Dries Van Noten Takes His Exit

On a recent afternoon, the 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 harbor. He was altering a jacket for his coming men’s wear show: a nip here, a seam moved there. Then, Mr. Van Noten said, a member of his team pointed out that it was the last piece of the men’s collection this season.

As Mr. 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, the Spanish luxury group, Mr. Van Noten, 66, did something truly rare in fashion: He announced his retirement. This men’s wear show, next Saturday in Paris, will be his last.

Immediately after the news went out, Mr. Van Noten 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 some samples. “You think, ‘Oh, they’re selecting that color?’ But I can’t say anything.” He snorted at his inability to disengage. “OK, it’s not working completely.”

He wore his usual navy sweater, white T-shirt and chinos, sitting in his office, which he is in the middle of packing up. (He is moving into a smaller space in the warehouse.) “I already cleaned up a lot, mentally preparing myself,” he said. “It’s not really a divorce, but it feels quite symbolic.”

Every once in a while, as he spoke, his eyes got glassy, and he blinked and looked away. “After the men’s show, I’m going to have another email address,” he said. “I’m not going to be @driesvannoten anymore. I have to find an Instagram name now, because my Instagram is Dries Van Noten, and that is the brand. It’s strange. That I didn’t see coming.”

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 colors 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 the care of others.

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

Fashion is notoriously bad at retirement and succession planning. Karl Lagerfeld, the designer of Chanel, Fendi and his own label, died in mid-work 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 Mr. 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, who stepped down in 2013 and is focusing on furniture design.

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

Like Mr. Van Noten, Ms. Demeulemeester belonged to the Antwerp Six, the group of Belgian designers who came to Paris in the 1980s and deconstructed formal notions of beauty and dress. She and Mr. 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, Mr. Vangheluwe said, she told him the business “takes years to leave your body.”

“In the beginning, it’s hard,” Ms. Demeulemeester said. “I could feel it in my bones when it was showtime in Paris.” Of Mr. Van Noten, she said: “I was not sure he would dare to do it. When he said it, I said, ‘Bravo.’”

What makes Mr. Van Noten’s decision particularly striking is that he is more popular than ever. In the 1990s, in Paris, he had been a bit of an odd man out: a fabulous colorist in an age of minimalism; a believer in the virtues of wearable clothes at a time 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 the Brussels Airport, along with other national landmarks. So why retire?

“Fashion is not a profession,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” he said. “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.”

The official retirement age in Belgium is 65. Mr. Van Noten said he began thinking about retiring as he approached 60, talking it over with Mr. Vangheluwe, whose official title may be creative director but who functions more, he said, as Mr. Van Noten’s “mirror,” or gut check.

“He liked the idea,” Mr. Van Noten said. “Being together with your partner day and night, it’s not always easy, but thank you, Patrick, for staying close and helping me through all the good and the less good moments.”

The weight of the company, and the unrelenting seasons, had become “really heavy,” Mr. Vangheluwe said. “Sometimes Dries suffers with not getting the result he wants, and that’s hard to see. And then also, it’s dangerous. What if he had become sick or had an accident? This whole company is depending so much on us.”

Mr. Van Noten said he had no actual health issues, but he sees an osteopath every Wednesday morning at 6:30 because a few months ago he developed two frozen shoulders and couldn’t raise his arms above his rib cage.

“It’s kind of my yoga, my shrink — the whole thing in half an hour,” he said.

First, he considered closing the company, but he was worried about putting his employees out of work. So he started to look for potential partners. Most of them (he would not say which) wanted to move the house to Paris or Milan; he was insistent that it remain in Antwerp.

“It’s part of our soul,” he said, “and the fact that you’re not in the big fashion city creates kind of a healthy distance. You make different clothes.”

After he settled on Puig, he arranged to stay on for five years to ensure a smooth transition. Covid added a year. Now, Mr. Van Noten said, “it’s a healthy company. So maybe it’s better to have the courage to stop on the high end, when people didn’t really expect it, and they are sad rather than saying, ‘It’s time he closes his door.’”

Besides, he will remain attached, sort of. He will stay involved in the beauty line, which he calls “the soul of the brand,” as well as store design, and act as an adviser. His staff, he said, will wean him off making decisions, asking just enough but not too much.

“For me, it’s quite comforting,” he said. “It’s given me hope that I still can give a bit of guidelines. And once in a while say, ‘Oh, maybe then you go too far.’” Still, he knows no one is obligated to act on what he says. And if they don’t?

“It is going to hurt,” Mr. Van Noten said. “But that’s part of the game, part of the decision.”

In Mr. 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 wardrobe and the fact that “people always saw her as a person wearing quite strong clothes,” he recalled. Another had a photo of three generations of women dressed in Dries. The oldest wore a design from his latest collection, the youngest, a vintage piece that had been her grandmother’s.

The letters, Mr. 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. Whomever it is, though, “I hope they’re going to surprise me,” he said. 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.”

“A brand is standing for something,” he went on. “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.”

Ms. 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.”

To prepare himself for the changeover, Mr. Van Noten has been taking a lot of walks with Mr. Vangheluwe and their Airedale, Scott, in the 55-acre park filled with roses and fields of daisies and ancient, towering trees around Ringenhof, the 19th-century house outside Antwerp that the couple rescued from decrepitude. (The gardeners are already getting nervous, Mr. Van Noten said, about having him around a lot more.) He sometimes swims up to five times a day in the bay below his house in Italy. The water is, he said, “very healing.”

Mr. Van Noten is not yet good at relaxation. (“It’s the Jesuit part,” Mr. Vangheluwe said. “It’s ingrained.”) He has meetings scheduled through September about new stores and the expansion of the perfume line. He wants to travel and read the books that sit in piles in his homes.

He doesn’t want to make a book about his work, though. He’s not interested in looking back. He scoffed at the idea of producing homewares, despite the fact that the green brocade tablecloth in his dining room is from his company, and original textiles were part of his signature as a designer. He is plotting a larger project that involves young people, craft and elevating the virtues of staying small. Other designers have started getting in touch to ask his advice on retirement.

First, though, he must get through his last show.

As to what to expect (other than tears), he said: “I didn’t want a ‘best of.’ I still want to take a step forward. This is my last chance. The only thing that I expect is perfection.”

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