Progressive People: Dries Van Noten

Fashion is not that important

Dries Van Noten burst onto the London Fashion scene in 1968 as a young rebel. In our interview, he talks about independence and the status of fashion. For a fabric-obsessd designer like Dries Van Noten, using a mossy carpet as a catwalk in merely taking his ideas to their natural conclusion.

To showcase his 2015 women’s spring/summer collection, Dries van Noten commissioned Argentine artist Alexandra Kehayoglou to weave a moss-like wool rug. With the show over, van Noten has sent the 48-meter-long runner on tour. This is just one element we weave into a magical carpet-ride of a conversation.
Audi Magazine: You decided to exhibit Alexandra Kehayoglou’s carpet rather than your own designs at Gallery Weekend in Berlin. Did you think it was a better fit with the art world?
Dries van Noten:
My 2015 spring/summer collection represents a watershed for me because it expresses our new future direction — a return to nature. At first, I envisioned the models walking on a mossy path. But having a défi lé of 55 women cross moss proved unworkable. That’s when I had the idea of a carpet. When we unrolled it in Paris, it was immediately clear that it’s much too beautiful to only be displayed for ten minutes during the show. It’s so delicate and pure, it deserves a much wider audience — and to be exhibited around the world.


What have you learned from your new role as curator?
The exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris took two years to put together. I didn’t just want to showcase my designs but also to reveal the creative process behind them — my inspiration. I needed to see my work from an outsider’s perspective. The fashion industry marches to rapid cycles of four collections per year. When you suddenly pause to look back, you have to ask yourself, are my designs good enough to be in a museum? Do they hold their own alongside a Christian Dior creation from the 1940s or a Mark Rothko painting?


Your garments are known to be playfully gender-bending. But as a backdrop to a women’s wear collection, the carpet seems to shore up a traditional feminine aesthetic.
There is an essentially naïve quality to the carpet. Things don’t always have to be complicated and cerebral to stir emotions. In art, above all, it seems there always has to be yet another layer of intellectualization. The carpet is simplicity in itself but it still packs a powerful visual punch.


So this is not about contrasting men and women but about naivety showing up the excessively highbrow?

You discovered Alexandra Kehayoglou on the Internet. How exactly did that happen?
What do you do when you realize that one of your ideas is going nowhere — in this case, that a real moss catwalk is not an option? You pop open your laptop and start googling. We found a picture of a small moss carpet made by Alexandra Kehayoglou and immediately made contact with her.


Nobody recommended her to you?
No. As a creative professional, I like to give serendipity the space to unfold. Planning things to death and executing them to the letter can really strangle creativity. When you accidentally throw two fabrics together on a cutting table and suddenly realize how they complement each other—I welcome that kind of spontaneity.


Do you see yourself as the last anti-rock star in fashion?
After all, unlike you, the industry is increasingly moving away from craftsmanship toward fashion as entertainment. Either way, I’m grateful that we are an independent fashion house. At many of the big-name companies, the accessories division eclipses the actual garments. It was just a few years ago that our key customers were utterly dumbfounded by our refusal to introduce pre-collections. Now, they have come to admire us for it. I think we’ve successfully stood our ground.


Is mass production invariably a bad thing and handcraftsmanship invariably good, or is it more complicated than that?
It’s not so black and white. While it’s impossible to get by without some measure of industrialization, I would be very sad to see the old skills die out. I’m careful to include old manual techniques in every collection. In India, we employ 3,000 people to do hand embroidery. When I want to create a collection that shifts the emphasis away from needlework, then I dial down the colors and have the stitching match the fabric. That way, the workers keep their jobs. What’s more, we also place orders with small weaving mills in Italy that still hand-print fabrics. These people have archives; they keep culture and expertise alive.


Do you draw your inspiration from pre-industrial times?
I respect the traditions and craftsmanship of old but I’m not a hopeless nostalgic. I don’t want to imitate the past slavishly — I welcome laptops and mobile phones. Contemporary advances are there to be taken advantage of. Thanks to computers, nobody has to rely on carrier pigeons anymore, but it’s worth remembering that we once used birds to carry messages.

Today, it’s easy to explore regional cultures in India or South America. Are we losing sight of local color on our doorsteps as a result?
There is that risk. I love traveling but I don’t need to leave my country or city to discover new things. Vacations are overrated. A 15-minute tour of your hometown can be very illuminating. You don’t have to sit on a plane for 15 hours to get that.


You not only run your own business but also design and produce many of your own textiles in-house. Is this kind of independence a prerequisite for innovation?
No. Our independence is an opportunity for innovation. While I can follow my heart and pursue financially questionable pet ideas, at the end of the day, I also have to ensure that the business stays afloat.


In the nineties, innovation in fashion was all about taking cutting edge advancement, such as glued seams, and designing something new around it. How would you define innovation today?
Today, innovation really becomes apparent on closer inspection. That’s because in the last 30 or 40 years, the drive to invent robbed us of opportunities to go beyond scratching the surface of things. The reigning wisdom was: new, new, new, different, different, different. You never had the time to keep digging deeper into a topic until you had found the perfect solution. Creating dazzling beauty isn’t the prime objective; doing things properly and producing something unique is.


So you’re saying more intense engagement slows things down?
I’m saying slow the pace and look more closely to gradually move forward. There might be facets of old garment patterns that no one paid attention to at the time but which we can polish up to new brilliance. That’s what we should focus on today. At the moment, fashion is more ubiquitous and diverse — to the extent that anything goes — than ever before. As a result, there are no longer any seasonal dictates. Instead of changing color palettes for each time of year, it’s far more interesting to delve into a topic over a longer period.


Different clothes underscore different attitudes. Do you believe that as a designer you have a responsibility to society? Or is it all just an innocent game?
As the head of a successful company, I automatically have a social responsibility — to my employees as well as to customers. You have to believe in something and have something to offer. Clothes are a means of communication. I provide people with building blocks for their personal expression. Clothes have power. The wrong sweater can ruin your whole day. I don’t presume to dictate how my clothes should be worn. But don’t hide behind them, either. Show the world who you are.


Is romantic avant-gardist a good description of you?
I enjoy working with antagonistic elements. If something is too pretty, I force something ugly on it, to create tension.


Is sex appeal an important factor for you?
Sex appeal is something personal — it depends on the way you move and how you dress rather than on the quantity of naked skin on show. My men’s wear collection aims to show the male body in a new light. Nowadays young men build bulging muscles with weight training. I wanted to spotlight a cool guy with long, toned muscles like a runner or ballet dancer rather than a weightlifter.


You’ve made reference to the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais. Are you primarily interested in his aesthetics or also in the social and political implications that such allusions carry?

I have my favorite sources that I keep going back to — the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, Millais … The inspiration you get from an artist can manifest itself in different ways. One is a direct debt. Some years ago, I went to a Francis Bacon exhibition in London. I wanted to imitate his color combinations, the pairing of pretty and terrifying that you find in Bacon’s pink. I wanted that precise pink. Sometimes the influence is more indirect or conceptual. What interested me in Millais’ Ophelia were the abstract issues of nature and freedom.


After so many years in the business, what drives you to keep going?
Fashion is a very rewarding profession. The challenges outweigh the rote work. It doesn’t get any easier — you have to remain emotionally committed to it.


When you started in the profession in the eighties, did you feel part of a scene such as the New Romantics or the New Wave?
Back then everyone adopted a new style every six months. Between 1975 and 1985, the focus was initially on Italian designers before shifting to the English and then the Japanese. Every year brought with it something new — it was fantastic. You felt like a kid in a candy store.


What are your plans for the future?
I avoid getting too tied up in planning — even as a businessman. You have to let things happen. When I opened the store in Paris, I was asked, “Oh so this is part of your career plan?” No. I happened to stumble on the retail space, fell in love with it and did the natural thing.


So enjoy the unpredictable?


In every era, a different aspect of culture shapes the zeitgeist. What would you say that is today?
I hope it’s not money and business, but I’m afraid I’m being naive. Religion is also on the rise.


We were thinking more in terms of something like food …
Food has already come and gone.


And it doesn’t bother you that fashion is no longer defining the times?
No, fashion is not that important.


Jan Joswig (interview), Jan van Endert (photos)


More information:
As one of the young, rebellious spirits associated with the Antwerp Six, Dries van Noten burst onto the London fashion scene in 1986. Today he is regarded as a quiet colossus who consistently opposes all impulses toward fast fashion. For some three decades, his collections have been celebrated by thinking followers of fashion. In 2014, the Musée des Arts décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Paris paid homage to him with an exhibition entitled Dries van Noten: Inspirations, which then opened in the ModeMuseum (Fashion Museum) in Antwerp, where it is on show until July 2015. Dries van Noten heads an independent fashion house that supplies more than 400 stores worldwide in addition to its own boutiques in Antwerp, Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

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