Dear Shaded Viewers,
Dries Van Noten is a rare gem in a rough business. I did not spot him as early as Diane or his challenging friend Suzy Menkes, an ardent supporter and critic since his 1993/4 breakout shows in Paris. My generation fell for fashion a decade later and Tom Ford was my man, Galliano my side-guy. There is a scene in Dries, Reiner Holzemer’s new fly-on-the wall documentary, in which the designer considers a recording of his Autumn/Winter 2001 show and describes his conscious decision not to be bought out or lured away from his eponymous brand by a major luxury group during this period. Such moves would have required a focus on ‘it’ bags, shoes and extravagant advertising that might have made him more accessible to my friends and I but that are also fundamentally at odds with Van Noten, personally and professionally. He concludes: “I said no, I’m going to take what I stand for—which is craft and a relaxed feeling in fashion— even further.”
“I considered sub-titling the film ‘fashion with a soul,’ says Holzemer, who spent a year shadowing the designer and includes several soundbites on his desire to make timeless clothes that the owner can adapt to different life stages. “In a career spanning almost thirty years and in an industry in which fashion is [increasingly just] a product, Dries still brings emotion and adds passion to what he’s doing,” fashion curator Geert Bruloot tells the camera, “and I think that’s one of the keys to his international success.”
Staying commercially viable while private is tough but designers who sustain can elevate ready-to-wear, foster consumer trust and even reduce fashion’s impact on the planet (longer production periods would necessitate fewer collections). They should be studied. Students should see this film but so should consumers. We vote with our wallets, no matter what size the purchase.
Dries Van Noten retains clients with consistent quality and design (so close to couture shapes!) that allow a piece to abide with you through the years, yes, but how to grab their attention in the first place? Especially amid the sturm und drang of a saturated ready-to-wear market and without advertising. Holzemer taps easily into the designer’s connection point: a gift for balancing historical and contemporary references; high and low culture; elegance and vulgarity in single garments. Les Arts Décoratifs Chief Curator Pamela Golbin, who contributed to a revised version of the 2014 best-seller ‘Dries Van Noten’ out in September, says “there is no hierarchy [of inspiration] with him. He looks at fine art and street art with the same passion.”
This mix allows his pieces to resonate with people of all ages, all around the world. Most clothes are composites, true, but the potency of the references he packs into one piece are uncommon and similar to couture-level fusions. In Dries, Van Noten cites those women he’s taken as muses: Jane Birkin, Anna Piaggi, the Marchesa de Casati, Iris Apfel (another interviewee)…colourful composers of outfits all. He does the same harmonising with fabric and detail, finding beauty in contrast and clashing. “He really studies people,” Holzemer observes of their time together. “He love watching how they puts together outfits. He doesn’t seek to impose his idea of a complete and perfect look on you, you feel free to interpret each piece in your own way.”
Dries Van Noten is a designer’s designer, not just to fellow members of The Antwerp Six but for anyone who appreciates textiles and embroidery. ‘Designer’s designer’ is a term often applied to Cristóbal Balenciaga, in whose ‘Legacy’ room Van Noten’s work is featured at the current Victoria and Albert museum retrospective Balenciaga:Shaping Fashion. The time he lavishes on fabric (4-5 months in a collection’s development stage alone) is revisited throughout the film, mirroring his constant and obsessive focus on detail. “Some designers begin with shapes but I always have a story and a feeling I want to express through each collection and for those I need my materials,” he explains over images of exquisitely-sequinned swatches.
He grew up with this respect for fashion’s fundamentals: craft and hard-graft. He wanted not to be a tailor, like his grandfather (who pioneered ready-to-wear in their home city of Antwerp), or to follow his parents into retail but his work ethic is how he honours his family. For me, his talent for balancing colour and print without overwhelming the eye is envy-inducing. Holzemer gives us rare and delightful access to the home and gardens he share with his professional and life partner, Patrick Vangheluwe, in Lier. If one of their fashion collections is a creative essay, home design is their thesis. A single room could furnish a glossy interiors spread. Van Noten’s gardens have clearly influenced both his clothes and his catwalk sets, which invite you into the designer’s personal world in an authentic way. At the beginning of the film the designer that he’s “too close to fashion, too much in it. It’s taken over my life.” The symbiotic relationship between his personal and professional lives seems no commercial construct.
A common film writer’s criticism of the current spate of fashion documentaries that one can’t escape the ‘soft sell’ feeling of spending time in a dark room staring at clothes. “It was very important to me that this film not feel like a long advertisement,” says Holzemer, who says he is not particularly fashion literate and has never previously worked with a designer. From the brand’s end, there were no list of the pre-release conditions and cut requests Dior and I, a more splashy release, is rumoured to have incurred from LVMH. The film also eschews the tired reality drama structure (subject-object-problem-panic-success), quietly ushering you through the designer’s development, both through a series of segments in which he comments on landmark shows (his 100th was in March) and interviews with friends and colleagues. Interjected are stages of the production cycle that take you from fabric selection to shop floor but Holzemer’s cuts are never jarring. Each scene shows a facet of the same gem.
Dries is now available on DVD and digital.