AP Fashion Writer, New York
Belgium’s Dries Van Noten is one those designers, and while his name may not be familiar yet, fashion insiders have decided it should be. Van Noten’s clothes come in wearable, almost practical silhouettes, but in fabrics so rich and interesting that the look is anything but boring.
Last month, the Council of Fashion Designers of America bestowed upon him its award for the best international designer of the year, and top-tier retailers such as Neiman Marcus are excited about both his current and fall collections.
"He quietly moves forward and he’s so influential. Everyone pays attention to what he’s doing," says Neiman’s fashion director Ken Downing of Van Noten.
The spring-summer trend of painterly florals came straight from the designer’s runway, Downing declares. "He’s inspiring so many people, whether it’s conscious or subconscious."
Downing adds: "He’s all about personal style: Five women can wear Dries Van Noten and you’ll see five women who look totally different."
In person, Van Noten looks more like a banker or an attorney from a small town – maybe even a bygone era. His graying hair is cut short and neat and, on this day at the Carlyle Hotel restaurant, he wears a gray pinstripe suit and blue button-down shirt with his white T-shirt peeking out and no tie.
He says he tries to use the most modern technology – when it’s called for – yet retreat to a life in Belgium’s countryside surrounded by flowers when he can. "You need both to live well," he says softly.
When CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg first tried to reach Van Noten by telephone this spring to tell him he’d won the group’s award, she had trouble reaching him, further cementing his image as an independent artist in an increasingly corporate fashion world.
Van Noten recalls: He had forgotten his mobile phone at his office – a 60,000-square foot warehouse that had billeted both German and Allied troops during World War II – and there was a terrible thunderstorm that afternoon. "It was like a cheap horror movie with the lights turning on and off."
She eventually got through at the house, but it was a bad connection. All Van Noten could make out was, "I have news" and something about a prize. She had to repeat the part about him winning several times, he says with a laugh.
Van Noten, 50, comes from a fashion family, but his grandfather and father, both tailors, were more interested in retailing. But Van Noten himself wasn’t sold on that side of the business. He took the knowledge gained while attending fashion shows with his father and transferred it into his own designs.
Following a Jesuit education as a boy, which he credits as giving him a moral center, he enrolled in fashion classes at Antwerp’s Royal Academy.
"My father thought I’d continue in buying and selling. My father wasn’t very happy with it when I went into design. I was the only one of four children with an interest in fashion," Van Noten says. "Now, he’s pretty happy with it."
He launched his collection in 1986 and Barneys New York picked it up almost immediately. The business has grown steadily since then, but always at a manageable pace, he says. Being in Belgium instead of Paris, Milan or even New York allows him to be a big fish in a little pond.
The country’s reputation as a laboratory of independent and experimental fashion has grown as young design students come from all over the world to tap into financiers eager to support them, he explains.
Van Noten, whose business is entirely self-financed, laments what he sees as an otherwise become a global, homogeneous business, although he does tip his hat to the handful of his peers who eke out huge commercial success with still-creative collections. He’s just not interested in being one of them.
"The `normal’ system of fashion has become a big machine, and I think it could be killing fashion," he says. "All stores look the same – it’s the same, same, same. You have pre-collections, cruise collections. There are too many collections but only one brain and you need time to feed creativity."
Each look starts with the fabric, and inspiration for that fabric could come from anywhere, Van Noten explains. It could come from an object as simple as the color of ink from a pen, then he tries to create a full story around it.
"I’ll think about the pen, the woman holding it. Did someone leave it there? Did someone lose it?"
By the time, he’s fleshed that out, he has a vision for the next collection.
"I compare fashion designers to a sponge, you collect impressions of everything," he says. "When it’s time to do a collection, you squeeze the sponge and out comes a melange of impressions from the last few months."
Photos courtesy of the Fashion Spot forums.