Lush, Timeless Beauty From Fashion's Normal Guy, Dries Van Noten

By Robin Givhan
Dries Van Noten Spring Summer 2018 collection. Picture / Supplied

At the end of his fashion shows, Dries Van Noten takes his bow still wearing the all-access laminated pass hanging around his neck, as if the security guards might not let him out onto the runway without some proof of identification. He doesn't bow dramatically or feign bashfulness. And he certainly doesn't swagger. He offers up a friendly wave, like a neighbor saying good night after a backyard barbecue. Hey, thanks so much for coming! See you at the dog park!

That Van Noten still exudes an aura of accessibility and normalcy is notable in an industry that is not known for either, especially the higher up the ladder of success a designer has climbed. And Van Noten has scrambled up quite a few rungs. His privately owned business wholesales around the world. He has a handful of free-standing stores, including a grand flagship in his home base of Antwerp.

And yet he does not advertise. And his clothes make only the occasional appearance on the red carpet. His business is fueled by selling the precise garments that are paraded down his runway, not accessories - although he does produce handbags, shoes and a bit of jewelry. So if a coat is lushly beaded or a dressed explodes with feathers or a gown is practically sheer, that is exactly how it will look in stores.

Van Noten traffics in truth. A beautiful, intoxicating reality.

Van Noten's shows are dramatic and theatrical, but he does not allow anything to distract from the clothes themselves. They are not hidden in murky lighting or diminished by a front row filled with celebrities. And if a consumer purchased one of his jackets or a pair of his trousers five seasons ago, in all likelihood those clothes would be just as relevant today. His point-of-view evolves. It's does not whipsaw.

His spring 2018 collection is an exuberant display of scarf prints and motifs, richly embellished dresses and boots, competing textures, and tulle pullovers that surround an oversize blazer like a cloud.

Van Noten recently celebrated his 100th fashion show. To mark this benchmark, he is releasing a double volume photo book dedicated to his work over the years. A documentary about him by director Reiner Holzemer, which debuted on the film festival circuit, will be screened in Washington in a program co-hosted by Relish and the Hirschhorn Museum in November. (I'll be in conversation with Holzemer after the film.)

The Belgian-born designer, who stepped onto the world stage in 1986 in London, has carved a niche in the fashion industry that emphasises the relationship between fabric and silhouette. His womenswear is distinguished by the juxtaposition of prints, colors and textures that might initially appear to be at odds. But he finds the subtle connections that allow them to peaceably, beautifully coexist. He is a fashion diplomat.

He plays with layers and proportions, favours soft draping over sharp tailoring, and aims for romance rather than overt sex appeal.

Van Noten is not as famous as some of his contemporaries. Few outside the fashion industry would recognise him on the street. His brand doesn't have a logo to serve as its philosophical shorthand. The clothes he creates tell his story in full.

The Washington Post

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