If you ask designer Dries Van Noten what he's learned in his career, he'll tell you it's that he (still) doesn't know that much. Or, at least, that he's got a lot to learn. That modesty, and the fact that he's remained independent of corporate influence and ownership throughout his time as executive designer and owner of his eponymous label, is just a fraction of what keeps him going. A constant chase for creativity and unique craftsmanship has sustained the Belgian designer from his days in the Antwerp 6 to now, where after his 100th runway show, he's decided to put all of his work into one place — er, two.
A collection of 25 years worth of memories from the runway, Dries Van Noten reflects the vast work of the ready-to-wear maestro in two volumes, both replete with thousands of images and an encyclopedia's worth of reviews written by Tim Blanks and Susannah Frankel — his mastery in prints, colors, and textiles come to life across 800 pages. But for a man who seemed to make every right move in an industry that's famous for throwing curveballs, it came as a surprise to learn that the second volume, which features shows 51 though 100, was actually completed first. 1 through 50 came second.
"When we finished with the second part, we were crazy enough to say, ‘Okay, let’s do the first one now because there’s still time left.’ But the first part was much more complicated," Van Noten tells Refinery29, at the signing of his book at Barneys New York. "Because with the second part, everything was analog. But [with] the first one, we had to dive into the archives. You find negatives, you find contact sheets, you have to contact photographers who already threw away their archives…it was a really crazy thing."
Something the designer noticed throughout his cataloguing of his work was not just how his visions have evolved, but the way in which we absorb them has, too. "You get to see the evolution of my collections, but also the evolution of photography," he says. "In the first part, you see it was more about the shows and the images. And now, it’s different, because everybody watches fashion shows on their phones. I’m very happy because the last photo you see in the book is the finale of the show, the 100th, and you see all of the public on their phones filming, not applauding. Everybody’s just filming!"
Something we all know too well, Van Noten adds that technology has played both a positive and negative role in his career. But that hasn't fuddled his clear yet grandiose plans for each runway show, all executed meticulously and without a hitch. "In the past, you had to go to libraries and read books, you had to go to museums, and already, taking photos was more complicated. But now, with digital, you have everything in a click," he says. Van Noten called upon his memories with his own photography, where a sense of cleverness was required to take photos because with every frame meant money either spent or wasted. That method, of course, lent to a different way of looking at the world around him.
He continued: "You were selecting more. You had not so much information, so you were more obliged to dream. Sometimes now, we drown in information. But that means, now, we have to edit much more. In that time, it was much more like everything that you found, you were adding your dreams to it." To this day, Van Noten continues to dream, and he remains one of the only creators in fashion who've crafted, maintained, and inspired their art all on their own accord. And despite telling Vogue in 2006 that he "doesn't want to be a big player," the slideshow ahead is just a snippet of how big he really is.
Dries Van Noten by Lannoo Publishers is out now, exclusively via Barneys New York, and available for pre-order elsewhere (including a limited-edition slipcase version).