'Just too much': Designer Dries Van Noten on why he is retiring from fashion


In an exclusive interview, Dries Van Noten reveals why he is retiring, his fears and why fashion is “an addiction”. Photo: The New York Times

On a recent afternoon, designer Dries Van Noten sat in the sprawling old warehouse that houses his Antwerp headquarters, with its bare concrete walls, vintage oak cupboards and views over the city’s harbour.

He was altering a jacket for his coming menswear show: a nip here, a seam moved there.

Then, Van Noten said, a member of his team pointed out that it was the last piece of the men’s collection this season.

As Van Noten recounted later, “I said, ‘That’s not the last piece of the men’s collection: It’s the last piece of my career.’”

In March, six years after selling the company he founded in 1986 to Puig, a Spanish luxury group, Van Noten, 66, did something truly rare in fashion: He announced his retirement.

His menswear show held in Paris on Saturday (June 22), is his last.

Immediately after the news went out, he retreated to his home on the Amalfi Coast in Italy with his partner in life and fashion, Patrick Vangheluwe, the creative director of his brand, who is also retiring.

It has been, he said, “an emotional roller coaster”.

Some days, he said, he thinks: “Oh, my God, why? I don’t know why. Some days I’m completely convinced. Some days I’m like, it’s too early.”

His team has begun designing the women’s collection for September, and he has caught sight of samples.

“You think, ‘Oh, they’re selecting that colour?’ But I can’t say anything.” He snorted at his inability to disengage, “Okay, it’s not working completely.”

For almost 40 years, ever since he was 28, he dedicated himself to building his vision of how people should dress: an almost alchemical combination of clashing colours and ideas – masculinity and femininity, salmon pink and cobalt blue, geometrics and irises, the collegiate and the baroque – that in his hands somehow finds harmony.

Now he must leave it in others’ care.

“It’s scary,” he said. “It’s a big void. It’s like, What is going to happen after, with my name?”

Read more: Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten steps away from his label

The business ‘takes years to leave your body’

Fashion is notoriously bad at retirement and succession planning. Karl Lagerfeld, the designer of Chanel, Fendi and his own label, died midwork at age 85 in 2019.

Ralph Lauren, 84, and Giorgio Armani, 89, are still firmly in control of the houses they founded. So is Rei Kawakubo, 81; Yohji Yamamoto, 80; and Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli (75 and 78).

Jil Sander, who sold her company to Prada in 1999, ended up returning to the brand that bears her name – not just once, but twice before finally cutting the strings.

Notably, two of the most successful retirements were actually managed by Van Noten’s peers from Belgium.

Martin Margiela, who sold his fashion house to Only The Brave in 2002, left in 2009 and has refashioned himself as an artist; and Ann Demeulemeester stepped down in 2013 and is focusing on furniture design.

When you tell someone you want to leave fashion, Demeulemeester said, “Everybody says: ‘What? No! You can’t do that. You’re crazy. It’s not possible.’”

Like Van Noten, Demeulemeester belonged to the Antwerp Six, a group of Belgian designers who came to Paris in the 1980s and deconstructed formal notions of beauty and dress.

She and Van Noten are close friends – they live outside Antwerp and share a passion for gardening – and she serves as an example of how to have a happy life after fashion.

Still, Vangheluwe said, she told him the business “takes years to leave your body”.

“In the beginning, it’s hard,” Demeulemeester said. “I could feel it in my bones when it was showtime in Paris.”

Of Van Noten, she said: “I was not sure he would dare to do it. When he said it, I said, ‘Bravo.’”

What makes Van Noten’s decision particularly striking is that he is more popular than ever. In the 1990s, in Paris, he was a bit of an odd man out: a fabulous colourist in an age of minimalism, a believer in the virtues of wearable clothes when high-concept fashion was more the rage.

Now, however, his decision to build his brand his way is revered, and his work seems almost an act of faith, glorious proof that tensions can be resolved – and in the best possible way.

He was made a baron for his services to Belgium in 2017, and his picture greets visitors at Brussels Airport, along with other national landmarks. So why retire?

“Fashion is not a profession,” Van Noten said. “It’s a way of life. And it’s an addiction.” Like most addictions, at a certain point, it gets out of control.

“Patrick and I never went on holiday for more than a week,” Van Noten said. “Maybe once 10 days.”

He was involved in every aspect of his business, down to the chocolate (Pierre Marcolini) served to visitors – retailers, reporters, friends – at the office.

“The motion, the fastness, the demands, from early in the morning to late in the evening and often seven days a week – everything’s too intense. I can’t come down anymore.

“There are still so many other things in life I would like to do,” he continued.

“I love fashion, and even when I close the door, I’m going to love fashion. But sometimes it’s just too much. Just too much.”

Read more: Reclusive fashion designer Martin Margiela makes a comeback... as an artist?

‘The last thing I want’

In Van Noten’s office, piles of fabric have been replaced by piles of letters from all over the world.

One woman wrote that as a girl she loved his work but couldn’t afford it, so her mother saved up and bought her one piece every year.

Later she attributed her professional success to her Dries Van Noten wardrobe and the fact that, as Van Noten recalled, “people always saw her as a person wearing quite strong clothes.”

Another had a photo of three generations of women dressed in Dries Van Noten. The oldest wore a design from his latest collection; the youngest, a vintage piece that had been her grandmother’s.

The letters, Van Noten said, made him appreciate anew the power of fashion. They also illustrate the stakes for his successor. Though he can provide thoughts on that, he will not be involved in the final decision.

Whoever it is, though, he said that he hopes that they surprise him.

He’s interested in the idea that he may think, “Oooh, that’s strange.”

On the other hand, he said, “It would be a pity if somebody just comes in and says, like: ‘Rip everything out. We’re going to do something completely different and just keep your name.’ I think then I would be really sick.

He went on: “A brand is standing for something.”

“Just because you have an ego as a designer doesn’t mean that first names have to be dropped and store designs have to be changed. What a pity, all that material going to waste. The whole thing now of designers changing and changing and changing again worries me a lot.

"The last thing I want is that my name becomes just a name that is put on different collections. And that happens so much.”

Demeulemeester’s brand is on its fourth designer since she left.

“It took me some years to be able to have distance and not be unhappy,” she said. “But you only have one life. If you want to do something else, or if you want to be free, it’s the only way.” – The New York Times

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