“Indie Hero” Dries Van Noten: I Like Ugly Things

The Belgian designer has done his own thing for three decades, successfully

Belgian designer Dries Van Noten has been a quiet force in the fashion industry since launching his label in 1986. He's also known to be fairly quiet himself, making his decision to participate in French Institute Alliance Francais's third and final "Fashion Talk" last night at Florence Gould Hall all the more intriguing. 

As a member of the famed "Antwerp Six"--a collective of six graduates from Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts that includes Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs--Van Noten's unconventional approach to design and business has made him something of a cult icon. Iris Apfel, an unconventional icon in her own right, offered the designer's warm, if not entirely audible, introduction, describing the designer as "our hero."

To be sure, there is something heroic in Van Noten's ability to avoid the familiar trappings of a big fashion house. Accordingly, moderator Pamela Golbin steered discussion towards his rogue status, from his refusal to adjust designs for "trendiness" to his total lack of advertising. Asked what he enjoys about the independence of his company, Van Noten said he liked "the possibility that I can do whatever I want."

Which, it would seem, is exactly what he does, though his creative process would make any CFO tremble in their boots.

"I like things that are ugly...My team says that if I don't like lilac that season, then you know there will be a lot of lilac in the collection," he laughed. Over the course of the discussion, it became evident that Van Noten, and the direction of his company (of which he is also CEO), remains beholden to no one.

"If there's one thing I really hate, it's a system," he explained. "At least ugly things are surprising."

Of course, nobody would accuse Van Noten of making ugly clothes, as evidenced by the retail success of his garments. "I do really make clothes to buy and to wear," he explained. "But it's important to me that people buy the clothes for the clothes themselves, and not just for some label."

He may not be saving the world, but in a time when fashion houses slap logos on everything from skincare products to perfume, there's something a little "super" about a designer staying true to one vision for nearly three decades.

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