Cover Designer Dries Van Noten is optimistic about the future of fashion

Even when the shows cannot go on, Dries Van Noten remains stubbornly optimistic about fashion’s future

At first, it looks like an exorcism. Dancers from the ages of 16 to 64 convulse, writhe and gyrate in crisp shirtdresses and blood-red heels to the sound of Massive Attack’s Angel. Then come blurry flashes of shimmering dresses covered in vermillion paillettes, and sober coats with rose graphics, as the dance intensifies. Trancelike, you find yourself inexplicably glued to the screen.

This was what Dries Van Noten wanted you to experience when watching a film he created around his fall-winter 2021 collection. “We actually had tears in our eyes when we saw those dancers move on stage, after not being able to perform for a year,” the Belgian designer tells me over a video call. “It was like everybody released all the raw energy they had pent up inside, and it felt very real.”

In pre-pandemic times, Van Noten’s runway shows were some of the most anticipated of each season, the richly layered looks so ornate yet precise, the atmosphere so charged with emotion. “I used to joke that I’d get postnatal depression after a fashion show,” Van Noten says. For 35 years, discerning art-collector types and eclectic style icons have coveted his clashing prints and refined, sober silhouettes. Indeed, many gush about owning a piece of Dries Van Noten knitwear from the Eighties as if they had bought a Basquiat.

“Shows used to be the big finale for the collection you were working on, where you gather 800 people and you experience this shared emotion for ten minutes,” he says. “Now the ending is more drawn-out.”

Since he could not stage a physical show this time, Van Noten enlisted 47 dancers from Antwerp, where his label is based, and directors Casper Sejersen and Pamela Berkovic to film the collection over three days at the deSingel art centre’s Red Hall, producing more than 40,000 images that were then painstakingly condensed into a video presentation.

Sure, Van Noten misses the high from being backstage at his shows. “When we launched the video, it’s like: OK, we launched a video—now what?” he says. “I used to decide on hair and make-up or lighting even two days before a show, but now I have to organise everything simultaneously when I design the collection. When you choose the photographer or director, you’re choosing the translator of your emotions.” He quickly discovered that the medium had advantages, even informing the collection itself.

For fall, Van Noten knew early on he wanted to use dancers, the references for his clothing being a combination of the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. “I’ve always been moved by dance because it has this amazing ability to translate emotion through movement, without words,” he says. “I feel clothing can enhance these movements, like how a skirt could follow a jump and make it look stronger.”

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The inclusion of tinsel as a new material in this collection was also a surprise from a designer who is renowned for his daring application of more luxurious textiles. He dismissed the idea at first for fear that his bubble gowns would look “too much like Christmas trees”, but reconsidered when he projected how the fibres would flutter when worn by the dancers as they moved. As it happens, during the pandemic Van Noten has had to forgo some of his favourite fabrics, like jacquards, due to their longer manufacturing times, but that inconvenience has also led him to discover new ones.

“I feel like I’m back working like I did in the Eighties when I had to fight for things, and not everything was possible,” he says. “Before the crisis, with my reputation, I could just snap my fingers and fabric suppliers would all be standing there for me to choose from, but as a result we were maybe doing things that weren’t necessary or too decadent.” A scene from the 2017 documentary Dries, when the designer crouches over hundreds of swatches laid out meticulously on the floor, comes to mind.

Van Noten—long respected for his independence—was one of the first designers to co-author an open letter to the industry in a bid to rewrite a broken retail system. Almost exactly a year later, he is heartened by the greater sense of collaboration he’s seen within the community. “Nearly every day I get messages from small designers or big buyers getting each other’s input on things, like brands telling retailers to please postpone sale dates to accommodate their delayed production,” Van Noten says. “Even just talking is very positive because at the end of the day we’re all colleagues, not competitors; all of us have to put our shoulders under this thing if we want things to change.”

One of the first retailers to sign onto the mission was Andrew Keith, president of Lane Crawford and Joyce, with whom Van Noten remains in close contact. Joyce Hong Kong was the first store in Asia to carry the collection in the early Nineties. It was Van Noten’s experience in China and Japan specifically that helped shape his passion for ornate textiles.

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Asia has always inspired me because in China, Japan and Korea there’s a huge love of textiles when you look at the splendour of historical costumes—the elaborate embroidery or shiburi or even just an intense, plain colour
Dries Van Noten

Now, he enjoys seeing how connoisseurs in the region disregard traditional rules. “I always say that fashion as it was—where designers dictated everything—doesn’t exist any more,” says Van Noten, who opened his Shanghai flagship last August and with it introduced an array of handbags made from archival fabrics that sold out almost immediately. “You really see this in China, where people wear Chanel with Rick Owens and H&M and vintage to express their own characters,” he says.

As a lecturer at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, Van Noten also relishes how young designers today are taking advantage of the fast-crumbling barriers in fashion.

“A few years ago, all the fashion students wanted to work for Nicolas Ghesquière or some big designer,” he says. “But recently a student of mine worked for me for three months then decided to go her own way, even though she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, and next thing you know Kylie Jenner was wearing an outfit from her, and there are something like 60,000 likes on her photo,” he says. “It’s an incredible opportunity that in my time wouldn’t have been possible.”

It’s hard not to make a comparison to Van Noten’s early days as part of the Antwerp Six— the legendary group of avant-garde designers who graduated from the academy and who also unapologetically challenged the status quo. He still remains close with his classmate Dirk Van Saene, who also teaches at the academy, and fellow gardener Ann Demeulemeester, with whom he exchanges plants.

“I have a lot of respect for the past but I’m not nostalgic. I’ve never been someone to say, ‘Oh, things were so much better back then’,” he says. “I don’t believe in standing still.”

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