Style

Dries van Noten Is Waving Goodbye to the Runway

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Style Points is a weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.

In the hands of Dries van Noten, a color combination that might feel “wrong” elsewhere became unaccountably, delightfully right: blood orange and toothpaste green, lavender and canary yellow, mahogany and lime. The Belgian designer, who announced today that he will be stepping down from his brand this summer to pursue a well-earned retirement, has always brought a unique sensibility to fashion that mingled maximalist eccentricity with a sense of restraint. Among those in the know, he earned the mononym “Dries,” usually said in the form of a pleased sigh, as in “Oh, this? It’s Dries, I’ve had it forever.” Or, “No one cuts a pant like Dries.”

a blonde woman wearing a jacket

Thierry Orban

Carolyn Murphy walks in the designer’s fall 1998 show.

Van Noten came from a fashion family: His grandparents were tailors and his father owned a menswear boutique. After graduating from the Royal Academy in his native Antwerp (alma mater to so many fashion disrupters, from Martin Margiela to Ann Demeulemeester), he debuted his brand in 1986 in London as part of the legendary Antwerp Six collective.

a woman lying on faux grass

Alessia Gammarota

Splendor in the grass at the spring 2015 show.

Over the 38 years he’s been on the scene, his collections have felt like the evolution of a real person rather than debuting a new message or “girl” every season. Maybe this season she brought treasures back from her travels or saw a brand-new art exhibit that lit her imagination (and her palette) on fire.

a black woman with short hair walking the runway

Penske Media//Getty Images

Alek Wek in the designer’s fall 1998 show.

Van Noten might experiment with haunting Kees van Dongen eye makeup or circlets of colorful fur, but his work never felt circus-y or confined to runway fantasy, like some of his avant-garde brethren. And his longtime love of nature and gardening—which, he said, helped relieve the stress of working in a high-pressure industry—was ever-present in his work: He loved an abstract floral print, and for spring 2015, his models even lolled on realistic grass.

a redheaded woman wears a yellow cape and red skirt

Pool SIMON/STEVENS

A look from fall 1999.

The notable women who’ve worn his work include Catherine Deneuve, Cate Blanchett, and current ELLE cover star Nicole Kidman—true lovers of fashion who are far beyond just grasping at the next hot thing. He’s never chased influencers; in fact, when I visited his five-story, charmingly rounded Antwerp flagship, I was told no photos were allowed inside, which gave the experience a pleasant, old-school department store feel. Clothes, not selfies!

models walking the runway in colorful clothes

Victor Virgile

The spring 2023 show.

And he never pursued being an influencer himself. The most screen time he’s had was in Reiner Holzemer’s 2017 documentary Dries, which might well be the slow TV of fashion documentaries. Rather than try to paint a portrait of pre-show drama or financial woes, it showcased his quiet life and his beloved home and garden outside Antwerp.

a model in a group of women, wearing a multicolored sequined top

AFP

Spring 2007.

Van Noten has always been thoughtful about how to change fashion. In 2020, amidst so much pandemic disruption, he organized discussions with his fellow designers about how to shift the industry in a more seasonally sane, less environmentally wasteful direction, eventually culminating in an open letter signed by names like Joseph Altuzarra and Craig Green.

a man waving behind a group of women

Victor Virgile

Taking his bow at the spring 2002 show.

Now, “I want to shift my focus to all the things I never had time for,” he said in a letter to editors today. But his acolytes will be relieved to know that the brand will continue, under a design team and then a to-be-appointed designer. And Van Noten will be leaving on a high note: His fall 2024 collection, full of layered pastels and exaggerated bangs, was a standout of the season.

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