Dries Van Noten looked over the balcony at the boats tipping and swaying on the water in Antwerp’s harbour.
Even with the thin winter sun filtering through the windows on to the stacks of patterned fabrics in the Belgian designer’s studios, it all seemed a long way from the magical, hot-coloured fashion moment in Paris last September.
That was when Dries stunned the fashion world by secretly partnering with Christian Lacroix, drawing on the legacy of the former fashion designer, whose vision was soaked in the sunshine of the South of France, in contrast to the more down-to-earth Belgian designer.
There were many things to talk about with Dries on his home territory. I wanted especially to learn more about his recent switch to partial ownership by Puig, after Dries, now 61, sold a majority stake to the Spanish-based, family-owned company, famous for its fragrance and beauty products.
But I had to start our conversation with that magical – and unexpected – collaboration. What had inspired this most unlikely fashion marriage with Lacroix?
“Fashion has to reflect what is happening in the world, but that isn’t getting much nicer, and we have to give people a remedy – a kind of cure,” Dries explained. “The way you dress can make you stronger; you can express things and find fun in life even when the world is grim. So we explored that kind of exuberance and fun, dressing up with ruffles and organza ribbons. That was the story I wanted to tell when I saw pictures from couture collections by Lacroix. But I had to ask, ‘Is it inspiring? Is it the right moment? Did it age well? Is it relevant? Are there interesting things to take from it?’ That’s the fun part of my job.”
This week, the first of the Dries Van Noten Spring/Summer 2020 collection goes on sale – at the same time that the designer is showing his Autumn/Winter 2020 menswear collection in Paris.
The story of the Lacroix collaboration started with the Belgian designer undertaking extensive research before contacting Lacroix himself. “We began the project without him, to see how far it could go,” Dries said. “I didn’t want it to become some sort of homage. It had to be something real that could make reference to his collections – polka dots, historical jacquards, the things that he used a lot – but still keeping it a Dries Van Noten collection, so it doesn’t become a relic, a homage or a knock-off. But there was also my identity, my fun, my vision.”
Dries said he was “too star struck” to approach Lacroix directly, so he contacted him digitally. The reply was “Yes!” And the unexpected melding of clean white trousers with baroque prints, flowers and feathers, puffs of fabric tinged with Lacroix’s inimitable painterly colours, was one of those unforgettable “fashion moments”.
Together the designers looked at the New Romantic era, that eccentric and flamboyant street style that came after Punk in the early Eighties. Lacroix himself, after a decade of swapping fashion for ballet and theatre costumes, was enchanted by this dip into the Dries universe.
“Of course I love his world very much and I am an admirer of his mixing and matching colours and printing. I was sometimes very jealous of his being able to do this with such subtlety,” Lacroix admitted. “I was curious and sure that we would have these territories in common.”
The two artistic designers had a secret meeting at the Paris headquarters of Puig on the Champs Elysées, which was attacked in the gilets jaunes (“yellow vest”) riots. But the two creatives carried on.
“Dries showed me the mood board and I said to myself, ‘They don’t need me!’” Lacroix said. “They already had everything – the 15th century, the tiger print, and Dries had this beautiful idea with the black ribbons on white. I was touched by his modern approach and the way he expressed it on the mood board. It was chemistry at first sight.”
The Antwerp Atelier
I sat down with Dries in Antwerp, on a long table in front of a collection of men’s sweaters in bright colours. I asked how it had been possible to keep the secret of Lacroix’s participation in the collection.
“Christian came once a month, so he was here six or seven times to work on the collection,” Dries explained. “It was equally stimulating when he wasn’t here because of the work in the atelier for the pattern makers or embroidery people. We would all look at the pattern for a ruffled skirt and say, ‘Maybe it should become a little bigger, with more ribbons, more fabrics, more everything’ – especially with the bold, shiny and brash colours.”
Keeping the secret was a complicated process, with buyers who came before the show being asked to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). In the gossipy fashion world, the fact it remained a surprise seems miraculous.
“The collection is quite broad but it is still very Dries,” the designer said. “It’s not that there are only skirts with 25 metres of fabric and another 15 of ribbons. But we do include beautiful replicas of 18th-century jacquards woven by hand in Lyon and then sent to India for 300 hours of embroidery. On the other hand, we scanned the same jacquards and printed them on T-shirts, which we retail at 150 Euros. So there is a balance.”
Lacroix admitted to some nervous moments. “At one point I was very frightened when Dries showed me some shiny fuchsia satin or a bullfighter jacket. ‘No Dries, no!’” the French designer remembered saying. “I was afraid of a caricature, but the way he did it at the end was such an experience. I made a friend. We are much closer than I expected!”
Were there any stumbles? “When Dries says, ‘Mmm… Pourquois pas – Why not? – that means no!,” Lacroix recalled.
Business Partners and Creative Collaborators
In the Dries Van Noten waterside building in Antwerp, the showroom was filled with future collections, while some storage areas revealed past inspirations. The designer told me that almost his entire business was in selling clothes, not accessories – something of a wonder in the current fashion industry, which still relies so much on footwear and handbags.
I left the studio for the city centre, with its Medieval and Renaissance buildings, its diamond-cutting area, and the imposing Dries Van Noten corner boutique. There, I saw a few of the new Lacroix designs among the colourful patterned pieces from the Autumn/Winter 2019-2020 collection.
I wondered if part-ownership by Puig, which already has Carolina Herrera, Jean Paul Gaultier and Paco Rabanne on its “prestige” list, would alter the Dries vision or structure.
Puig seems to be moving at a snail’s pace as it creeps towards opening stores “in New York and Shanghai”, as one executive suggested, while José Manuel Albesa, President of Brands, Markets & Operations, insisted that the gossip about Dries opening in Manhattan’s Chinatown was not accurate.
The original announcement in Barcelona in 2018 stated that Puig would become the majority and Dries the minority shareholder, but that he would continue as Chief Creative Officer and Chairman of the Board. The company is a third-generation family-owned fashion and fragrance business with projects in more than 150 countries, so it might be expected to be a force of energy.
The designer himself does not think that the Puig pace is leisurely. “It’s moving forward, it’s not being slow,” Dries said of the relationship with Puig. “You can look at it from a positive or negative angle. I think it is too easy for a fashion company to create buzz, to make a lot of noise, to open doors, to launch other elements such as pre-collections. Especially now, in the time of the Internet and social media, buzz is created quickly – but it is not something that interests me. I want something with a very sound foundation. Then, when the day comes when I say I am going to slow down, the next team will be here, ready to do things.“
“In this building we have 120-130 people, and then we have Paris and other places,” Dries continued. “We have manufacturers and embroiderers in India, and when I realised that, I thought about how I could see the future. We have a DNA that is strong enough that when I stop, maybe there is continuation. We started to look around for a possible partner to make us grow from small to big to give us structure to do e-commerce or go to China, which for us is a virgin market.”
“I know very clearly where I want to go, and as I have time and Puig has time, it’s a good thing.”
I asked Dries whether he believed in his heart that day would come? “I think so,” he said. “I don’t know when. I still love my job and there are more days that I really want to go to the office than I want to stay home.”
A Rural Retreat
By the evening, we had moved to Dries’ heartland – the big country home outside Antwerp that he shares with his partner Patrick Vangheluwe and new dog, Scott, to replace a dear departed hound. Even in mid-winter, the house seemed to be filled with greenery, and the noble interior, with its big paintings and historic furniture, felt as if it had always been just like that; while in the garden, the spreading trees were perhaps always that high and the tangles of winter flowers always about to burst into bud.
I asked Dries, who was brought up at a Jesuit school, if he felt very much grounded in Antwerp, and what that meant to him and his work.
“Antwerp has always been a crossroads for people of different religions and influences,” the designer said, referring to the city not so much as the centre of “the Low Countries”, but as “the capital of the kings of Burgundy”.
“You have the whole Protestant/Calvinist side from Holland,“ Dries said, “But this atmosphere never crossed the border with Antwerp. It’s always enjoyed the good life.”
I had previously asked Dries what he felt he had gained from the unexpected influence of Lacroix. “For me, it was not strange to work with somebody else,” Dries said. “On the contrary, it was liberating, because Christian pushed us to forget all the words like ‘relevant’, ‘contemporary’, ‘modern’, ‘fashionable’. All those things that didn’t matter.”
So will there be a post-marriage honeymoon between this fashion couple? Neither designer envisages a re-run of the Spring/Summer 2020 shows and Lacroix has returned to designing for the stage.
But like all moments of enchantment, the unlikely collaboration has left a sprinkling of magic.