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.
But doesn't the fact that you're not responsible to shareholders and such allow you a certain amount of freedom?
Look at it the other way. It's also very difficult because I feel very responsible. I have to do embroidery every season one way or another because the production is in India and we have nearly 3,000 people in India doing embroidery. So as a designer, I can say, "Okay, I don't want to do embroidery this season." But then they're affected and those people who have worked for us for so long might start to look for other jobs and then the season I want to do embroidery again it will be difficult. I can say, "I want to make a white collection," but [my sense of responsibility] affects everything. So then I have to do white-on-white embroidery.
In the new exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay, Impressionism and Fashion, we see that the artists didn't deliberately set out to paint clothes. But as a designer, your references to art are more intentional.
For Winter 2009, I did the collection with colours from Francis Bacon, which I still consider one of my best collections ever. It didn't sell very well. I think if we were to make it now – maybe it was just the wrong thing at the wrong moment.
It was also a weird time – the first season after the economy tanked.
Yeah, but it was a very interesting collection to make. I just wanted to combine those colours and recreate the emotions when I came out of that exhibition. I was shocked; it was just so horribly beautiful. And that's one of the reasons why it maybe didn't sell so well because I pushed boundaries which were about my aesthetic taste. The first five silhouettes were a trip. Who buys a gabardine raincoat in shrimp [pink]?
What do you feel when you consider that you've been in the business for 25 years?
I have just as much energy as when I was starting my career. And now I have [the advantages that come with] the luggage – the baggage – of my past, which I can easily go back to. But then I'll say that something was from 1994 and an assistant will say, "In that year, I was not even born." And that reminds me that I'm old.
Your father had clothing shops all over Belgium. Did he support your career choice?
When I was 18, I had to choose between business and fashion studies. So I chose the fashion school, which was more exciting. And I told him, "You know, I don't think I will take over the stores. I will become a fashion designer." And he said, "If you want to do that, it's okay, but I'm not paying for your studies. Out you can go." It was a big clash. So I had to work to pay for my studies and build up my company. In the later years, he started to understand maybe it was not such a stupid idea. And now he's too old to realize what's happening.
What pushes you out of bed in the morning?
It's not as easy as saying I really want to go to the office or I really want to go to the garden. What's exciting is when you can do it well – not too much of one or the other. With fashion, you know there are going to be difficult moments. I am fascinated by the struggle to create something, which is sometimes hurting and sometimes fun. Sometimes when you're getting there, it's like, yes, we did it and found the right balance. Sometime it's sleepless nights about how high does the heel have to be. When it's too high, it's slutty; when it's not high enough, it's mumsy. So all these things. And the garden, too.
Do you think there's still newness in fashion?
Maybe new is the wrong thing. The 20th century was about invention and next-next-next, all before an idea was fully explored. This was in art, fashion, industry – it was all changing so fast. Now, in the beginning of the 21st century, it's not always bad to go back to the past and review. In art, people are rediscovering painting and drawing, whereas before they couldn't get enough of video and installations. For me, it's the same thing – back to embroidery and beautiful clothes. Definitely no plastic.
This interview and has been edited and condensed.