With the release of a book celebrating his 100th collection, the designer affirms that fashion has creative and sentimental importance.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN
WORDS BY EMILY RAMSHAW
Flipping through Van Noten’s new book, 51-100, which examines each of his collections since he published his last anthology (aptly called 1-50) in celebration of his 100th collection, it’s difficult not to look at it through a personal lens. If you know or care of his work at all, your own experience with Dries will ricochet back at you as you turn from Karin Elson in fur-trimmed tweed from the Autumn/Winter 2005-06 collection to an ostrich feather-studded shift dress from Autimn/Winter 2013-14, and on and on—no matter how seemingly trivial the memory or story. In fact, what strikes you about this book is that, with a canon of work so thoroughly creative and so exhaustively documented, Dries Van Noten is never trivial.
When it comes to Van Noten as a man, as a designer, as a label, there’s no need for grandiose storytelling or myth making—which is why books as straightforward in concept as 1-50 and 51-100 are engrossing. As the designer says, “My clothes speak for me.”
In luxury fashion, when brands are constantly reinventing and retelling their own stories, there is a lot to say, and a lot of new—or former—customers to covert (one need only look for a ‘heritage’ collection or a collaboration with a streetwear label for evidence of this). Dries Van Noten, however, unlike nearly every other major European high fashion company, has remained independent. What’s more, he never advertises. The story he tells is through his work, through his clothes.
What is striking, too, is Dries Van Noten’s utter consistency—a descriptor that, while certainly not glamorous, also marks the designer as apart from the rest of the fashion establishment, where the only consistent quality is upheaval.
On that same note, the collections flow together in the singular way in which only an independent designer’s can. There is no rediscovery of earlier motifs or signatures in the way of houses that cycle through creative directors; Dries Van Noten’s is a constant evolution. He’s been known to design what he likes (rich colors, prints) yet always as clothes that are made to wear—they aren’t costume or pretense in the way of couture; they aren’t clothes for the sake of art.
It’s because of this singularity that one can look at a collection from 1997 and another one from 2017 and have them seem—somewhat bizarrely, especially taking into account the tearing pace of fashion and trends—contemporaries, a continuation of, let’s call it, the Dries Van Noten idea. It’s the idea that his ardent supporters and fans buy into season after season, and wear their Dries from ’97 alongside their Dries from ’17.
In the richness and the beauty and the unadulterated visual interest of his clothes, the collections stand on their own, individually and as an ever-evolving group. Yet the designer releases these clothes into the world to be worn, and his collectors and fans can truly live their own lives around and in them and attach their own meaning.
“Creativity is everywhere,” he says from his studio in Antwerp. “It’s the way that I live. And I think creativity is important to everybody’s life. Even for people who say that they don’t like fashion, in the morning when they dress themselves, they make the decision to wear each item, and that’s creativity. Everyone has a way of expressing themselves—how they feel, what they feel. At the end of the day, that’s the strong thing about fashion—it’s a way of communicating.”
If you’re lucky, that expression is communicated in Van Noten’s clothing. And this is where the deep emotional attachment comes in.
For the man himself, the revelation of publishing his second book was his devotees’ attachment to his work. “For a lot of people who know the collections and have worn them for a long time, the book is nice, because it’s also a part of their life,” he says. “The book signings have sometimes been very emotional because, as a fashion designer we make clothes, but we forget sometimes that these clothes are a part of people and part of memories of things that happened in their lives. It’s been very affecting to discover that by making clothes that people really love to wear, you become part of their life and memories.”
When you can tell your own story through beautiful clothes—when you derive joy and creative expression from them—they become as talismanic as any keepsake. Van Noten calls books “cultural luggage,” but it could well describe his clothes, too.