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‘Dries’ is fashion’s latest must-see documentary

Director Reiner Holzemer opens up about his latest subject, Dries Van Noten – and why he wants to make a film about Sofia Coppola next

“The fashion industry has been dying in its own grave, and people like Dries keep the flame alive. He is a treasure and should be treated as such,” says Iris Apfel of Dries Van Noten in new documentary Dries, a film that charts a year in the life of the Belgian designer.

She’s right. As the fashion rulebook continues to be ripped-up by the likes of Demna, GoshaVirgil and co., Dries is one of a fading breed of master craftsmen. Famed for his eclecticism, his romantic collections are rendered in clashing printed fabrics, often richly-hued and ornately embellished, and as the third generation of a family of tailors, his silhouettes are brought to life using methods steeped in tradition. He’s also notoriously private and rarely gives interviews, making the fact that he agreed to a documentary all the more surprising.

Step in Reiner Holzemer. The German documentarian behind Dries is renowned for his intimate portraits of a series of artists and photographers – among them Juergen TellerAnton Corbijn and David Lynch. Like Dries, he is considered and gentle in his manner and his work. Was it this like-minded approach that twisted the designer’s arm? “Perhaps. We are quite similar in some respects, and I think that similarity created a connection that allowed him to trust me,” Holzemer muses.

Beginning with his graduation from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Art as a member of the Antwerp Six and the early years of his career – when his stand-out offerings punctuated the minimalism of the mid-90s with bold colour and wide-spanning references including Chinese culture and Bollywood films – the film follows Dries through the conceptualisation and actualisation of four collections. (He celebrated his 100th show earlier this year).

One of the most notable aspects is that, for all of the triumphs Dries depicts, the designer does not shy away from reflecting on the collections that were not well received, and is particularly candid about a difficult period at the end of the 1980s. It’s not something we usually see from fashion documentaries, which commonly focus on the successes and edit out the failures. According to Holzemer however, it was important to Dries to discuss them – and he did so without prompt. The film also allows us a glimpse at his private life, as Dries relaxes at home and in his envy-inducing garden with partner Patrick and Airedale terrier Harry, before culminating in the realisation of a seventeen-year-long dream, as the designer is invited to present his AW16 collection at the Opera Garnier in Paris. 

As the film gets its home-release (you can download it on iTunes, or order the DVD here), we caught up with Holzemer to discuss how he got the fiercely private designer to open up on screen, his unique creative processes and the unnerving Flemish poker-face.

How did the documentary come about? 

Reiner Holzemer: In 2010 I was filming a documentary on Juergen Teller and he was shooting one of Dries Van Noten’s collections with Dakota Fanning. I didn’t know much about Dries, but I immediately fell in love with what I saw; the bold colours, the trims, the floral prints – they were just wonderful. Then I met him and I really liked him as a person too – he’s very normal in the positive sense of the word and we had some nice conversations. I went away and did some research and fell more in love with his work the more I found out. I was fascinated by the way he works, his independence within the fashion world – which is such a rare thing – and how he really just goes his own way. I decided I wanted to make a documentary about him so I pitched the idea to a TV station in Germany and the editor was very excited: ‘Oh my God, if you can get Dries that would be wonderful, I’d give you the budget immediately, we’ve been trying for years and we’ve never succeeded.’

I wrote to Dries and told him I was very interested in his work and I would love to make a film about him as an artist, and Dries wrote back – which is so typically his style – saying yes, he was interested, but now was not the right time because he was so busy, maybe at a later date. After three years of waiting and so, so many letters back and forth, he finally agreed.

“I realised he was someone who is creative 24 hours a day, everything is creative in some way to him. To portray him properly, I had to show him at home, picking flowers in the garden” – Reiner Holzemer

Did you plan exactly what you were going to include within the documentary or was it more a case of seeing how things developed naturally?

Reiner Holzemer: Originally, I knew he was planning quite a large-scale exhibition about his inspirations and I asked him if I could shoot the film in the lead up to that. So we did a test shoot beforehand to see if he was comfortable in front of my camera and whether we worked well together or not. In the end, Dries was too busy and so the project was put on hold again – I had to be so patient, because you cannot push Dries. My second idea was to follow him for just one collection, to see how he designs and how he develops those designs, his artistic development as a designer.

I also wanted to show an element of his private life – when I visited his house and we wandered around his garden, I realised he was someone who is creative 24 hours a day, everything is creative in some way to him. To portray him properly, I had to show him at home, picking flowers in the garden, relaxing with his partner Patrick. In the end, Dries told me that if we were to do the film, I must follow him across the course of four collections, which was really one of his only ‘demands’. By the time the third was finished, I really felt I had enough footage, but then he was invited to show at the Opera Garnier which was obviously very important, so I continued.

Something I found surprising was that Dries was happy to discuss his not so successful collections. Was it difficult to convince him to do this? 

Reiner Holzemer: No not at all. When I was putting my plan together, I had decided to look back at some of his shows really just to inspire his memory of his early career – he’s such a busy man and you know, creative people are more or less focused on the present, not the past. For me, it was a tool to get him to remember various points in his life. We sat together with a list of 96 shows and I chose which ones I wanted to discuss and he agreed. He never made the choice not to speak about the ‘negative’, he instead looked at their importance within his career. We shot a lot more than you see in the film, but in the end we chose only to talk about seven or eight. I think this is unusual of the fashion world, definitely. I read Lucinda Chambers’ interview recently and she was complaining that in fashion everyone only talks about success and money and the failures are not really acknowledged, so I really appreciated that Dries was so open and honest – he’s really just exceptional in this way.

Dries is obviously a perfectionist and likes to be in control – did this make it hard to direct the film? Did he have a strong idea of how he should be portrayed or was he happy entrusting that to you?  

Reiner Holzemer: When you’re filming a documentary, you really want to be a fly on the wall and see how someone works, but you also sort of adapt to the person’s life and their wishes a little bit. With Dries, sometimes I was a little afraid because I know that he’s very much in control at all times; the clothes he makes, the books he creates and so on. So when we started I was worried he might be the same with the film. I told him at the beginning of the project you know, you have so much responsibility in your life so you can relax about the film, it’s my thing, it’s my vision – you’ll only be making more work for yourself, so leave it to me. And he did. 

How did Dries react when he first saw the film?

Reiner Holzemer: I was so nervous. There were around ten people there; Patrick, a few members of his team. The Flemish are generally quiet people, so there was total silence in the room when it started. After about ten minutes, I said to Dries: ‘You could laugh a bit or smile a bit’ – there are some funny scenes – and I thought ‘My God, he hates it.’ When it finished I looked at him – everyone looked at him – to see his reaction. What did he think? Was he happy with the way he was portrayed? It was really difficult for him to say anything as he just wasn’t used to being confronted with his own image; how he moved, his mannerisms. He wasn’t aware that he shows so much of what he feels with his body language. Eventually, he said he’d have to watch it again and think about it, process it, to get over that first impression. But everyone else loved it, and I think that relaxed him and put him at ease. Given how much of a perfectionist he is, there were really very few changes that needed to be made. 

This is your first documentary about a fashion designer. How did it vary from your previous projects about photographers and artists?

Reiner Holzemer: There was not really a big difference, a fashion designer to me is just an artist that uses a different medium. But one thing that was interesting was when I realised that designers are trained only to deliver a finished product to the audience, they have it ingrained in them at university and throughout their studies. Normally, Dries will allow a photograph to be taken only when the design is perfect and pretty much complete. 

“The Flemish are generally quiet people, so there was total silence in the room when it started... I thought ‘My God, he hates it’” – Reiner Holzemer

So to be filming while the collection was not finished was difficult for him – he was afraid that it might ruin the magic of fashion. Normally, you see the end result and it’s perfect, worn by a beautiful man or a beautiful woman and beautifully presented. In the beginning, he was like ‘don’t shoot this, don’t shoot that’ and I said to him ‘Dries, just let me shoot it, and then we’ll edit it and I’ll show you what I’ve made of it, and then you can decide.’ It didn’t take long for him to decide that it was not a mistake to show how his work develops. He does not draw for example, and it’s interesting to see he’s more like a sculptor, pinning fabrics and doing it that way, as opposed to sketching his ideas. I really felt it was a great thing to show a different approach to creating a beautiful dress and in the end – after a couple of friendly arguments – he knew it was important for me to be able to work in an open and free way, just like he’s able to. 

Who’s next? 

Reiner Holzemer: I’d like to learn more about fashion and I’m actually in talks with a couple of designers, but I can’t say too much for now! Aside from them, perhaps Sofia Coppola. I just saw The Beguiled and she is a fascinating woman – like many of my subjects, she seems quiet and considered and so invested in her work and her personal vision. They are the kind of people that interest me – the ones that aren’t giving it all away immediately. It’s more interesting that way.