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Fashion Icon: Dries Van Noten

The legendary Belgian designer gives Dazed Digital a rare interview, talking about independence, fashion muses and growing up in the 1970s

Dries Van Noten’s exotic, yet coolly chic designs, have been a consistent highlight of the seasonal runways ever since he set up his eponymous label in London in 1986—putting his home country of Belgium firmly on the fashion map, alongside Walter van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs as part of the game-changing Antwerp Six collective. Inducted into the fashion game early on (Dries' father was a prominent shopkeeper, his grandfather was a tailor), he has remained at the forefront of the industry by never compromising his creative vision (his company has remained independent throughout the course of his two decades in the business) nor catering to passing fads. Dazed Digital caught up with him to pick his brains.

Dazed Digital: Which person has inspired you most in your work?
Dries Van Noten:
The list is extremely long. Various different people have inspired me throughout my career. From Francis Bacon to Vassareli, Coco Chanel to Christian Dior, Cecil Beaton, musicians, architects… the list is endless. When we were studying at the Royal Antwerp Academy we were taught to seek inspiration from everyone, everything and everywhere. My parents and grandparents were also a great inspiration for me a very young age.

DD: Is simplicity important to you?
Dries Van Noten:
Absolutely. I think that it’s a necessity in life. Working in fashion, the maelstrom of colour, fabric and collections that one puts a lot of thought into, incites a reflex for a need for simplicity. This is why I find respite at home in Antwerp in my house and garden, where things are calm and relaxed.

DD: Would you say you’re more of a conceptualist or a romantic?
Dries Van Noten:
I’d say both! I’m not sure that either are mutually exclusive. I hope that as a contemporary fashion designer, one does not have to automatically align oneself to either school. I’m sure people would be more inclined to view me as a romantic and although I appreciate this, I hope to shake their perception from time to time.

DD: Your latest men’s collection is inspired by mods and skinheads—what part do youth and adolescence play in your designs?
Dries Van Noten:
I wouldn’t say it is directly inspired by these movements rather than taking a nod in their direction. In the design process there’s a need to be culturally comprehensive. Younger people tend to be more obvious in showing their creativity through clothing, hairstyles and their appearance. It’s the earnestness and naivity of youth that inspires. On other occasions, our design process can easily be borne from something non-youth related and be found in anything from a reading, photo to a piece of music for example.

DD: Have you had to struggle to stay independent?
Dries Van Noten:
Yes. Though, the ‘price’ has been worth paying. We never sought a partnership throughout the history of the company. I do think however that if there was ever a time we may have even considered a partnership would have been that moment in the 90’s when the big groups were buying everybody up. An interesting moment indeed, but one that I’m glad we were able to get through. That was the fortunate thing having been auto-financed from the very beginning. We never really needed to think about it. This independence and liberty meant I was, and still am, able to grow as I wish and to do exactly what I want in a creative sense. It leads me to be able to really do my best to bring out a different personality in each collection that I produce.

DD: You had a pretty fashion-heavy childhood. Was there any ever question of going into another industry?
Dries Van Noten:
Not to my knowledge ever.

DD: Any teenage fashion disasters you care to mention?
Dries Van Noten:
I was a teenager in the 70s, it was one big disaster!

DD: Your stores are all very carefully curated—do you think you have your father’s salesman gene, despite yourself? And are you ever tempted to go into interiors?
Dries Van Noten:
I think by my father owning a store, I was definitely aware of the commercial aspect of selling clothes. His shop was a place I enjoyed spending time in as a boy, so I learned things almost by osmosis at times, by literally just being around all the action and not really despite myself. As for our stores, my passion for art, antiques and architecture is that strong that it just made sense to go in that direction with our boutiques. As for going into interiors on a permanent basis, I think that in opening more and more stores around the world, my appetite is sufficiently whet for that aspect of my career for now.

DD: Where do you feel most at home?
Dries Van Noten:
Guess where...

DD: A print you wish you’d designed?
Dries Van Noten:
There are simply too many and of so many styles, ethnic, modern etc. I find it impossible to answer.

DD: Can you give as a hint about what’s coming up for Spring 2011 womenswear?
Dries Van Noten:
A nod towards our men’s collection for the same season and a wink of… Well, let’s see!


Portrait by Thierry Chomel