NEW YORK — Nonagenarian Iris Apfel, the self-proclaimed geriatric starlet, gingerly stepped on the stage with the help of a cane last night to introduce Belgian designer Dries van Noten, the subject of the French Institute Alliance Française’s final installment of its 2012 spring Fashion Talks. The two began their relationship a few years ago when Van Noten was in town for a dinner and had to submit an invitation list. “The only one he wanted to meet was lil old moi,” said Apfel, after telling the audience that she was “awed and star-struck” by Van Noten. “Dries loves and respects the woven cloth more than anyone I’ve ever known,” she said.
Van Noten, who was part of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts’s “Antwerp Six” — a notable group of designers that included Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee, who studied at the prestigious Belgian fashion school in the late ’70s and early-’80s — helped put Belgium on the fashion map. During the talk, moderated by Pamela Golbin, curator of fashion and textiles at Paris’s Les Arts Décoratifs, Van Noten discussed the conservative principles his teacher at the Royal Academy tried to instill in the group: no short skirts unless the knees are covered with stockings, long hair is untidy, only pants, jeans are for poor people, Chanel was the world’s greatest fashion designer... But the “Antwerp Six” soon dismissed those restrictions and set new boundaries.
Van Noten has remained self-financed since he started his business, where he is both CEO and creative director, in 1986. “I’m still happy I’m completely independent,” he said, noting that he doesn’t have the same pressure to expand as his contemporaries who work under large luxury conglomerates.
Known for his innovative use of fabrics, Van Noten spoke of his process of creating a collection, from his search for the right materials at small mills that have large archives in England, to clothing construction. He said he thinks the notion of beauty is boring. “I prefer ugly things. I prefer things which are surprising.”
Van Noten also spoke about working with London’s Victoria & Albert Museum to procure high-resolution photographs of ancient Chinese robes, which he digitally printed onto several pieces, including a jacket for his fall/winter 2012 collection, and how he realized the drastically different paces at which museums and the fashion industry work. “Unfortunately, museums work in centuries, in years,” he said. “For fashion, it’s hours.”
Notoriously publicity shy, the designer explained that the runway is his main method of promoting his brand, from the invitations to the location, to the sound, to the makeup. “Fashion shows are really my way of communication,” he said. “I don’t go on Twitter, I don’t go to parties, I don’t often do fashion talks like this.”
He added, “Clothes is just something you put on to cover yourself ... fashion is a way to communicate.”
Click on the video below to watch Tom Chen's exclusive interview with Dries van Noten: