For someone who started designing under his own name when few in the business envisioned that fashion could come from Antwerp, let alone pronounce Belgian brands, the success and rave reviews that Dries Van Noten is currently enjoying have been a long time coming. Today he is one of the Europe's few remaining independent designers, an accomplishment that makes his label somewhat of an anomaly. Nevertheless, Van Noten, as the designer himself coyly intimates, has started thinking about his future. Could it be that another of the enduring bastions of fashion sovereignty is about to end up in the hands of a conglomerate?
You once said, "The good thing about fashion is that you always go ahead, the next, the next, the next — you don’t have time to look back." Why is it good not to look back?
It is good to look back, but I don’t want to be nostalgic. I don’t see the point of dressing up in clothes from the past; there’s a reason why fashion changes with the times.
But nostalgia seems to have become a very important element in contemporary fashion. Why is that do you think?
People think that things were easier or more pleasant in the past, but that’s not the case. My team and I often have discussions about this. It’s interesting because I’m an older guy now and they are all very young. When we talk about the 1970s, for instance, they think about ABBA as one of the icons of the decade. They don’t know that ABBA at the time was considered to be extremely bad taste — vulgar and completely unfashionable. ABBA was still wearing platform shoes when everyone else had already moved on. What I mean to say is that it’s not always the best versions of the past that live on.
How do you negotiate the conflict between, as you’ve been known to say, there being too much fashion in the world and, at the same time, having always to produce more to stay in business?
I wouldn’t say that I’m completely at peace with this, but I don’t think of my clothes as just more products in the world. I try to do an honest job and make things that have a reason for existing other than just making money. I want to make clothes that allow wearers to communicate something about their personality. Of course I also have to compromise and make basic T-shirts to survive sometimes. But overall, I put my heart in everything I do. I can only hope that this makes my work worthwhile.
Do you ever have doubts?
Everyday. I never stop questioning what I do. Before a fashion show I might get nervous and start thinking, Maybe we should have chosen different music, or maybe those shoes aren’t quite right. But at the same time, if you’re perfectly sure of everything you do, then what’s the point?
What is success to you?
Success and happiness are intertwined. To me success is not about scoring, as it is to a lot of people. It’s about feeling good about things, it’s about living a good life.
How do you apply that principle to how you do business?
I try to do business in the same way. Had we wanted to, we could have had a store in every major city in the world, but that sort of success was never for me. When we open a store I want it to be in a nice location, I want the staff to be people I like. The most important thing to me is that my work is creative. I want to put all my energy and enthusiasm into colors, fabrics — things like that. I don’t automatically think about whether it will sell well or if I’ll earn a lot of money.
Is this a strategy that you’ve deliberately followed throughout your career?
I wouldn’t say it’s ever been deliberate. When I started in the mid-eighties it became clear pretty quickly that to be a Belgian fashion designer was seen as an anomaly. The other designers from Antwerp that I started out with, well, we realized that we wouldn’t fit easily into the system. We had to find our own way. We had no money, so working together made us stronger but forming a group was never a marketing idea. It was just that people couldn’t pronounce our names so we became the Antwerp Six. I didn’t set out to be different though, it all happened very organically.
How do you feel you have changed as a designer over the years?
I hope that getting older and more experienced has made me wiser. I don’t want to ever fall back on formulas — that’s the worst trap for a fashion designer who's been in the business a long time. You know, when you follow a tried and tested recipe that dictates adding a little bit of this, a pinch of that, shaking it and presto, there’s the new collection. I want to surprise and I want to stimulate creativity in my team. That to me is very important.
How do you ensure that you don’t fall into the trap?
The research process is incredibly important. Every season I start afresh — I want us to begin with a blank page, even if where we end up is not far from the last collection. To feel creatively stimulated I need to go through the whole research process — I couldn’t just pick up from where we left off last season. That’s why we aren’t yet part of a big conglomerate. I want to be able to make my own choices.
Not yet, you say?
Well, you never know what’s going to happen in the future. I’m 56 now, I don’t know what the situation will be like when I’m 65. Maybe I’ll want to stop. But the fact is that I’m responsible for my team and all the people who have invested in us; all the people that work in production are dependent on me. Maybe when that time comes, the best thing to do is to take a partner or to sell the company. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m not going to do this forever — I’m not Armani.
Why is it important to you that the company remain, even if you’re no longer involved?
It’s not that it’s important for its own sake, but of course it’s nice to know that what I have built will live on. It’s not that I’m looking to leave anytime soon, I love what I do. But I have to start thinking of the future, because I don’t have eternal life. We have to consider our options. In Antwerp we have over a hundred people working for us and in India there’s a few thousand people just working on our embroidery. It would be a pity to just suddenly say, "Okay, that was it – bye!"
Do you worry that your legacy might be misinterpreted, were you to leave it in the hands of somebody else?
I can pass on my message to the people who continue when I’m no longer here, but I can’t control what happens of course. If I step out, I step out and I have to assume responsibility for my choice. And I still have enough things to do in life that, once that day comes, I won’t always be looking over my shoulder to see what’s happening with the company.
You often seem to be represented as an outsider to the fashion system: no advertising, no pre-collections, based in Antwerp, independently owned – do you see yourself as an outsider?
No, because it was never something I set out to become. Every decision we made was based on our circumstances at the time, and my position in the industry is a result of that. It’s all happened very organically. I lived in Antwerp when I started, rent is cheap here. We found an incredible building so why move to Paris? The same logic applied when we found our shop in Paris. My intention wasn’t to set myself apart from the well-established shopping districts, it’s just that we found a shop that I really loved with an amazing view over the Seine.
How do you see your own role in the behemoth that the fashion industry today has become?
I don’t know. We’re not the only ones who work in a different way. There are others. But my decision not to make pre-collections like all the major brands do, for example, is based on the fact that we wouldn’t have the time to make it as well as our main collection. My team is not big enough. Also, I want to see every yarn, every palette, every button — every element of every collection. That, to me, is the fun part. I don’t like meetings; I like to be hands-on in the creation. But really, we just do the best we can with what we have.
Are there parts of the fashion industry that you find hard to identify with?
Actually, I think that the good thing about the fashion industry today is that it allows for a lot of different alternatives. In the eighties and nineties, there was just one way. In the late 1990s, when the big groups started buying up independent designers, it looked for a while as if that was the future — we all had to become part of a big conglomerate. We also considered it seriously for a while. But we didn’t make that leap, it wasn’t for — or not yet anyway. Instead we just kept working and with time people have come to respect that. Today, difference is celebrated. It’s the same with fashion itself. You can be dressed in Versace or in Yohji Yamamoto and be equally fashionable. There’s a lot more space for individuality today.
How do you feel about the pace of the fashion system? Is there any way to circumvent it?
I’m lucky in that it doesn’t affect me too much. I get by without the pre-collections that are so essential for many other brands. When pre-collections started to become important, we felt the pressure to make them too, of course. But we stuck it out, and today buyers seem grateful that we don’t make any. They spend so much time running around the world buying new collections that they complain about not knowing which season is which anymore. I think they appreciate a little time off.
I’m surprised to hear you say that. I’ve spoken to so many designers who seem to feel that making pre-collections is an absolute requirement these days. How can you survive without it when so many others seem to think they can’t?
Well, for most designers the pre-collection is their commercial collection — it’s what they sell. Then they make a fashion show collection that is useful in terms of image and gets them attention in the press. The equation, in terms of sales, is usually 75% pre-collection and 25% fashion show collection. The fashion show collection for most designers arrives late in the sales season, but we do it differently. We invite buyers to see us in Antwerp one month before we show it to press in Paris. This means that we can get early orders, which in turn helps us when we place fabric orders with our suppliers. If a fabric won’t arrive on time, we can let our buyers know and they can choose something else instead. All in all, this means that we can deliver a big part of our collection nearly at the same time when others deliver their pre-collections.
Have you found any disadvantages at all with working in this way?
The only thing that’s difficult for us is that having only two major collections a year means that we can only deliver one image per season. The shop-in-shops at department stores will only get one direction to work with from us, whereas a lot of the major brands now do as many as nine or ten collections a year, which allows them to deliver new products along with a new image every month. We instead have to rely on good merchandising so that our clients will notice new things whenever they come into the stores.
This pace that you’re describing owes a lot to fast fashion, doesn’t it? It’s as if the fast turnaround that customers have come to expect from the stores on the high street has also ended up completely altering the way high fashion brands work.
That’s true. You have to remember that in the past sell-through at department stores was assessed every six months; now it’s done every month. Department stores look at a designer’s monthly turnover per square foot now, so of course if you always deliver new products you’ll have a much more even sell-through. A brand like ours by contrast has a very high turnover for the first three months after a new collection arrives in stores, but that will be followed by two months of slow sales.
But seeing as you’ve been in business for over three decades, by now you’ve also had a chance to build long-lasting relationships with buyers. Would it be fair to say that, as a designer who is very well established and well respected by now, certain allowances are made for you?
You have a point, but the fact is that my collections sell well. I don’t want to come across as a commercial designer, but I am a designer concerned with creating garments for men and women that sell. Other designers are concerned with creating an image so that they can sell accessories or perfume. In most companies, accessories, shoes and bags make up 60–70% of sales. For us it’s only 7%, the other 93% is clothing.
You have been stressing the importance of designing garments to wear, rather than garments for show, but how do you keep this balance in an environment that now puts so much emphasis on the photogenic nature of clothes?
I have had to start thinking about what garments look good viewed on an iPod or smartphone. The first three looks have to be intriguing enough to make people want to see the rest. You can’t tell the whole story at once.
On a slightly different note, what’s important to you in terms of ideology and design ethics?
The fashion industry is full of tricks about how to create desirability and make things more commercial. You can find it in how you merchandise a collection, how you link garments or how you connect an element that sold well one season to items the following season. I try to avoid all that. I want my work to be honest and straightforward. I don’t like tricks.
Thanks to Vestoj
A tour of the new Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Tate Modern in London not only proves how important an artist she was at the beginning of modernism in Paris, painting alongside the likes of Picasso and Matisse a little over a century ago. It also demonstrates how all-encompassing her work was, including clothes and interior design, fabric prints, needlework and collage, as well as a kind of self-promotion that, today, seems remarkably prescient. Juliet Bingham, curator of international art at the Tate, explains how Delaunay not only helped found modern art, but also transcended it.Read More
Einstein once remarked that there’s no inspiration in an empty room, which is probably why the fifth floor of Antwerp’s Royal Academy smells of burnt leather. A student is adding loafer details to his Adidas Superstar sneakers, while in the back of the museum-like white cube chamber, students are gazing at a Stockman tailor dummy.
You could say that there’s a certain creative flow going on here, but to really understand the underlying structure of this elite school for aspiring fashion designers there’s one man you need to speak to: the head of the fashion course, Walter van Beirendonck. In the heart of the Belgian fashion capital, we covered a range of topics, from The Antwerp Six to finding his students' voice.Read More
It's mere days before his fall 2015 collection — with a companion exhibition — at MOCA’s PDC gallery and Bernhard Willhelm is busy...cooking. Which isn't to suggest the Lycra-loving gym bunny, neo-New Age health nut, bottle-blond and recent Los Angeles transplant has turned into a ditz, real housewife-style. Quite the contrary, the (mostly) men's designer is very street-wise and world-savvy, having been born and raised in Germany, schooled in Antwerp, based in Paris — and now communing with Hollywood's nature.
Willhelm says the collection and the site-specific work are a meditation on the future of commerce, his response to the uniformity of fashion as we know it. That he's juggling vegetables as we speak by phone simply means everything is under control — the mannequins, the videos, the ephemera, and of course the clothing, leaving us ample time to discuss dolls, cruising, and a certain male-only accessory.
President, Only the Brave Group (parent company of Maison Martin Margiela, Marni, Viktor & Rolf, Diesel)
Founder, Only the Brave Foundation
What did you do immediately before this questionnaire?
I went to Maison Margiela's Christmas party.
What will you do immediately after this questionnaire?
I will have a photo session.
What is your idea of bliss?
What is your idea of misery?
The arrogance of ignorant people.
What is the strangest article of clothing in your closet?
One-off prototypes of never commercialized jackets of the brands in our group.
What is your proudest moment?
When I feel the energy of the people i work with.
What is your greatest regret?
I can't think of one.
What would be the first sentence of your biography?
I lived a very intense life in every aspect.
What catchphrase do you use the most?
What three items could you not live without?
Mobile phone, iPad, nail-cutters.
One hour was the allotted time I had to interview Oscar de la Renta some years ago for V magazine. The house was expanding and he hoped to reach a younger audience. Although I entered his bustling Seventh Avenue studio without preconceptions, I did assume he'd be the very essence of charm. Who didn't know of this gift of his? And indeed he was, to the point where I stopped asking questions because asking them would mean interrupting him. In this way I was lulled out of deliberative journalist mode and into gurgling fan mode. When we reached the one-hour mark, he didn't want to stop and neither did I. So we didn't.
Upon hearing of the couturier's death yesterday, losing his battle with cancer, it occurred to me he might have learned of his diagnosis around the time we met. Yet even in the face of this terrible news, if in fact he knew, he conveyed the easy warmth, the natural grace, the casual geniality that made him one the most popular public figures in his adopted home of New York City and a true gentleman's gentleman. "There is, perhaps, no one more adored in American fashion than Oscar de la Renta," I so began the story. "Not only are his confectionary creations coveted by everyone from gamines to grannies, drag queens to First Ladies, socialites to Hollywood heavies, but a single disparaging word about the Latin legend won’t be found."
Here are other salient bits from the interview, plus additional quotes from the transcript that bear new relevance...
Wearing a light suit and a disarming smile, he waxes nostalgic about his early days in the mid-60s apprenticing for the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, delights in extolling high-profile clients ranging from beauty heiress Aerin Lauder to Sarah Jessica Parker (who became a fan after she played one on TV), and is perfectly comfortable detailing a business strategy to roll out new freestanding stores.
Oscar de la Renta is not one to waste time chasing some elusive hip factor or pushing a cult of personality. That would be vain. Instead, the quintessential traditionalist maintains, as he always has, that he’s interested in only one thing: “designing for women.”
“I travel quite a lot around the country. A journalist might know it's my first time in Cincinnati. I've been there 15 minutes and the first question they'll ask is what do I think of the woman of Cincinnati? I say that nowadays thinking of a woman by region is putting a woman down. Never has there been a woman as much in control of her destiny as a woman of today. What’s important to her is a projection of her own sense of individuality. I used to design day clothes, afternoon clothes, cocktail clothes, evening clothes. That's how I was trained, but I’ve had to ‘detrain’ — can you use that word? — my mind. I am not old-fashioned at all.”
"The customer I started dressing back in 1965 is very different from women of today. Today's woman has very different needs. Her first preoccupation of the day is not to get dressed in a pretty suit and have lunch with friends. My job is to understand who she is, and then try to keep that clientele, which I think is what made our business successful. Every day there is a new client."
At Balmain in Paris, de la Renta delivered a string of well-received collections until 2002, when he became disheartened by that highest of fashion disciplines and opted instead to concentrate on his own line back in the States, which, while not languishing, had become estranged. In a rare critical moment, he says, “I hated [designing for Balmain]. I personally think that a lot of houses today only use couture as a vehicle for selling handbags and all the other stuff, but I think ultimately it undermines what couture means.”
"When I was working in Paris and doing the collections for Pierre Balmain, at the end I quit because of practical reasons. I felt it was really important to my business. I was in Paris for Balmain just two and a half months a year, but I thought it was two and a half months I should have dedicated to my own business."Read More
Shortly before the runway show at ITS fashion festival in Trieste, Italy, we sat down with Carla Sozzani, the force behind the celebrated 10 Corso Como concept store in Milan. She told us about young Italian talents (they do exist), her brief stint at Elle in the 1980s, and one harrowing day in Africa some 40 years ago...
What's your involvement in ITS?
This is the second time I've been a jury member. My daughter, Sarah, who's been an editor at Italian Vogue for seven years, encouraged me to do it. I also have a lot of respect for Barbara Franchin, the event's founder. There is no other contest in the world that encapsulates not only fashion, but also photography, accessories, and jewelry. Besides, it's very international, and the jury is first-rate.
What do you think about the current state of Italian fashion, which some people find lacking in fresh talent?
There actually are fresh designers, but they prefer working for other brands around the world, instead of launching their own houses. It's about job security. That's a very Italian thing. In the UK, people want to have their own brands. Maybe the schools here don't motivate the students enough. But that doesn't mean there are not interesting people right now, like Andrea Incontri, Stella Jean, Fausto Puglisi, and Marco de Vicenzo. And our fashion council now offers assistance to young designers, because having money is not enough. You need to know how to use it. They help them with management and distribution, for instance. Don't forget that a few decades ago, we didn't have the Asian or Russian markets. Now fashion is a bigger industry.
What about your legendary store, 10 Corso Como? Concept stores have now mushroomed around the world. How do you stay organized?
I am not organized (laughs). I'm not obsessed with the ins-and-outs. I am passionate about the things I show. My store is about sharing those things with visitors. That's a way for me to communicate. It's like a living magazine.
Speaking of magazines, your past includes a stint at Elle, where you edited three issues in 1987.
Yes, I heard that people are collecting them. Elle actually fired me, then they told me to say I resigned. But I refused to do so. I said you're firing me for a very clear reason, which was that I wasn't commercial enough. I mentioned the fact that Diana Vreeland was also fired and they asked me, "Who is she?"
You worked with many groundbreaking photographers then. Are you still in touch with them?
Yes, I'm very close with Bruce Weber, Paolo Roversi, Peter Lindbergh, Sarah Moon.
What are your next projects?
My new Corso Como store in Shanghai. I go there every six weeks.
You're a big traveler. Have you ever been to Africa?
Yes, I've been to several countries in Africa: Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Benin. I went to Benin in the seventies. It was called Dahomey then. I went with Anna Piaggi's husband to take pictures. We flew on the now-defunct Air Afrique company and stayed at a hotel where a lot of Russians also sojourned. I met the director of the hotel, who was from Switzerland. The following day, there was a revolution. The country name was changed to Benin and suddenly there was a new director at the hotel. But that day I also caught malaria. I went to the hospital, but people were fleeing. A young French doctor quickly injected me with medicine and fled. He saved my life.
You're also often in Paris with your friend Azzedine Alaia...
Yes, I'm in Paris almost every week. I met Azzedine in 1979, when I was an editor at Italian Vogue. I had to do an article about a stylist, and I had heard about this designer who made leather dresses with eyelets from the French Elle journalist Nicole Crassat. Azzedine and I have been friends ever since.
As co-curator of a new exhibit at The Andy Warhol Museum — Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede — Lesley Frowick has impeccable insight; she's the designer's niece. "This exhibit sort of fell into my lap on a research meeting at The Warhol," she tells Hint. "I was looking for photographs to include in my book [on Halston], as Warhol's camera was ubiquitous at events and Halston's home."
Before long she found herself in a curatorial role, reassessing the professional relationship and the personal camaraderie between the designer and the pop artist, who, in his 1979 book, described Halston as the "first All-American fashion designer." For all intents and purposes, they were thick as thieves and their seductive spheres of influence overlapped considerably. To begin with, Halston collected Warhol, which he showcased in his Manhattan townhouse and his vacation home on Montauk, Long Island, which he also rented from the artist. Halston, meanwhile, was portrayed in several of Warhol’s pieces. And of course they were both leading lights of New York's heady nightlife. "They were both very driven and both visionaries," recalls Frowick. "They both came from solid, somewhat humble family beginnings, but were propelled by an inner drive to search for the stars."
When it opens on May 18, the exhibit will include 40 or so of Halston’s signature dresses and accessories, including his signature Ultrasuede shirtdress and, from his early days as a milliner, the instantly iconic pale-pink pillbox hat he designed for Jackie Kennedy that she wore to her husband's inauguration in 1961 and that features in a Warhol silkscreen. These are juxtaposed with paintings, photographs, and videos from the Warhol archives. Other highlights of the show are a 1972 floral dress by Halston based on Warhol’s 1964 Flower paintings and, as Frowick cites, Warhol's Martha Graham serigraphs, in addition to items from the Coty Award "happening," a performance in 1972 that brought Halstonettes and Superstars together for the first time.
Perhaps no designer is as synonymous with the jetset disco-glam of the 1970s than Halston (born Roy Halston Frowick). But while the gifted social butterfly palled around with the likes of Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, and Lauren Hutton, among other fresh-faced Halstonettes, Frowick remembers a calmer, avuncular spirit underneath the "external bravado." "He was actually shy. We spent many weekends in Montauk together, exploring the property, fixing meals together, and dreaming by the seaside. He was so funny, the best uncle one could ask for. We also shared the same birthday, so we bonded over our stubborn Taurean nature."
The two friends and comrades died within three years of each other, Warhol in 1987 and Halston in 1990, from AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma. And while the Weinstein Company attempted to revive the label several years ago (Frowick, tellingly, has no comment on that), the lasting image of Halston remains, for many people, on Studio 54's glittering dance floor. Given that the two artists have been exhaustively studied and scrutinized since their passing, it's hard to imagine there being anything particularly eye-opening left to discover. Still, Frowick said she was surprised to find "Andy's extensive Halston shoe collection."
Wrapping up, she recounts, "I love my uncle so very much and have worked tirelessly out of my love for him on this show and my book [October 2014, Rizzoli]. He was such a loving, generous force in my life — this is the least I can do to honor his memory. When it came down to it he was really just a shy kid from the Midwest who had a vision for his time and who happened to have the key elements — good looks, charisma and impeccable taste — to make it all work."
Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede, May 18 - August 24, 2014, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Would you like to know how Tim Blanks — fashion critic extraordinaire, editor-at-large at Style.com, pro of pros (and prose) — gets through Fashion Month? Of course you would! Read on...
They say Fashion Month is more civilized now, sans the hordes of wild peacocks and hyenas and whatever else. What say you, Tim?
The original Narcissus was infatuated with himself because he was so beautiful. I say, what happened to narcissism?
So narcissistic, but I think I'll miss the funny critters.
I'm reminded of Kiki surprised by a choir — Wainwright, Ringwald, Mizrahi et al — while she was in the studio recording Those Were the Days. To my dying day, I'll be haunted by her plaintive wail: "Who are all these people?”
You’ve told me you routinely stay up all night to get the job done over at Style.com. How do you do that? Don’t say meth.
Meth? You mean methylated spirits? It's green tea for me. And the promise of a new day. That's all I need to write through the dark night of the soul.
Has anything changed for you since winning the CFDA Media Award last June?
Not a smidgeon. Unfortunately, an impressively sculpted piece of metal can't do my work for me.
If you were to put together a Fashion Week survival kit, what things would you put in it?
Berocca, a half-bottle of Chablis, a small jar of shucked oysters, a bar of 90 percent chocolate, some nuclear mints.
All very sensible. Thinking back, what's one mishap you wish you could banish from your memory?
One morning I was sailing merrily towards Bryant Park for the Kors show when my legs went in opposite directions. I broke the fall with my face, and conducted the subsequent backstage interviews with seeping wounds all over my dial. Lauren Greenfield thought I was a special effect. Michael Douglas's face was a picture when I stopped him.
The lengths you’ll go! Finally, because everyone always wants to know, what's the most sensational diva meltdown you've witnessed?
My favorite diva meltdown was designer-induced model madness. When one high-strung supe spotted another in the dress she thought had been marked for her, she tore off the outfit she was wearing and stalked stark-naked out of the backstage wearing only heels. I could swear she rode away on her agency's scooter, but that might just be wishful thinking.