Who would order 130,000 flowers as a backdrop to bid farewell to a beloved fashion-show venue? Dries Van Noten would. Who would employ a private chef to feed his retail buyers healthy, delicious meals—and bake them cakes on their birthdays? Van Noten strikes again. He’s fashion’s consummate nice guy and one of its best hosts, famously marking his 50th Paris runway outing in 2004 with a breathtaking chandelier-lit dinner and show at a 492-foot table-cum-catwalk. But this boyishly handsome 49-year-old Belgian is also one of the industry’s most enduring and compelling indie heroes, admired for building his self-financed, Antwerp-based business completely on his own terms. Let other designers obsess over advertising, celebrity dressing, It bags, precollections and retail rollouts. Van Noten wants no part of that. “If I have to choose between opening a store and staying a little longer in my garden, I stay in my garden,” he says.
Yet tending to his roses and rhododendrons hasn’t taken anything away from Van Noten’s towering reputation for atmospheric shows and for turning out charming, vaguely folkloric and infinitely wearable clothes. Still at the top of his game after more than two decades with his own label, he puts out two women’s collections a year, each with about 1,000 pieces, delicately embroidered and in colors from an artist’s palette. Van Noten is also a star in men’s wear and recently shifted that show to Milan from Paris. Even when he makes seemingly traditional moves, like opening a store, he does it his way. Soon he will follow up his living room–like Paris boutique in the Left Bank antiques district with new shops in Tokyo and Singapore. “Influencing is to show that there are several ways to make fashion, in regard to both style and business,” the designer says. His best advice to young designers considering the indie path? “Try to follow your heart, but keep your feet on the ground.”