At a time when celebrities are creative directors, luxury campaigns confirm Hollywood romances, and heritage pieces are being rehashed at a dizzying clip, Dries Van Noten is a designer who can still create a stir with pure fashion.
“The whole celebrity situation is getting kind of out of control,” he said during a recent interview. “Having a celebrity on the catwalk, having a celebrity in the room…now I think more of the reviews are about who is sitting front row than what the collection was about. For me, fashion deserves much more than to be reduced to something like this.”
After 37 years, six of them under the majority ownership of Puig, Van Noten is proving it’s possible to work within a conglomerate without losing that creative spark, which is why he’s WWD’s 2023 Designer of the Year for both his women’s and men’s collections.
Van Noten has entered the beauty category in a uniquely artistic way, opened retail at a slow but steady pace, and presented collections that dazzled on the runway with a fraction of the budget of luxury’s mega brands.
A mix master of masculine and feminine, his instinct for color and print is unrivaled, as seen when he mashed up florals of different scales, crushed and pleated fabrics, georgette garlands, snaking ruffles and giant blooms to redefine flower power for spring 2023.
For his fall women’s show, he elevated the craft of fashion — fine tailoring, exquisite heirloom fabrics, dressmaker and mending details — to the lofty stage of performance venue Le Dôme de Paris, and created one of the most covetable items of the season, a coat with a gilded corset waist.
He’s delivered men’s suiting with retro allure, elegant knit sets and pants with trenchcoat skirts. And his creative take on wardrobing was in top form in the spring 2024 women’s collection shown earlier this month, which took familiar pieces like the preppy button-down and rugby shirt and twisted them into chic new must-haves.
“It’s been a very good year,” the designer said, highlighting sales of the men’s and women’s collections, and beauty with the support of family-owned Spanish company Puig, whose revenues reached 3.6 billion euros in 2022. The conglomerate, which does not break out sales for its individual brands, aims to reach sales of 4.5 billion euros by 2025.
“Dries Van Noten has brought to Puig a creative vision that stands out among its peers with spectacular longevity, critical acclaim and a fiercely loyal customer base,” said chief executive officer and president Marc Puig. “We share a common cultural foundation and core values and are each committed to creativity and meaning. Six years after our partnership, driven by a shared vision and values, our joint ambition to celebrate Dries Van Noten’s unique, colorful and artistic approach to clothing and accessories has borne fruit illustrated by magnificent shows and a wonderful fragrances and beauty line expressing Dries Van Noten’s creativity and universe.”
Retailers are equally effusive.
“Dries Van Noten’s vision withstands and rises above the passing of time and the winds of trends. His world is recognizable and utterly unique and ultimately desirable,” said Linda Fargo, senior vice president of the fashion office and the director of women’s fashion and store presentation for Bergdorf Goodman, where the brand has had a shop-in-shop since 2010. “Before it was du jour, Dries intermixed codes of dressing, dipping unapologetically into genderfied references and unpredictable points of inspiration. For spring 3024 we recently saw him interplay with seemingly unrelated references — the 1920s with boys prep school, athletics and femme.
“We have come to expect the unexpected from him and we love him for that. It’s always a surprise, and yet familiar. He’s unafraid of color and print and incredible mash-ups, which feel both nonchalant and wildly exciting.…Dries has actually managed to make us delight in getting dressed, year after year.”
“Dries’ design focuses on the simplicity of shape fused with the complexity of texture and unique fabrics, which makes each piece so special,” said Roopal Patel, senior vice president and fashion director of Saks. “I have always admired his strong sense of color and seeing fashion from a different perspective. Dries is all about awakening the senses through his work. Every time you wear one of his creations it brings joy, happiness and a sense of individuality.”
Unlike at some recent runway shows, where the commercial merchandising hand was evident in the way sunglasses and handbags were shown with every look, Van Noten said he doesn’t feel that pressure.
“The moment that we announced the deal with Puig quite a lot of people thought now it is going to become commercial and it’s going to be drops and collaborations. OK, we did one with Stussy because I really enjoyed that, but it’s not purely commercial decisions,” Van Noten said of his approach.
“[Puig] has full confidence in us that we can really decide for ourselves how our collections are looking, what we are putting in the show, all those things. There’s really no enforcement of a commercial team or a commercial person or merchandiser saying, ‘Oh, you have to do this and the carry overs and those type of things.’ Completely not and that gives us a very nice freedom.”
Still, accessibility and the end customer are paramount. Van Noten doesn’t create looks just for the runway; he wants to make clothes that get worn. “Because it’s not a theoretical show, it’s something that should speak to a lot of women,” he said.
The Dries Van Noten business is 95 percent apparel and 5 percent accessories — so there is a lot of room to grow. “We needed bigger organization for that, we have opened up [the Chinese market] and we have e-commerce so it’s a lot of projects for which we need really strong shoulders. And that’s the shoulders of Puig which we use for that,” he said.
Van Noten opened his first mainland China store in Shanghai, and his first U.S. store in L.A. in 2020, followed by stores in Shenzhen and Chengdu in 2021 and 2022.
Last year, he also launched beauty with 10 gender-fluid fragrances, 30 lipsticks in refillable packaging and a range of accessories including mirrors, brushes and combs that are decorative objets. In July, his first fragrance, beauty and accessories store bowed on Quai Malaquais in Paris near his men’s and women’s boutiques nestled on the Left Bank stretch among art galleries and antiques stores. He now has 11 retail stores and more than 400 retail accounts globally, with 500-plus doors total.
Van Noten launched his brand with menswear in 1986. Now, women’s is the majority of sales, but the men’s and women’s collections continue to inform each other, and increasingly the lines have blurred. “When I look back to my men’s show in 2008, nearly all the fabrics were silk mousseline and duchesse silk, all those really very traditionally feminine materials. I think in my women’s collections from the early days on there were a lot of men’s fabrics, too, because it’s also something I like. I like to play with contrasts.”
The third generation of his family to work in the apparel business, Van Noten studied fashion at Antwerp’s Royal Academy. In 1991, he and five Belgian friends (including Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela and Walter van Beirendonck) drove a van to Paris to show, and took the city by storm, becoming known as “the Antwerp Six.”
Now, 30 years later, he works hard to court today’s younger generation with the runway, and through music and art, tapping local creatives in Chengdu to make pieces for the Shenzhen boutique, for example, and featuring the work of Sam Falls, Gus Van Sant, Brian Rochefort and others in The Little House gallery space adjacent to his L.A. store.
“Through the collections, we try to speak to quite a lot of different customers. And I’m very happy to say that we succeed with that,” Van Noten said of the brand’s multigenerational reach. “Also the things that we are doing communication wise, the making-of videos about how we do embroideries, young people especially are really fascinated by that kind of craft,” he said.
(A recent video on the website highlights the making-of embroidery in India, another details the restoration of a 17th-century Flemish tapestry hanging in the new Paris beauty boutique, with a video about the textile conservation completed by the De Wit Royal Manufacturers in Belgium.)
“Young people are fascinated by what we share and what we show, same also with the perfumes and the whole story behind it, the making of the juice with ingredients coming only from small farmers.”
While Van Noten doesn’t really use TikTok, he does look at Instagram, he said. “And luckily enough for me, my team is really very young, and very social media minded, of course. On my women’s team, the oldest person is 32 years old. So in that way, automatically you get the young atmosphere. And I have to say sometimes in discussions even when I’m 65 I still feel the youngest of the bunch and manage to shock them.”
His process, though, remains largely the same as it always has been.
“The embroideries and fabrics are really dictating the collections what we make. I want really to play with fabrics and colors. They are my paint to make my painting,” he said. “And I want to have enough time to do all those developments and maybe even try out three different weights of cottons or cotton linen blends.”
The journey is both long and short, with the design team being able to send an idea to suppliers and one week later have a piece of fabric four meters long to play around with on a model.
“The next step is playing with all the colors, doing the same prints on different grounds, to see the best weights, to see the best drape, to see what print is best on viscose, on cotton, something transparent or on a denim pant. And then you still have to decide at a certain moment is this what we’re going to put in collection, and then start sampling — and that’s only for the prints.”
He tends to the famed sprawling garden outside his Antwerp home with the same care and attention to detail.
“It’s autumn so it’s really the last bit of dahlias. But what is really beautiful is the autumn cyclamen, which are flowering in symbiosis with beech trees. You have a carpet of little pink flowers, and the first coloring of the trees, which is quite spectacular,” he said.
“I can’t literally say OK the flowers inspire me. We did one collection [fall 2019] where we actually photographed flowers from the garden, which we printed on the clothes. But it’s more of a personal way of living and looking at things. For me, the garden keeps me in balance and I think automatically that affects the clothes,” he said.
Being in the garden taught him how to see the world, too.
“The way you look at nature, the way you look at a view, that you look at light, you learn a lot in a garden,” he said. “There are parallels in the way that we work on the collection but also the perfumes. For instance, the whole discussion with the noses happened in the garden. So they all came over, we did a long walk, and I talked about roses. I said I really would like to have some perfumes based on rose but not feminine, sweet or motherlike. For me, a garden rose can be sick, a rose has thorns, a rose can be a symbol of revolution. So give me a rose, which is more connected with revolution, like so crazy that you are bleeding from it, that’s the rose I would like to smell. That gave the energy to the noses to create the perfume that they did,” he said of the Raving Rose eau du parfum with notes of pink and black pepper.
The garden has also taught him to let go.
“In the fashion business, we try to control everything…and OK planting, of course, you decide what you plant. But if it grows or not, it’s not you who decides, it’s God or nature or whatever you want. You can have drought, you can have rain when you don’t want it. So it’s a force [that] is much stronger and you have to live with it. You have to let it go and you have to appreciate it.”
Decorative arts are also a source of fascination — the fall 2022 women’s collection took architect/furniture designer Carlo Mollino’s legendary Torino apartment as its reference, and featured a crackle-printed lacquer boot inspired by Chinese blue porcelain that fell into the category of “to wear or display?”
“I love to look at beautiful things. I love also to look at ugly things. I learn sometimes as much from really horrible things that are more challenging for the eye.”
Van Noten is not thinking about a home collection just yet, however.
“I think we have enough. Men’s and womenswear, the accessories and especially the beauty and the perfume line, which is really going to grow quite fast in the next year so there is a lot of work to be done there also.”
A lot of new products are on the way was all he’d say about that. He’s also thinking about opening a New York store.
Like many, Van Noten has complained about the relentless pace of fashion, and he’s a designer who doesn’t even do pre-collections. But in recent years, he’s found his own rhythm.
“I have a great team who helps me but still it stays intense because, of course, I love to work with people, I love to give them a lot of responsibility, but also to control people,” he laughed.
The weekend before his October shows in Paris, he and his partner, Patrick Vangheluwe, make time to decamp to their home on the Amalfi coast. “It’s a house [that] is built nearly in the sea. It’s more like a boat than a house and I think it’s the perfect way to relax,” Van Noten said.
By that time, the collection has already been in his showroom in Antwerp and moved to Italy.
“We can’t really do anything about it anymore, and it’s during Milan Fashion Week, so the only thing that we can do is get very nervous. That’s why we have the tradition to go for a few days to Italy. And then we fly from Italy to Paris, arrive on Sunday to do castings and start on Monday with the fittings. I think we come there a little bit more relaxed.”
After all these years, he still gets nervous? “Oh, yes.”
“But the moment when you do a fitting, and you see the makeup, the hair, the casting and then the sound and the music come together, we’re happy again and have the energy to start the next one.”