a soft, melancholy mist, as if in a Henry James novel. On difficult work days, Van Noten retreats to the basement kitchen and makes batches of jam from the garden’s bounty, or wanders with Harry among its paradisiacal borders.
The house has helped him find his balance. “In fashion everything is fast, and so having this place with the garden is good,” he says, “because it’s not a simple house and the garden has to be looked after – you have to water those plants, otherwise they’ll die. It makes you see that not everything can wait because you are creating fashion.” He offers me another example. “Sometimes I have berries and we have picked the berries. So OK, sorry people – I have to go home. I have to go and make jam.”
It’s hard to imagine many other fashion designers abandoning their toiles to stir a pot of jam of an afternoon, but these meditative diversions are just some of the advantages of owning one’s own business and having the confidence that comes from managing a brand for more than three decades. He credits some of his composure to having stayed in Belgium, away from the rabble-scrabble of the fashion cities, for most of his working life. Van Noten shows in Paris and keeps an office there, but his heart has always remained in Antwerp. “For me, Antwerp is a very good base to work, to live. It’s a very easy, comfortable city,” he says. It makes business sense, too, with its close proximity to Paris, London and Amsterdam and long history in international trade and textile development.
Textiles have always been Van Noten’s obsession. His design process begins with material – huge bolts of it are stored all over the building in readiness. Each season his main partners – Barneys, Selfridges, Liberty and Bergdorf Goodman among them – come to his offices and place 70 per cent of their orders in the run-up to the show (they add in the extras after Paris). The pre-orders give him enough time to produce the fabrics he develops each season, and he works closely with artisans and manufacturers with whom he has enjoyed long collaborations.
For this spring/summer his fabrics are a typical blend of high and low: vivid Japanese-inspired floral silks mixed with the simplest cream calicos and white T-shirts; wide-legged workman’s jeans; ivory-coloured blazers and a darkly ornate yellow rose chintz. His references are wide and diverse: a high-collared Edwardian shirt in marigold is a standout; a jet embroidered opera coat is more oriental in style; while a black patent mac with contrasting yellow silk lapels looks younger and more modern.
Van Noten is passionate about the quality, technical accomplishment and look of each piece. It’s the reason he doesn’t do precollections: “I simply wouldn’t have time, technically, to do it… I would be in meetings with designers who work for me. It would take me away from the studio and all the things I love to do – like hand-picking the sequins to go on embroidery, or playing with the proportions of a heel. The fun part.”
He employs a team of dedicated embroiderers in India and works with many of the old ateliers, helping to protect their craft skills. But his enthusiasm is less about preservation and more about the pleasure he takes in a beautiful piece of material. “I make clothes with the idea of now and the future,” says Van Noten. “But I have a lot of respect for the past and for the tradition and the skills. Am I nostalgic? No. It’s just that for me modern methods aren’t as good and I won’t work with them.” He pauses. “On the other hand, I do use high-tech nylons and I love working with digital print because it gives me possibilities. So some seasons our work is more digital, some seasons it’s more artisanal and sometimes we mix them.”
Van Noten rarely designs for a specific customer. “I’m businessman enough to know that we have to keep a good turnover,” he says of his commercial instincts. “But it’s automatically in me, so I don’t need those kinds of guidelines to say this is what I have to do.” Nevertheless, each season is dedicated to a muse – or several muses. “We create five different women,” he says of the way a collection builds. “I sit around the table with my designers and we talk: what shoes will she wear? Is she a woman who is sporty or chic? Does she drink tea or cocktails? Does she smoke? Is she tall? Is she small? Does she travel? And the following season we start again with five completely different women.
“I love to tell a story,” he continues, “but I don’t want to make costumes. It has to be contemporary and for all ages. We have 16-year-old customers, we have 75-year-old customers; my mother is dressed only in my collection. But I also want to move on, to surprise myself and to have fun with it.”
His fans are legion. Rare is the woman not to be seduced by his jewel-like palette and sumptuous designs; many return again and again to his carefully curated stores in search of special pieces. “It’s definitely a brand with a cult following,” says Larbalestier. “His customer base is quite diverse, partly because his collections are ageless. He tends to attract a client who wants to be unique. Of course, Dries Van Noten is incredible as a full look, but there’s also magic in how each piece can be mixed and matched.”
Practicality – often a dirty word in fashion – is something innate in Van Noten’s work. It’s one of the main themes that linked the self-styled “Antwerp Six” who first put Belgian design on the map. The group, which included Ann Demeulemeester and Walter Van Beirendonck, all graduated from the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1980-81 and came up with their catch-all moniker while visiting a London trade fair because they thought no one would be able to pronounce their names. At the time their clothes were seen as a cool, minimal response to the more exuberant designs of the 1980s. “Together they transformed Antwerp into an epicentre of avant-garde design,” says Browns’ Larbalestier. “It felt like a new movement in fashion.”
Van Noten waves away their similarities. “The Antwerp Six was like one big creative soup,” he says of their close, competitive, comradely beginnings. “The place of origin was maybe the same, but everybody had their own individuality.” He agrees, however, that their work shared a practical wearability. “We have two feet on the ground,” he says of the threads that continue to link Belgian designers. “Most of the clothes we make are quite everyday and they can live on their own. You don’t need the total outfit.”
To all appearances Van Noten seems to have it sussed: a thriving business, a beautiful home life and the admiration of an industry that is fickle in its affections. But he is far from complacent about his future. Things have moved on a great deal since he started, and the designer is wary of the changes now afoot. “At the beginning there were only a few precollections,” he says. “Now there are hundreds. And some people show the precollection in the season, and others six months in advance. You have some fashion shows that are see-now-buy-now, and you have men’s and women’s fashion shows within the same schedule.”
He’s sceptical of its impact. “Fashion is a kind of reaction to what’s happening in the world and I think for the moment it’s in a mess,” he continues. “It creates confusion and it’s getting to the point where no one can follow it any more. And when the client can’t follow it any more, she loses interest – and that’s when you lose control.”
As an independent label, Van Noten is holding out against the tide. Of the big corporate companies leading the change, he says, “They have their shareholders and they have to show profit, profit, profit. So they cut expenses and try and find other miracle systems to make it work. And I think it’s killing fashion a little bit.”
Van Noten’s personal version of luxury is to celebrate the simple things, exquisitely presented. Over dinner, while eating a salad of wafer-thin radish slices served on antique plates, he mentions that picking and eating his own vegetables makes him feel “like a rich man”. His designs are based on the same principles of honest authenticity. “I think luxury has changed a lot,” he says. “In the past, it was a five-star hotel, a three-star restaurant, something expensive. Now, luxury is one day without a mobile phone. It is privacy. People have changed completely in that way.”
For Van Noten, the business of fashion must follow the same logic. “The solutions they are seeking are all to do with changing the rhythm of the fashion show. But how many clients say, ‘I really want that skirt of that pre-collection of that season, because otherwise I won’t feel fashionable any more?’” he says. “No. I think the customer wants other things.”
In the meantime, Van Noten, as ever, is ploughing his own furrow. “I don’t know where my future is,” he says. “I am not the youngest any more. But I’m not saying I want to finish with my company in order to do something else.” He doesn’t look forward to a quiet retirement of jam-making and weeding, then? “No,” he laughs. “I still enjoy fashion too much. And I think sometimes, looking at difficult times is more interesting. And right now those difficult times are not that difficult for us. So let’s keep it like that.”