NYC, Meet DVN-------
“Good evening, I’m Iris Apfel, geriatric starlet,” announced said starlet last night at New York’s French Institute/Alliance Française. She was on hand to introduce the speaker for the last of this season’s Fashion Talks, organized by Musée des Arts Décoratifs director Pamela Golbin. Apfel was introducing a designer with whom she’d fallen in love at first sight, a fellow textile obsessive: Dries Van Noten. After they met at a dinner given by Bergdorf Goodman, “I felt that we were transatlantically joined at the hip by an ever-changing bolt of fabric. His clothes are ageless,” she said. “Thank God.”
Van Noten then took the stage for a conversation with Golbin, who was wearing one of the nightscape-printed dresses from the designer’s Spring ’12 collection, which he revealed was one of the most difficult patterns he’s ever had made, given its digital print. He spoke of first finding fashion thanks to his grandfather and father, both retailers, and joining his parents on buying trips to Milan, Paris, and Düsseldorf in the seventies. While his father had hoped that he’d take over the family business, the son found his calling to be more in design than in sales and enrolled at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. It was the era of rules, when propriety reigned and Chanel was thought the ultimate designer, when an imperious professor could opine, as Van Noten remembered, “Knees are the ugliest part of a woman; never show knees. Long hair is untidy. Jeans are for poor people.” Meanwhile, punk was fomenting in the streets. A group of promising young students, later branded the Antwerp Six (because, Van Noten said, of their unpronounceable names), banded together to show their collection in London in the only show space they could afford: As he told it, it turned out to be a back room behind a phalanx of enormous wedding dresses, so secluded the designers had to take to the streets with flyers to attract a crowd. It’s hard to imagine Van Noten or fellow Six-ers like Ann Demeulemeester and Walter Van Beirendonck having that problem today.
Van Noten spoke of his process (“I always start with the story,” never the muse, which would be too restricting), his studio (in which patternmakers sit on the same open floor as designers), and the importance, for designers like himself who are punctilious about controlling every detail, of having uncontrollable elements in their lives—in his case, his garden and his dog. In an age when many designers are doing fast-fashion collaborations, he insisted he never would. He described seeing one zippered jacket in a fast-fashion retailer selling for less than the cost of the zippers he’d use to make it. And while retailers clamor for more collections each year and business types for more accessories to bolster the bottom line, Van Noten defended his decision to produce only two collections each year, Spring and Fall, to be able to oversee every detail personally. “Making a collection,” he said, “you have to stay awake till the last moment,” adapting all along the way. “Accessories,” he added, “for me should stay accessory. I don’t want to be a designer whose main business is accessories.”
He fielded questions on opening a New York store (it all depends on finding a space), launching a fragrance (wouldn’t rule it out), and licenses (not worth it to him, in most cases). Golbin was thanking the audience for attending when a shout went up from a woman with a buzz cut and earrings the size of tea saucers. “One more question!” she yelled out, before excusing herself with, “Sorry, I’m Italian.” It turned out not to be a question at all, but a message addressed to the designer: “Thank you for existing.”