Dries Van Noten Retires: What a Loss

What a loss.

WWD’s exclusive on Dries Van Noten’s announcement Tuesday that he’d be stepping down from the brand he founded 38 years ago hurt.

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Particularly among fashion-world lifers who attended his shows and collected his pieces over the years, it felt like a death. But what it means for the industry also feels profound because Van Noten is one of the few designers to excite without runway gimmicks, limited-edition drops, celebrity campaigns and ambassadors. Colors, textures and flowers were his stars and he created fashion fireworks all his own, just with clothes. Imagine.

Backstage at Dries Van Noten, fall 2014.
Backstage at Dries Van Noten, fall 2014.

“The whole celebrity situation is getting kind of out of control,” he said during an interview last year before WWD named him 2023 Designer of the Year. “Having a celebrity on the catwalk, having a celebrity in the room…now I think more of the reviews are about who is sitting front row than what the collection was about. For me, fashion deserves much more than to be reduced to something like this.”

(I was reminded of that remark just last week when the world of celebrity ambassadors expanded to include Hublot signing Chinese architect Ma Yansong of the yet-to-open Lucas Museum of Narrative Art; of course he’s deserving — it’s just that fashion seems to be hoovering up talent in every field, like a great face arms race. I wonder how long the attention economy can sustain it all.)

Van Noten found other ways to surprise and delight. His 50th show, in 2005, still ranks among my top 10 — where he set a banquet table for dinner for 100 or so people, it became a runway and we all feasted on the beauty. As an encore, two shelves the entire length of the seats dropped down from the ceiling and in front of each person was a book, personally signed to them by Dries. It was before the age of camera phones, and all we had of that night were memories. But they’ve never left.

A model walks down the runway at the Spring 2005 Dries van Noten show in Paris. (Photo by Giovanni Giannoni/Fairchild Archive/Penske Media via Getty Images)
A model walks down the runway at the spring 2005 Dries Van Noten show in Paris. (Photo by Giovanni Giannoni/Fairchild Archive/Penske Media via Getty Images)

As soon as Van Noten opened his antiques-filled store his Paris in 2007, it became a seasonal pilgrimage for editors to visit during fashion week, with many showing up at the door before they even unpacked their suitcases. You could spot the shopping spoils like little Easter eggs all through the week.

His work has always been calling cards for creative souls to incorporate a sequin-embroidered coat here, or an Op Art patterned pair of pants there, into their own style. He loved sparkle and feathers and a giant flower corsage. As I wrote in the review of his fall 2024 women’s collection, “He doesn’t just design clothes, he teaches women how to dress in a way that’s fun and fearless.” For someone inquiring who a piece was by, the answer was simply “Dries.”

Dries Van Noten, spring 2017.
Dries Van Noten, spring 2017.

In 2014, an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, “Dries Van Noten Inspirations,” was a tour through his mind, placing his runway collections in the context of his many cultural reference points, including folkloric textiles and fine art, music and film clips. It was one of the most sumptuous fashion exhibitions I have ever seen at the Paris museum.

In the galleries, works by Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth Peyton and more were shown alongside vintage fashions ranging from Christian Dior’s famous 1947 New Look to a funky 1967 jacket that belonged to Jimi Hendrix. (Van Noten found the flowery jacket that inspired one of his menswear collections for sale on eBay, and was able to score it with the help of a generous donor.)

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 24: Dries Van Noten attends the 2023 WWD Honors at Casa Cipriani on October 24, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WWD via Getty Images)
Dries Van Noten at the 2023 WWD Honors at Casa Cipriani on Oct. 24, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WWD via Getty Images)

There was even a selection of jewelry loaned by Iris Apfel, which inspired the outsized bangle-bracelet necklaces in Van Noten’s spring 2008 collection. Van Noten’s retiring so soon after her death seems fitting; two rare birds.

Van Noten was particularly proud of the last gallery where a Renaissance portrait by Bronzino (never before loaned out from the Louvre) was placed next to an abstract 1986 painting by Gerard Richter. “I wanted these two next to each other,” he said at the time. “I think the Richter almost looks like it could be the back of the Bronzino painting.”

Part of his genius was being able to create beauty at all angles. For the spring 2014 collection, he commissioned a tulip fabric based on an 1889 embroidered satin textile from the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. When it was completed, he liked the reverse as much as the front, and decided to use it on a sleeveless coat.

Dries Van Noten, spring 2014
Dries Van Noten, spring 2014

Van Noten always wanted to elevate the craft of fashion. Last year he did so quite literally with his fall 2023 collection, putting fine tailoring, exquisite heirloom fabrics, dressmaker and mending details on stage of performance venue Le Dôme de Paris, and creating one of the most covetable items of the season, a coat with a gilded corset waist.

Over the years he cultivated fashion show drama subtly with a spotlight and a jazz musician, flowers frozen in ice cubes, a shaggy runway rug like the grass blanket at a music festival and a soundtrack featuring iconic a cappella voices like Björk, Debbie Harry, Destiny’s Child and Courtney Love. But it was always at service to his clothes, which brought diva-dom down to size with look-at-me pieces like a coat after Delft blue porcelain, mixed with the kinds of things a woman might already have in her wardrobe or want to upgrade — khaki pants and cargo shorts, for example.

Dries Van Noten, spring 2015
Dries Van Noten, spring 2015

For all the dreaming, accessibility and the end customer were paramount. “Because it’s not a theoretical show, it’s something that should speak to a lot of women,” he said, speaking about balancing the commercial and creative after selling a majority stake to Puig in 2018.

Van Noten’s clothes never translated as well to e-commerce, in my opinion, because they were designed to be in the world, appreciated from all the angles, not just on a flat screen. Still, on Tuesday, fans flocked to social media to collectively mourn and sent traffic soaring on Saks.com and other store websites in appreciation.

Dries Van Noten RTW Fall 2022
Dries Van Noten, fall 2022

With a clip of his own hand writing a letter about his retirement posted to Instagram, Van Noten’s exit was on his own lo-fi terms, with integrity and grace. His men’s collection in June will be his last, before he moves to an advisory role and a replacement is named.

At a preview for his fall 2024 collection in Paris a few weeks ago, there wasn’t a hint that it would be his last women’s ready-to-wear, just business as usual as he plucked every piece from the rack, nerding out over details like an English wool made by the same manufacturer that creates fabrics for Buckingham Palace, a “watercolor” transparency developed in Belgium at a factory that makes dance costumes, jacquard sleeves over embroidered with dangling sequins, broken necklace pieces on sweatshirts and tinsel on shoes.

Dries Van Noten Fall 2024 Ready-to-Wear Collection at Paris Fashion Week
Dries Van Noten, fall 2024

Van Noten’s goodbye letter was heartfelt and nuanced. “I want to shift my focus to all the things I never had the time for. I’m sad, but at the same time happy, to let you know that I will step down at the end of June,” he wrote. “Seeing our clothes out in the world, knowing they have a place in your life, has fulfilled me beyond words.”

We’re sad but happy, too.

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