Dries Van Noten is one of the world’s most successful independent designers. An original member of the Antwerp Six, the group of Belgians who transformed the city into a locus of avant-garde fashion in the mid-1980s, he is sold at more than 500 outlets worldwide, and has won the international award of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
Elizabeth Peyton is an American artist known for her stylised figurative portraits of well-known people; her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pompidou in Paris, and the Kunstmuseum in Basel. The two have been friends since 2009.
How we met
Dries Van Noten: When I have to make a collection, I am always looking for things that can inspire me, and communicate, but also that are open to different ways of interpretation, because the last thing I need is for my team to be repeating what I am saying. Years ago, I bought a book of your work, and it just spoke enormously to me, with the sense of colour and emotion. So when I had to come to New York to get the CFDA award, I asked if they could invite you to the dinner.
Elizabeth Peyton: And then I met you again, when you won another award, and then I came to your house in Antwerp for dinner, and it was wonderful. Of course, I’d been wearing your clothes for a long time by then. They interested me, because they always feel full of references. Also, they feel very honest.
DVN: That’s a compliment. When I start, I always want clothes to touch on reality but make you see it in a different way.
DVN: I actually did a whole collection based on a painting of yours once.
EP: Did I know that? I don’t remember that. Which one?
DVN: It was the men’s collection from spring/summer 2009 [shown in June 2008], and the painting was called “Democrats are More Beautiful” from 2001. The painting had a feeling of precision, and a clarity of colour I really liked. So I put it on the table and said to my team, “This is next season. Do something. What’s the story of that guy?” And some of them played with the colours, others with the lifestyle … When I see your work, it feels very intimate but also layered at the same time. And I feel I haven’t gotten through many layers of Elizabeth.
EP: You have no idea!
DVN: Then you asked to draw [my partner] Patrick [Vangheluwe] and myself when you were at our house, which was a very strange experience for me. I’m used to getting photographed but this was something else. It was much more personal.
EP: The faces people make when they are photographed, and the face they have when you draw them are very different. It’s a very special thing to share with someone, because it’s time spent together that is not about eating or the usual social things.
DVN: I was touched when you asked but also a little scared. It’s odd to go from spectator to subject, and to be looked at so closely.
EP: It’s interesting [that] you have art in your house but not really contemporary art.
DVN: The art we have is part of the decoration. I actually don’t want to own contemporary art. For me, when I really respect a work of art, I don’t want to shut it away in my house, and keep it just for myself.
EP: Really? I love the idea that someone I like would have a piece of mine in their house, and have a relationship with it. Not that I’m trying to convince you to own my work, you understand.
DVN: My relationship with your work is in my thoughts. I’m very digital: once I’ve seen something I like, I can remember it. Of course, it has to be a pretty strong piece. Otherwise I might forget all about it.
Matters of perspective
EP: Do you ever feel you have reached a point in your work where everything will be OK?
DVN: No. I’m always worried. I always think: is this collection any good? On the other hand, I also think it’s just clothes. You know, I teach once a year at the Antwerp fashion school, and I keep seeing students who really consider themselves an artist, and they are always explaining to me how their collection is about how someone from Poland meets the Russian hip-hop culture and the Jewish diaspora, and I think, “Oh, poor you, all that weight on your shoulders!”
EP: Young painters are the same. They feel they have to do everything. Maybe this is part of the connection between the two worlds.
Will fashion ruin art?
DVN: I’m always a little afraid that fashion will ruin the art world, especially now it has gotten so involved in all the art fairs, all the parties.
EP: But if art is any good, it has so much of a longer trajectory than one night. Contemporary art is separate from art openings. In the end, it depends on the strength of ideas in each piece. Fashion can’t ruin that.
DVN: What I love about art is that it becomes part of your interior world – it is absorbed, and reflects personality. By contrast, I have enormous respect for people who buy my garments and then make them their own, cut the arms off or whatever. But I’d guess it’s not the same for you.
EP: That’s true. I hope no one cuts the arms off my pieces.