An illustration of Dries Van Noten
© Luke Waller

By all rights, designer Dries Van Noten could be excused for being a bit grand. We meet a few days after his wildly applauded Paris menswear show and just over a month before his womenswear collection, one of the hottest tickets of fashion week thanks to Van Noten’s ability to combine the elaborate (extreme embroidery) with the ethnic (far-flung tribal references) and the casual (tailored khakis) – plus, last season, a live soundtrack courtesy of Colin Greenwood, Radiohead’s bass player.

That alone might be enough to make him feel pleased with himself, but it is also just over a month before Dries Van Noten: Inspirations opens at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris: a 1,500 sq m exhibition of 180 Van Noten pieces plus 100 more paintings, garments and clips from outside collections. At which point Van Noten will become one of the few living fashion designers to be awarded a one-man exhibition at the Louvre’s fashion arm, one of the few independents, and the only Belgian.

In the fashion world, where power is often expressed in relation to time (the more important you are, the later you can be, or the later your show can start – unless you are Anna Wintour, in which case you demand everyone be prompt to the minute), Van Noten has reached the point where he can make people wait.

Yet here is the 55-year-old standing patiently outside the Sir Anthony Van Dijck restaurant in Antwerp, in a blue chalk-striped jacket and navy crew neck over khaki trousers and brown shoes, a black scarf twisted around his neck just so – despite the fact that I arrive 15 minutes early. “I didn’t want you to get lost,” he shrugs. “Besides, I was working anyway. I am very nervous.” He is talking about his exhibition, not our interview, but it doesn’t really matter. In his approach to a lunch date, as in his approach to many things, Van Noten is an anomaly.

He is, for example, the only big fashion name not to do pre-collections, those non-catwalk inter-seasonal lines that now make up the bulk of most brands’ sales: he does four collections a year, two women’s, two men’s, because “it would be impossible to develop any sort of interesting fabrics if I did more”.

He does not sell his collection during the main shows in New York and Paris, but from his showroom in Antwerp, a good two weeks before, and many miles from, the official show circuit.

Van Noten is both chief executive and creative director of his eponymous company, one of the few major designers to hold both roles (last October’s announcement that Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief creative officer, would also take the corporate reins this year was greeted with shock in the industry). He does not advertise, or really play the celebrity/red carpet game, or have much of an ecommerce presence, or engage in any of the marketing strategies that are now considered de rigueur for a fashion brand. He has not even succumbed to the pressures to make himself into a brand – with his short grey hair, perennial jacket and clean-cut mien, Van Noten resembles a banker on casual Friday more than any stereotype of a fashion person.

So you might think (or I might think) that the Louvre exhibition is a vindication of such outsider behaviour. Or that our meeting place – a restaurant named after one of the great Flemish master painters – is a subtle hint of the same idea. But if you thought that then you, like I, would be wrong.

“Actually, this was one of the only restaurants that was open on a Saturday,” says Van Noten, deflating my attempts to overanalyse. “We didn’t really have much choice. Most people in Antwerp don’t go out for lunch on Saturday; they go out on Sunday. And in January, most restaurants are closed anyway.” I apologise for making him eat out when everyone else is not having lunch. “It’s OK,” he says as we walk to our table and sit down. “I like this place. It used to be owned by Axel Vervoordt”, a renowned antique dealer and interior designer.

Van Noten looks at the menu. “I always get the set lunch,” he says, today’s set lunch being degustations of lobster, maigre de ligne (a kind of fish) and rice pudding: “I have so many decisions during the day, from buttons to delivery dates, that it’s nice not to have to make any.” Given that Van Noten is one of the most unruffled fashion people I have ever seen – backstage at a show, amid the chaos of models dressing and undressing, make-up people wielding powder and hair people brandishing hairspray, he will say, “I am very stressed,” in the same tone others might use to say, “I had eggs for breakfast” – I am surprised. Not having the same need to reduce my options, however, I ask for a vegetable salad from the à la carte menu and salmon tartare from the set menu. This causes some confusion. The waitress looks at me askance: “I’ll ask if we can do that,” she says.

“I am sure you can try,” says Van Noten kindly but firmly. She nods obediently and goes off to do his bidding. “Shows are so straight today: the model is to have one idea, repeated 30 times, and that makes a collection,” he says. “But that doesn’t interest me, I like to rethink, rework.”

Doesn’t being offered a museum exhibition make him feel more secure about all this? I ask. “I was very nervous about it,” says Van Noten. “Retrospectives scare me. I thought it was too early, too serious. I am still working. I wasn’t sure I deserved it. I thought, ‘Will my clothes hold up in the museum? How do we explain what we do without being didactic?’ And then, being confronted by your own work is weirder than you think. I started with pieces from my graduate collection, which was very influenced by what was going on in the 1980s: Mugler, Versace. Some things aged very well, and others not at all.”

Van Noten was born in 1958 in Antwerp, the last of four children, to a father who owned what may have been the first concept store in Belgium – which mixed brands and objects and where clients might see presentations, smoke cigars and otherwise hang out – and a mother who ran a Cassandre fashion franchise. He grew up working in the store, and says he always thought he would be a designer (he is the only sibling to have gone into the business). To that end, he attended Antwerp’s Royal Academy and then freelanced for a variety of local designers before launching a menswear line in 1986. It was immediately bought by Barneys New York, and the company has been buying both his men’s and womenswear (launched the following season using the same fabrics as the men’s line) ever since. He began showing in Paris in 1991, when he and five Belgian friends (including Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela and Walter von Beirendonck) drove a van to Paris and took that city by storm, becoming known as “the Antwerp Six”. Today Barneys is so close to Van Noten, and sells him so well, it is underwriting the exhibition at the Arts Décoratifs.

Does he, I ask, think that creates any sense of conflict of interest, or undermines the validity of the exhibition? It is not as problematic as when a brand pays for an exhibition of its own work, as happened when Chanel underwrote a Chanel show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or Kering the Alexander McQueen exhibition (Kering owning McQueen), but it is clearly to Barneys’ commercial benefit to be associated with a designer in the Louvre.

“Yes, it muddies the waters, but the fact is today museum budgets are so tight, the choice is not really between one sponsor and one ‘cleaner’ sponsor, it’s between having a show and not having it,” says Van Noten, as our first courses arrive – they have, indeed, managed to bend the rules to accommodate my request (or most probably, Van Noten’s gentle persuasion). “I prefer to see a good exhibit sponsored by a brand than a bad exhibit due to lack of funds. It’s what the world is about now.”

Van Noten, who eats with the good manners and seamless grace with which he sends clothes down the runway, so that his food disappears without me even realising he has picked up a fork, has always been keenly aware of the need to sell and to make garments that can be worn. He has largely resisted the pressure to create showpieces or looks whose purpose is primarily to grab column inches. “I make clothes people can wear; I don’t make art,” he says, and he doesn’t have much time for the pose that condemns commerciality in favour of pure creativity. “I have a responsibility to the people who work for me, the manufacturers I work with,” he says. “There is no point to clothes that don’t sell.”

In fact, Van Noten has little patience for many of the fashion world’s sacred cows. The insistence on “Made In”, for example: “I get the question all the time: are there new emerging Belgian designers? But it’s the wrong question. I have 10 kids in my design studio, and they are from Belgium, Australia, Korea, Poland, England – who cares what country they are from?” He has been working with embroiderers in India since 1987, and is including videos of their work in the Inspirations exhibitions at the Louvre.

As for the perennial demand for the new, the different, and more and more stuff, he says the problem is that “retailers used to measure success by sales per square foot over a season; now they measure it by sales per square foot per month.

“So if you deliver only two seasons, there is necessarily a time when you have fewer sales. But then the other side is there is real anticipation when the new season begins.” The designer now has 470 points of sale around the world. He owns 100 per cent of his company, and has his fingers in every aspect of its creation. His warehouse office is filled with furniture from his travels, as are his stores, all of it very eclectic and weirdly harmonic.

This eclecticism is also expressed in the Inspirations show at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which he conceived less as a retrospective than a kind of tour through his brain, and the free associations that exist therein.

Thus, for example, in a room about disruptions, photos of the Sex Pistols abut a dress by Christian Dior, a painting from Yves Klein’s blue period, a photo of Capri’s Blue Grotto, and pieces by Van Noten featuring flowers under a wash of blue, while in another Cocteau bumps up against Visconti, which bumps up against military uniforms. “It’s really about where ideas come from,” says Van Noten, as his second course arrives, which is to say: it will embrace the complications that fashion usually shies away from because they take a long time to explain, and in the world of Pinterest and Twitter it is easier, when asked about inspiration to say “Gatsby” or “Warhol” than to go through the often confusing steps that are actually involved in design. Was it hard to explain? I ask.

“I was worried about it,” he says. “Because it’s complicated and we needed lots of institutions to co-operate. I thought a lot of people wouldn’t like the idea, for example, of putting a red Dior next to a representational painting because maybe it wouldn’t do the Dior justice, but I was amazed at the enthusiasm.”

Only a few lenders refused to participate – Gilbert & George, for example, did not want their work juxtaposed against others’. But the Musée d’Orsay loaned Giovanni Boldini’s “a” and there is work by Francis Bacon, John Singer Sargent and Damien Hirst, as well as clothing from designers including Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent alongside various Van Noten garments such as elaborate silver saris reworked into suiting (plus a jacket once worn by Jimi Hendrix). “Sometimes I feel like a spoiled child,” says Van Noten. The exhibition will travel to the MoMu fashion museum in Antwerp, though it will be necessary to rework much of the content as the vintage garments “have to rest” and some paintings cannot move. Might there have been an easier way? I ask. Wasn’t this just over-complicating things?

“Well, I was worried about whether we would have enough time to do it all,” acknowledges Van Noten. “It’s why I like jam.” What? I ask. “Making jam; it’s what I do to relax,” he says, wiping his mouth carefully on his napkin as the waitress clears our plates and brings his dessert and our coffees.

I ask him to clarify. “We have a big garden at our house, and we grow a lot of fruits and vegetables,” says Van Noten. “I think I know 50 different ways to prepare courgettes now. And when I get very stressed, I make jam. I like things that produce a quick result, because fashion has such a long lead time. With jam, you start, and two-three hours later, you have 36 little pots, all full.” That’s a lot of jam, I observe. He shrugs. “The vegetable garden is three acres.”

Eighteen years ago Van Noten and Patrick Vangheluwe, his partner in life and work, bought their house, about 20 miles from Antwerp. “It was an old summerhouse,” he says, “built in 1840. And it hadn’t been lived in for more than 30 years. It was a wreck but we needed a project; at that point we were both working in the company and it was all we did.” They have been doing it up ever since. “It’s important, because it puts things in perspective,” he says. “You can’t say to your garden, ‘I am sorry, I can’t weed today because I have to launch a collection.’ You have to make time for it.”

Surprised by the jam revelation, I ask Van Noten if he thinks people will be surprised by the Arts Décoratifs exhibition. “Yes,” he says. “I think I get stereotyped as romantic and nostalgic, with all these embroideries, but I don’t agree. I do respect the past and tradition, and I don’t think there’s any reason to use techno fabrics unless it has a real purpose, but I also don’t think that is all of it. Every action has to have a reaction, and it’s the clash that creates the result.”

‘Dries Van Noten: Inspirations’ runs from March 1 to August 31.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor


Restaurant Sir Anthony Van Dijck

Oude Koornmarkt 16, Antwerpen

Sparkling water x 2 €14.00

Vegetable salad €22.00

Salmon tartare €24.00

Lunch menu €40.00

Mocha €4.00

Cappuccino €5.50

Total (incl service) €109.50

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