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Article on Dries Van Noten by Suzy Menkes | Dated, but Great Article year - 2008

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Article on Dries Van Noten by Suzy Menkes | Dated, but Great Article year - 2008

Post by xyz on Tue May 14, 2013 5:05 am


Dries Van Noten in full bloom at 50

By Suzy Menkes
Monday, May 26, 2008

ANTWERP, Belgium:
Smudges of purple pansies spread over a buttercup yellow ground. Irises bow orange heads above thin green stalks. Vivid pink tulips dapple a turquoise landscape. And that is just on the Dries Van Noten designs illuminating his concrete warehouse by the old port of Antwerp.

When you reach the Belgian designer's real garden - a 24-hectare, or 60-acre, estate outside the small Belgian town of Lier - the flowers reflect more his quiet and orderly character: rhododendrons planted in controlled clusters of pink, yellow or burgundy in the greenery around a still pond.

Van Noten, who turned 50 this month, is in full bloom. Next week he will receive in New York the award of International Designer of the year from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The excited Belgian press dubbed it as "a Fashion Oscar" - an appropriate comment since Van Noten dressed a very pregnant Cate Blanchett for the 2008 Academy Awards.

"I have nothing against glamorous dressing," says Van Noten, known for proper skirt lengths and a down-to-earth sensibility. "And it is nice for the people like our manufacturers and the people stitching the clothes."

Generous, unassuming and independent are the three defining qualities of Van Noten, who started in 1985 and celebrated in 2004 his 50th collection with a Paris show in an abandoned factory. There the models' catwalk was a gargantuan festive table under swaying chandeliers, while the lengthy "tablecloth" mirrored his mother's collection of antique linen, whose origin she would narrate to her four children before the meal.

Van Noten's men's and women's shows are legendary both for the food he offers with nonchalant grace and for the ever-shifting mix of the ethnic and the artistic. His aesthetic is grounded in color, fabric and print - and especially in texture. Mole heaps of materials lie on a table on the fourth floor of the Antwerp warehouse, where Van Noten works with his 14-strong creative team.

After lunch at a long table with the look of a Brueghel painting, the loyal staff members resume their roles: one drawing a print of abstract eagles; another researching Peter Lindbergh and Bruce Weber images from the 1980s; some working with skeins of bright yarn on the blend of "graphic with spontaneous" that Van Noten wants for the 2009 season, saying "everything for me is about balance." He hesitates to divulge future ideas, showing a counterfeit version of his iconic iris-print silk blouse sold on eBay.

It is not easy to associate Van Noten, the man, with the splashy prints that have become his trademark. He walks the streets in a crisp, striped shirt and tailored pants and no one acknowledges his presence.

"One of the big luxuries of being in Antwerp, is that I can easily walk in the city," he says. "In Paris and New York I am more recognized."

The store that he opened in 1989, complete with mahogany shop fittings, was a pleasing early step toward success, as it had belonged to a great rival of his grandfather. While Van Noten's parents had an upscale designer fashion store, his grandfather had started as a tourneur - a tailor who turned worn clothes inside out (a concept that a fellow Belgian designer, Martin Margiela, was to translate into an art form.)

"Dries is not a conceptual designer," says Kaat Debo, the curator of the fashion museum at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Van Noten was trained there in the 1980s as one of the Antwerp Six, who made the Belgian city an unlikely epicenter of fashion.

"He is one of very few designers with a sense of style and aesthetics, deciding everything, including his house and his garden," says Debo. "He has a feel for color that is so subtle. And he does everything without advertising. That's unique."

Diane Von Furstenberg, Belgian-born and now president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, says that the award was given "not just for his recent great collections, but also for his body of work and his independence. Dries has remained a Belgian designer, proud of his roots. He is true to himself and it shows in his clothes."

Van Noten declines to give figures, but he is thought to have a turnover of about ?50 million, or about $78.7 million. There are 500 points of sale worldwide and five individualistic flagships stores, including Antwerp, Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore and a newly opened Dubai.

The most significant partnership in his team is with Patrick Vangheluwe, who has been beside him from the start, collaborating in the business and on their personal project - the restoration of the pillared mansion with frogs croaking in the garden and an interior with a patina of color and patterns like an English country idyll.

Vangheluwe insists that he is not the business foil to his partner and although he might focus on production, there are no titles in the company. The two form a creative duo, who chose to work out over a bottle of wine a wild mix of patterns for this summer. Van Noten says that he checks sales and business details every day, although he calls the budget "an unpleasant reality" and says that "it is quite hard to play the role of the boss."

"I think our success is the team way of working," says Vangheluwe. "It's very important to have the right people in the right place."

A tour of the headquarters, with its studied empty spaces, reveals a cache of quirky antique furniture "for the stores" and stocks of fabrics, synthetic materials mixed with the silks of Lyon and Como, Swiss cotton and silvered embroideries and ethnic artifacts from the designer's beloved India.

"Things like that are what I love most," says Van Noten, spotting Indian newsprint through the resin of a bracelet.

Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys, in New York, which has carried the clothes for 20 years, says that at a time of "flashy over-consumerism, Dries remains a beacon of subtlety."

"Dries clothes have a transformative effect: the wearer becomes a more interesting, enigmatic, intriguing person," says Doonan. "If Virginia Woolf or Isadora Duncan were alive today, they would be flying to Antwerp to buy Dries."

Yet Van Noten's style is too gentle and tidy to be defined as "BoHo" or "artsy," except for the unforgettable settings for Paris shows: a ceiling of upturned umbrellas; Moroccan tents by a rain-drenched River Seine; an alleyway in the Indian quarter; medieval pennants celebrating his Belgian heritage; a floor strewn with gilded leaves; and in 2006, a wall of 140,000 pink roses.

"I hated gardening," says Van Noten, remembering slaving with his siblings in the garden created by their father. "But when we bought the house we began saying we would do only the land close to the house, but before we knew what was happening ..."

Van Noten's designs do not treat women as fragile flowers, but rather with respect. He bucked the restrictions imposed by his first fashion teacher Madame Prigot, who was obsessed with Chanel chic. His greatest design debt is to Linda Loppa, head of the Antwerp Academy for two decades and a mentor to a generation of Belgian designers.

Van Noten describes his mother as "not dressed very extravagantly." The family moved to the country when he was 12 years old and he, with his two older sisters and brother, now a doctor, went to Mass identically dressed. Van Noten recalls closets with the children's underwear tied into tiny bundles with a satin ribbon and bow; and remembers his grandparents' home filled with art and antiques.

"My childhood was very, very, very, very traditional,' says Van Noten, with a guttural Flemish rasping of the 'r's.

Then there was his Jesuit schooling, which he says in his official biography gave him "moral strength" and a "practical outlook."

He points to his school - a red brick building with its thin spire reaching toward heaven.

"People from outside recognize Jesuits easily," he says. "There is a way of thinking and way of talking that is thematic. We try to understand, we don't talk very easily, we are very close. But that is also a protection - being half a public person, I try to show what I want to show."

Restraint is an integral part of Van Noten's work - to a fault if you are looking for the sexuality of a seductive silhouette. But restraint was not in evidence at the 50th birthday bash, with its heaving dance floor and abundant food from 12 different chefs whose Asian and Moroccan cuisine or mini-hamburgers were served until 4 a.m.

"It's not depressing - it's impressive," says Van Noten about reaching half a century - the age when his mother decided to quit the family retail business for a farm in the country. "You have to think of all sorts of things, that you did not when 45," the designer says. "It's about making choices."

Those decisions will be about his personal future and that of his 75 staff worldwide; and maybe about whether ultimately to accept an offer for his company.

Yet if Van Noten ever decides to spend more time with Vangheluwe, tending to their garden - that will surely bring yet more inspiration for a fashion galaxy of flowers.

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