To sit down with Dries Van Noten after one of his fashion shows is to find a designer whose perfectionism tends to get the better of him. “I don’t focus on the things that went well,” he confessed within hours recently of his spring/summer 2013 presentation in Paris. That said, you don’t reach the quarter-century mark in the fashion business by doing things halfway. The Belgian designer, who continues to be based in Antwerp, remains among the most respected in the industry – in part because he has never bowed to the typical industry expectations: He does no advertising, designs only four collections annually (bucking the trend toward mounting resort and pre-fall shows), runs his company independently with partner Patrick Vangheluwe and resists the licensing arrangements that boost the bottom line for the majority of fashion brands.
How and why? Because his designs are so compelling, Van Noten doesn’t need nor want to spread himself any thinner. In previous interviews – and he doesn’t grant many – he inevitably describes his garden (in Lier, 15 kilometres from Antwerp) and his Airedale, Harry, as calming counterpoints to his demanding métier. Before he returned to both, he set aside some time to share insights both personal and professional – and how fashion designers would be wise to think like bakers.
I have read you say that you put a lot of yourself into collections. What do you mean by that?
All my collections are very personal. It’s also because I’m so involved in making the collections. I have my own office and I’m there during the evenings and weekends. But during the week, I’m sitting in the middle of my studio, talking with everybody, deciding together every detail, every paillette, every yarn, every colour. I’m really hands-on. My team brings in elements, but, every season, it’s kind of a personal struggle to find the balance and to see how far I want to push the elements.
So when do you stop?
It’s difficult. (He laughs.) Luckily enough, there are other things in life – my garden, my dog – so I concentrate fully on those, too.
You often talk about your garden, but you never show it to the media.
When we have press coming to visit my home, I sometimes invite them into the garden, but I say, “This is private.” It really is. It’s not that I want to be so secret about it. But when I invite people to my house and my garden and they want to photograph it, it has to match perfectly the image I want to create. And my house is my house and I live in a very normal way like everybody. It’s not perfection.
So how much are you thinking about the image that we do see?
Of course, it’s mostly the fashion shows. Four times a year, I have 10 minutes to show who I am, what I lived through the last season, how I was thinking about the world, what my reaction is to all the news from everywhere – the whole thing.
And how much are you designing for you versus the women who have been following you over the years?
I don’t design for myself. I design something keeping in mind that it has to please a lot of women. I always compare my job with a good baker, someone who can make very good cakes. You can make the most beautiful cakes imaginable and many of them. But when it’s not really so delicious and people aren’t eating them, there’s no sense baking them. It’s the same thing with my job. If people aren’t buying, it’s not just about the financials; there’s no sense in making those things. At the end, we are fashion designers; we are making clothes. We are not making a kind of illusion. Of course, other people are creating an illusion because the money comes from the perfume, the lipstick, the handbags and shoes. We are more than 90 per cent clothes. For most brands, it’s 30 per cent clothes, 30 per cent accessories and all those things. And [our] 93 to 94 per cent are clothes and things that I showed on the catwalk. It’s not like I have the other pre-collections and the jeans line. For us, this is the collection we make and this is the collection we sell.
What have been the benefits of not being controlled by a luxury conglomerate?
It’s not really a choice that you make, like, “Okay, now I really want to stay independent.” It just happens like that. The fact is that we try to catch the good moments. We really look around at what’s happening and, if it seems interesting, then we go ahead. It’s not that we plan five years out. That’s not the way that I work.