Dries Van Noten’s story begins with a pivotal tale in fashion folklore. In 1986, Van Noten and five other Belgian designers, collectively known as the Antwerp Six, rented a truck and drove to London, setting up shop at fashion week. Barneys New York buyers were attracted to the collective’s avant-garde efforts—and Dries Van Noten in particular, immediately buying into the designer’s collection. Since then, Van Noten has continued to develop his eponymous company on his own terms with Barneys New York as a supportive partner. His signature embellishments, vivid prints, and rich fabrics captivate customers season after season, but it’s the cerebral designer’s ability to bring his references to life that makes him a master of fashion narrative.
“We always start from a story, which can come from a word, a sentence, a person, a painting, a movie, but it’s rather complex,” Van Noten says over the phone from his Antwerp atelier, a historic building overlooking the harbor. “It isn’t a systematic story with a beginning and end, because that’s a bit too easy. I want to surprise people and surprise myself.”
For his Fall 2016 collection, Van Noten brought the turbulent romance of 20th-century femme fatale Marchesa Luisa Casati and the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio back to life. “They wanted to surprise and stimulate each other and to really push the edge, to their limits,” says Van Noten. “That, for me, is what makes it so beautiful. He was the ultimate dandy and she was extreme art and fashion, so together it was really spectacular.”
While the decadence of the Marchesa is enough to make Van Noten chuckle with delight, it’s the attitude he truly admires, naming Loulou de la Falaise as his first fashion hero. “When you see the way a woman wears her clothes, the way she moves, and the way she talks and everything is in perfect balance, that is well-dressed,” says Van Noten, who prefers a waitress or artist with an authentic air to any stylized celebrity. “It all starts to look a little bit the same,” he says of the big-label bait. “it’s easy and becomes so fake that you just don’t believe it anymore.”
Believability is key to Van Noten’s own narrative. “I have to be very careful that it isn’t costume that we do, but it’s fashion that we make,” he says. “For a story to push us creatively is one thing, but the clothes need enough power to stand on their own because not everyone wants to tell the same story I do. It is important for the clothes to help the person express something about herself. It’s part of her alphabet, not the full story.”
Looks from the designer’s Fall 2016 mens and womenswear collections appeared in the Barneys New York downtown windows earlier this August. The collection features sumptuous velvets, appliqués, and jacquard design details throughout. Shop all fall Dries Van Noten clothing and accessories, both in stores and online now.