It Was All About Love at Dries Van Noten’s Last Show

Dries Van Noten bid farewell to his own label on Saturday night in the massive, decrepit Babcock & Wilcox factory hall where he had previously invited guests for another important milestone: his fiftieth collection, back in October 2004, when, to everyone's surprise and delight, a giant dinner table for 500 people was magically transformed into a catwalk.

Much has changed since. La Courneuve, the unsavory suburb of Paris, is becoming a major link in a new subway line around the city, and the factory will in due time become the heart of a gigantic complex with events hall, apartments and stores. Dries Van Noten, the label, has grown considerably, and is now majority-owned by fashion and beauty colossus Puig.

On the sidewalk opposite the entrance, a group of distinguished Belgians gathered: Walter Van Beirendonck; Ann Demeulemeester and her family; Geert Bruloot, founder of legendary Antwerp stores Louis and Cocodrillo, who was with the Six from the beginning, back in the eighties; and Linda Loppa, former head of the Academy, among others.

'I think it's a bit early for Dries to leave,' said Van Beirendonck. He remains, along with Marina Yee, who was also present, the only designer of the Antwerp Six to keep running his own label. And also the only one, as of now, who still shows in Paris. 

He said he understood Van Noten’s decision. 'Everyone of the Six had a different reason for throwing in the towel.' Whether Van Noten's departure makes him contemplate his own adieu? 'No, I just love what I’m doing, so I just keep going on.’  Van Beirendonck and Demeulemeester also revealed that they and the other Six members had had a recent get-together. 'We've been through so much together. It felt like, after all these years, nothing much had changed.’

Inside, Glenn Martens of Y/Project and Diesel expressed his admiration.

'I have always been mega-fan of Dries. As a student, I worked on some of his shows as a dresser. My first experiences in fashion were with Dries. I think we are going to see an extremely big void in the fashion world. Nobody is that perfect, poetic, beautiful, gorgeous, contemporary. You don't quickly replace someone like that.' Martens said he had wanted to wear a Van Noten coat from his student days for the occasion. But then he found out it no longer fit. 'I realized I'm not a student anymore,' he laughed. 'Fortunately, it was my shoulders that got wider.'

Also present: Véronique Nichanian, who had shown her men's collection for Hermès earlier in the day; American designer Thom Browne; Belgian fashion icon Diane Von Furstenberg; An Vandevorst and Filip Arickx; Haider Ackermann, and Meryll Rogge.

Kris Van Assche was there, too. 'Dries is a designer who made me want to be a designer,’ he said, ‘it's as simple as that. When you meet him, or just walk past his store while studying at the Academy, you just know that the bar is high.'

There were no big celebrities at the show, no actors, actresses, or KPOP stars. Those are rarely, if ever, on the front row at Dries Van Noten. There was no deviation from that tradition. It was an important, even historic fashion moment, but at the same time it felt like an intimate gathering. It seemed like everyone knew each other.

Before the show began, there was an elaborate cocktail. Van Noten and his partner Patrick Vangheluwe took the time to strike up a conversation with just about everyone present, and exchange a kiss, or two.

"Surely today is overwhelming," Vangheluwe said in the midst of the bustle, while Van Noten hugged Sonja Noël, a Brussels boutique owner he has worked with since the beginning. 'We are looking forward to the next few months. We'll finally have some time for everything that never had time for, like traveling. We still have to figure out what we want to do, but at least Dries and I have similar interests, so we'll be fine.'

Van Noten himself was beaming the whole time, a permanent, elated grin etched on his face. In a few farewell interviews last week, he had sounded rather uncertain. 'Maybe this wasn't a good decision after all,' he told WWD. 'One day I'm completely convinced, the other day I think, it's actually too early.'

He confided to The New York Times that he did worry about the future of his brand. 'It would be a shame if someone just came in and said, tear everything down, we'll keep the name, but we're going to do everything differently. I think I'd be really sick then.'

But La Courneuve last night was no place for doubt, or regret, or even nostalgia. 

Not even on the catwalk. 'I didn't want to do a best of,' Van Noten told the papers. 'I still want to take a step forward. And this is my last chance.'

That catwalk was hidden behind a discreet black theater curtain, which, when it was finally showtime, around ten o'clock, slid slowly open. It revealed another, huge industrial space. The runway, as often at Van Noten, went on forever, and was hidden under feathery bits of silver paper that swirled into the air under the models' footsteps.

There was a retrospective element when it came to casting. ‘Some of the models were there from the earliest shows,’ Van Noten said. ‘They are like family.’

The show was opened by Alain Gossuin, at the time the first Belgian male supermodel, who also walked in Van Noten's very first show, when Dries Van Noten was still exclusively a men's label. Kristina De Coninck, Hannelore Knuts, Kirsten Owen, Karen Elson, Debra Shaw and Silvia Van Der Klooster also walked the show.

The collection itself sought a balance between tradition and future. 'Clothes that move with us in our lives, move us forward.' It felt like a period, rather than an exclamation point. A comma, maybe, in the middle of a sentence now to be finished by someone else.

‘This is my 129th show,’ Van Noten wrote in the show notes. ‘Like the previous ones, it looks ahead. Tonight is many things, but it is not a grand finale. I think about how Marcelo Mastroianni once spoke of a paradoxical “Nostalgia del futuro,” beyond the lost paradises imagined by Proust, and how we continue to pursue our dreams knowing that, at some point, we can look back on them with love. I love my job, I love doing fashion shows, and sharing fashion with people. Creating is about leaving something that lives on. My sense of this moment is how it is not only mine, but ours, always.’

When the last flake of silver paper had fallen back onto the catwalk, Dries Van Noten came out waving, in his own slightly lanky way, saying goodbye for the last time. 

He received a standing ovation (obviously), then another curtain opened, a ten-foot-high disco ball appeared, and Bowie's ‘Sound and Vision’ gave way to Donna Summer ‘I Feel Love’. 

No tears, no sadness — love.

Courtesy: Dries Van Noten

Text: Jesse Brouns