The very name "Dries Van Noten" bares a mythic quality in the fashion zeitgeist. Notably grouped with the famous Antwerp Six clan, the designer has forged a solid career through tireless work, and a wondrous combination of cultural references and innovation that have felt remarkably new every season. Yet it feels as if he and his eponymous brand have always been with us.
Dries is one of many speakers at the annual Business of Fashion VOICES conference at Soho Farmhouse. We nestle into a cozy corner of a grand wood-clad barn on a frosty morning before his live stream talk with BoF's Tim Blanks. Ahead, we speak about his milestone 100th show, what the youth of today shouldn't fear, and just how obsessed he is with gardening. (who knew?)
BoF VOICES is like a huge laboratory of ideas. How are you finding the experience?
It's the first time I've come here. For me the venue pushes you to think in a more open and different way, because you're not in the pressure of the city. Everybody can relax and you don't have to pretend to be anything other than yourself.
You recently celebrated your 100th show. Did you find it was a reflection of the brand's past or a vision of the future?
It was definitely a combination of both. I didn't want to make it a big extravaganza of a show because I think that's kind of over now. Big companies do that in a way that I will never be able to. They can move icebergs, but that's never been my thing. For the 100th show, nearly the whole budget went into bringing all those women together. It had a lot of elements of the past, but we made new versions of it—a very contemporary, modern version of it. For me that's the future, I always look forward.
Some argue society today has become overly hypersensitive and young people aren't as inclined to take risks. How do you see risk taking, trial and error and spontaneity for youth?
I think it's very important. As you said you can lose this nowadays because everybody is getting scared to say things. Even the talk with Tim [Blanks] will be difficult for me to really say what I want to say because everything will be so instantly put out into the world. But then again, it will be a pity if I only give safe answers. In terms of social media, it's made life a bit more complicated but also the world more grey. Things aren't black or white anymore, because there's this grey area where people are afraid to say what they really want to say.
Both your grandfathers were art collectors and your parents owned a fashion store in the countryside near Antwerp. What do you think about the idea of destiny in life and career?
For me, it's a case of parents and education. You can never escape the education you're raised around. My siblings have completely no interest in fashion. My brother is a doctor, my sister is a biologist, and my other sister teaches—but I was fashion mad.
I went with my parents on buying trips to Milan and Florence when I was 12 years old, which were fascinating. Something else I got from my father was his love of gardening. Yet as a child I hated it. He made me garden every weekend for the whole day, so the moment I turned 18 I ran away from home so I never had to do it again. But when I turned 35, a love for gardening came. It's true, sometimes you can't escape your parents' interest.
So gardening is a great love of yours in life?
Fashion and gardening balances out my life very well. In fashion, you think you can rule the world and you can do everything, and everyone is doing everything exactly the way that you want it done. Nature and gardening makes you very humble. It forces you to put your two feet in and on the ground. You can do something very small in the garden and immediately see the results. Take mowing the grass or something stupid like that—two hours of work but wow, what a difference it makes. But in fashion this is not the case. You always have to think and work with the long term in mind. Fashion can really dictate your rhythm of life. I'll have a dry spell at work and then say "Sorry, I have to go home and water my plants!"
If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
I would say "find the right balance." For my partner Patrick and I, it was very hard to find the right balance between our life and fashion. Fashion takes over your life. When I talk now with students I always stress not to jump immediately from fashion school to working. Take your time, do an apprenticeship. Prepare yourself. Because once you're in the industry, you have to give yourself completely. To do that, you have to be well-prepared because you can so easily lose yourself. I've seen too many good people getting lost in the fashion circus.