It’s impossible to untangle the city of Antwerp from the life and work of Dries Van Noten. The 57 year old fashion designer was born here and it remains his base. His father was the proprietor of one of Antwerp’s first upmarket fashion boutiques, and his own flagship store, Het Modepaleis – a five storey former department store – has helped transform Nationalestraat into one of the city’s chicest neighbourhoods. Van Noten studied at the city’s prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts, becoming a member of the lauded group of graduates known as the Antwerp Six. “We don’t want to become a little Paris”, he said in an interview shortly after graduating, “we want to stick to Antwerp and keep our own image and spirit.” At a time when many successful fashion companies have been absorbed into larger luxury conglomerates, Van Noten has remained resolutely independent, and has maintained sole creative and financial control ever since launching the first collection 30 years ago. Equally, in a world where brands are ever more diffuse, garments continue to be the main focus of his business, with shoes and accessories remaining very much in a supporting role. Incredibly, Van Noten has chosen to never advertise. Instead, he channels his funds and creative energies into his four prêt à porter collections – two for women and two for men – that he restricts himself to each year. This notable autonomy is also evident in Van Noten’s aesthetic; his fabrics are complicated and luxurious, his colours rich and unusual. Inspiration, like the materials themselves, comes from far and wide; fabric woven in Uzbekistan appears alongside high tech material from Japan, digital prints of cityscapes are juxtaposed with botanical drawings. For his most recent menswear collection, Van Noten chose to work with archetypes, adroitly manipulating cliché and Kitsch. Palm trees, leopard print, tartan, and images of Marilyn Monroe all found their way onto silken fabrics and suit jackets, creating a look that was both characteristically modern and unambiguously unique.
When Cereal caught up with Van Noten, it became clear that despite these diverse influences, Antwerp continues to be a touchstone for the designer. The spirit of the city is woven through the fabric of every collection.
Is this still the same city you grew up in?
Antwerp has obviously changed hugely, but its DNA remains the same. I do not have as much time as I would like to hang out in the city anymore, but whenever I drive through its streets, there is always something that sparks a memory. Whether it’s an old restaurant where I used to have dinner, or a cafe I went to after class. Cities always change, but here in Antwerp, there is barely a single street that does not evoke strong and happy memories for me.
What’s your earliest memory of Antwerp?
I remember being in my father’s shop, the time I spent there observing clients, and somehow learning the job. It was a place I enjoyed spending time as a boy, so I learned things almost by osmosis, by just being around all the action and not with any conscious effort. I was lucky enough to learn the ways of this industry and how it works from a much younger age than most. That’s when my love affair with fabrics began – with the way they fall, and the way they feel. The most exciting moment for me was accompanying my parents on trips to Paris and Milan for their shows, just to see the spectacle of it all.
What has kept you here in the city you grew up in?
I have travelled a lot, and I like discovering new cultures. I think there’s something unique about every city I have been to, but Antwerp will always be home. This is where I decided to build my company and my first store. This is where my life is. To remain at home in an environment I understand, and with the support system it offered me, seemed natural. I am more than happy with that choice.
What is unique about Antwerp?
Its people, its history, its mercantile flair, its culture, its evolution, its fashion. And its size; Antwerp is just big enough to have everything you need, and thanks to the harbour, it has always had an international dimension. Even today, we have a great wealth of merchants here – sartorial flair often needs a generous budget!
Dries Van Noten’s Top 10:
– Ganterie Boon
– Bakkerij Goossens
– Philip’s Biscuits
– Cogels Osylei
– Museum Plantin-Moretus
– Het Bos, Ankerrui
– Hotel Julien
– Copyright Bookshop
– Axel Vervoordt Kanaal
– Dôme Restaurant