Why Dries Van Noten Is Shorthand for Good Taste

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Why Dries Van Noten Is Short for Good TasteEstrop - Getty Images

“Can you name the Antwerp Six?” It’s an occasional, one-question quiz conceived to while away the traffic jams between the men’s fashion shows in Paris. For those who have not, like me, been buried in the fashion biz for several decades, the Antwerp Six might sound like a band of revolutionaries. In a fashion sense they were just that.

They had studied fashion together at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts from 1980 to ’81. Each had their own shtick, but together, in 1986, they put the Academy—and Belgian design—on the global fashion map and brought a new voice to the industry when they showed together at London Fashion Week. Most of them have been on the map ever since, one way or another.

The Antwerp Six game usually plays out the same. I get to five with ease but struggle with the sixth*. But the first one is never a problem: Dries Van Noten.

a man wearing a trench coat
A look from the Dries Van Noten fall 2024 menswear collection.Courtesy of Dries Van Noten

This morning Dries Van Noten, in his characteristic low-key way, announced in a simple letter his plan to step down from the creative direction of his eponymous label after his next men’s show in Paris in June. A collective gasp ensued. This is major news in my world not least because, for four decades, Dries Van Noten has been one of the most consistently fascinating and desirable labels in both men’s and women’s fashion. All this has been done without much in the way of fuss or fanfare. Dries doesn’t do advertising or influencers, and his shows are mercifully free of the celebrity fandango that attends any major fashion show these days. Instead, it’s about the clothes.

His collections have always combined the eclectic and the vaguely familiar with the interesting and new—shades of thrift-store-bought overcoats, with details drawn from everything from Indian embroidery to the military. Not that you could ever pin an easy label on collections that incorporated so many ideas and colors and patterns from such a wide-ranging cultural playlist.

the pairing of camel and pink was a recurring theme in the latest mens collection
The pairing of camel and pink was a recurring theme in the latest men’s collection. Courtesy of Dries Van Noten

The result is the perfect balance between the expressive and the wearable. It’s just one reason why Dries is known as the designer’s designer. But it’s also the reason his clothes appeal to men and women who don’t live and breathe fashion. People who like his clothes want to be interesting rather than trendy. Dries never designs to obliterate the personality. Instead, his clothes reflect and enhance personality. And there’s a story behind every detail to give depth.

One rainy (and mildly hungover) morning at the end of the Paris men’s shows ten years ago, I was invited, along with a bunch of other U.S. fashion editors, to view Dries Van Noten: Inspirations, an exhibit that ran at the Musée des Art Décoratifs, attached to the Louvre. We waited in the vestibule somewhat bleary eyed until out from a side door popped our guide. It was Dries himself.

a person wearing a coat and carrying a bag
Van Noten has never been one to shy away from print and pattern.Courtesy of Dries Van Noten

There followed an hour and a half’s education in creativity as Dries unpacked and explained the processes by which his own inspirations morph into fashion. The exhibit presented clothing from previous seasons paired with the objects and artworks that inspired them, whether Picasso or punk. A 16th century painting by Bronzino that had hung in the same spot nearby in the Louvre for centuries was moved exceptionally (and not without much gallic beaurocracy) for the Dries exhibit to sit next to a 1986 canvas by Gerhard Richter. If anything, it was proof positive that the most talented designers are those who have interests and passions far beyond fashion. Now Dries gets to enjoy his more fully.

texture also plays a significant role in van notens designs and styling
Texture also plays a significant role in Van Noten’s designs and styling.Courtesy of Dries Van Noten

The Dries van Noten label, reassuringly, will go on, at first driven by the label’s strong existing studio team. In due course, a new designer will be announced to lead them. But the considerable heritage of the label Dries created will ensure that his aesthetic still has long legs.

*The Antwerp Six: Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs, Dirk Van Saene, and Marina Yee.

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