Dries Van Noten is a member of the fabled Antwerp Six, quietly bucks industry convention by not advertising, and has received massive recognition for his unprecedented use of pattern and color since founding his independent label in 1986. Despite this legacy of rule breaking, the 57-year-old Belgian designer likes to keep within limits. “For me, restrictions are not always negative,” he says. “Restrictions can push creativity. I like restrictions.”
For Van Noten’s Spring 2012 menswear collection, the juxtapositions between imagination and practicality abound: technical sportswear fabrics like paper-thin nylon are paired with elegant, slender leather belts or a silk jumpsuit; shorts are placed over pants in a subtle reference to the functionality of a fly-fisherman’s uniform; and a bright yellow raincoat is decorated with black adhesive bonding on the outside instead of its interior. “Of course, here and there, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable is also what I find very interesting,” explains Van Noten, who maintains his studio in Antwerp. Although he ventured into new territories with fabric technologies for spring, he kept his color palette to more minimal shades, including navy and burgundy, save for occasional explosions of pop color and geometric patterns. “For me, it’s really like, okay, if you go far with the unexpected materials and unexpected proportions or volumes, then keep the colors quite simple and straightforward for men,” he says.
While the clothes are highly functional, Van Noten is still, at least by Belgian standards, a romantic. After all, it’s David Bowie, the patron saint of fashion contradictions, who routinely casts an influential shadow on his design process. Bowie, he says, embodies a time when “elegance and cool were accepted in the same idea,” an era where “you could wear silk shirts and you could wear floppy material and all these things without people saying, ‘No, in fact, it’s too feminine’ or ‘it’s wrong’ or ‘it’s unbelievable.’ ”
In addition to designing clothes, Van Noten’s other seasonal calling is gardening, even in the chillier months. “I’m a very big fan of winter-flowering shrubs and bulbs.” One of his favorites is witch hazel, a plant he says is a transfixing respite from the bitter cold. “You have the smell, you have the color—it’s really like a present from God when something like that is in flower in the middle of the snow.” And just like the utilitarian garments he presented for spring, he upholds a pragmatic dress code when it comes to digging in the dirt. “When I have to do something fast, I wear the most unflattering rubber pants over my pants and a big easy sweater. I can get on my knees in the garden in whatever condition and when I’m done I can take it off, get in the car, and drive to the office. It’s the most practical thing.”