The Story of Dries and Me

I came upon a letter when I was packing up my boxes for the move. A love letter of sorts. An unrequited love, you might even say. It was from Dries Van Noten.

It was in response to a letter I had sent him upon graduation from St Martin’s when I was faced with the bewildering prospect of how to kick off my career. I’d gone to Italy but had no idea what I was doing there. My crush on him still burned. He didn’t even know I existed.

Love letters from my past

Love letters from my past

So when I got this note of encouragement, I set out to impress him. Now he knew I existed, I needed to capitalize on it. I made a little book of my work and sewed it together with a needle and thread.

This little lady appeared in the book to Dries

From my book to Dries

It was far removed from the slick urbane entrances to industry my fellow St Martin’s graduates were making at the time. But I figured I had to stand out in a crowd if Dries was really going to notice me.


Weeks turned to months. I heard nothing. I figured I must have blown it. I cursed myself and got on with my career which had thankfully begun with a position of Design Assistant at Moschino.

I immersed myself in the aesthetics of that house, and was very happy. I tried to forget the boy I’d left behind. And I had just about succeeded when six months in, he made contact again.

This time, he offered to fly me over to Antwerp. He wanted to meet me.  My little book had struck a chord with him. I dropped everything and hurried to the airport.

“I do not like sexiness in the first degree and I find soft volumes, feminine prints far more tempting than short miniskirts. The last thing I want to do is promote myself with t-shirts emblazoned with my name all over.” – Dries Van Noten

I couldn’t agree more.  This was my idea of sexy, at the time:cover idea 1This was Dries’s:IMG_3273

Clearly we were made for each other.

I arrived in Antwerp and made my way to the docks area where he was waiting for me. I passed romantic medieval steeples and gothic archways and knew that Antwerp was the ideal setting for the next step of our courtship. We would be a soaring but hopefully somewhat angst-ridden couple. Hadn’t the Bronte’s spent time in Antwerp? No, that was Brussels. Oh well,  just up the road.


Antwerp: the setting of our tragic tale

I sat on one side of the table and he sat on the other. A panel strewn with scarfs, embroidered, fringed, sparkling with crusty embellishment, stood to the left of us, as if shielding us from prying eyes. He was very handsome–in a carpenter or cobbler sort of way, certainly rustic and discrete-looking. He wore corduroys and a sensible burgundy sweater. He had pleasantly smiling eyes and a soft voice.


Dries in his studio. I sat opposite him at this table, just me and him…no dog.

I can see myself living here, I thought, looking around at the whitewashed warehouse walls, then out the window at the grey sky merging with equally grey water and at the crayon-coloured cranes and boats of port life.

We chatted gently, building up to the big moment. It was almost too weighty to tolerate. I wanted to be back outside with the wind from the water beating me about the jowls.

Then he asked me.

“Can I see your portfolio?”

“Yes.” I placed it onto the table and unzipped it. I let him lift the cover and look inside. He did so quietly.

My portfolio had acquired a professional lustre in the months I’d been working. I hoped he could see this. I’d left the infantile world of collage behind. Sleek, stylized fashion croquis graced every page accompanied by meticulous flat sketches demonstrating the detail of the garments. Pages fell neatly on top of one another as opposed to sitting bent out of shape and acquiring deformities and bulges from their uncomfortable position on top of chunky beads, folded samples and other strewn detritus of my design process.

He closed the book. “Hmmm,” he said and paused.

He slid the book back to me. I smiled and waited. He began to talk but I wasn’t receiving the first part of what he said. I tried harder to listen. He was explaining in that lovely soft voice of his that he was looking for the quality of work he had seen in my previous book. The spirit and vision of that was what he had been hoping for.

He’d been impressed with the book that was held together with needle and thread; the leather bound masterpiece with heavy metal interiors did nothing for him.

He wasn’t interested in what I had been doing professionally, for someone else. He wanted to connect with me on a personal level. I couldn’t give him what he wanted.  That part off me had been trampled over in my race to career and employment and legitimacy.

These Dries boots are made for walking--along a river bank in the drizzling rain holding a damp love letter

These Dries boots are made for walking–along a river bank in the drizzling rain holding a damp love letter

I left Antwerp a disappointed woman.

There was a lot I would learn from this formative experience, this brief encounter, too much to even attempt to account for here.

But my Dries Van Noten wardrobe continues to swell. I still can’t get enough of him–no male designer will ever compare.

Who else will have you dressing for dinner like you’ve spent the afternoon foraging in a trunk of old scarves? Who else crafts clothes with such boundless possibilities for dress up; who flirts with excess, tiptoeing back and forth across the line, but never gets drunk on it? Who can dress blooming girlhood and opulent maturity–using the same model on the same day?

Dries Autumn/Winter 2004-05

Dries Autumn/Winter 2004-05

Dries, here is my love letter back to you after the distance of all these years:

Your sun-faded silk brocades, your tromp l’oeil birds and creatures, your devoré kimonos and creeping roses, your floppy tweed cardies loosely belted over cocktail sequins, your vintage lace trims, your glitzy lamé and mannish pants with turn-ups, your elegant 20s louche paisley pyjamas, your dandy fripperies, your dedication to embroideries so dense and decadent on fabrics so light and ethereal are so evocative, so characteristic, so wonderfully wonder filled… that I find there’s only one thing for it…

Mr Van Noten, I hereby employ the highest praise I can offer a designer. You make me want to write!

Thanks, Dries.

Sincerely yours, after all this time.IMG_3274

For those lucky to be nearby, the Dries Van Noten exhibition “Inspirations” at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris runs until the end of August so go marvel at the bounty for yourself!

My novel, set in the international fashion industry is available. It was woven from archival threads of luxury, dyed with natural tones dipped in patience, hand embroidered with personal observation, sprinkled with experience and bound with unbridled optimism. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here


  1. 🙂 This is true love here, right?
    I can feel it in every letter forming the words you’re writing.
    Amazing how we never loose the feeling of love that remains somewhere deep down inside that we’ve had for one very special person at some point in our life.
    You should email Mr. van Noten this blog post!!!
    Have a wonderful evening (or day in NYC) 🙂 xo

  2. Oh Jackie, How lovely. How sad. How Unique. Sigh.
    I am a “groupie” gathering as many Dries offerings as I can because they bring me joy.
    I don’t fully understand the pain/joy/creative process/industry as you, two, do.
    You are his “peer”, more knowledgeable, experienced — and for Dries to receive your admiration is an honor that he may or may not realize. But still a large honor.

  3. Thank you, Dievca, You’re too kind.
    I was upset at the time but I’ve never been regretful person. Everything pans out as it should. But I did wonder as I was writing this post what it would have been like to work with him if Fate hadn’t had her way…maybe I would have tired of all that beauty on a daily basis.
    Maybe I’d be dreaming of designing unembellished microfibre pant suits! That would have been a real tragedy!

  4. Oh yes, I can see why you were made for each other! What I also wonder reading your post is what DVN, the house, would have been like if you had worked together. I think you’d have made a great team! xxx

  5. Therein lies the mystery, Lia. The beauty of unrequited love means that it will forever hold that little bubble of potential. Coulda woulda shoulda….
    We were like boats passing each other in Antwerp port 🙂

  6. Fantastic story and memory. Please, more stories like this!

  7. Wonderful wise words! And anyway If you had worked for Dries we would never have had the pleasure of reading you. Whenever I attend my old college degree show I feel saddened by the corporate look of all the graduates portfolios. The books never reflect the garments or textiles on display because they all look the same! I want to see the creative process….give me threads,burnt edges,bleach and big fat wedges of goo!!!

    • I feel the same way with my students. There is such an over reliance on computers, cutting and pasting on the screen, that students forget to think ideas through for themselves. They also get so seduced by the glossy effect of computerized work because they think it somehow looks more complete. I love the threads and raw edges too, like they’ve lifted the lids and spilled the contents of their brains onto paper 🙂

  8. Hung Tran

    This filled my eyes with tears: of happiness, and of so, so much envy. How many people can say they’ve sat across the table from Dries Van Noten? Or that he looked at their portfolio? Thank you for sharing this. As you may know, he’s one of my favourite designers too!

    • I had a feeling you might like this post, Hung. I’m glad it touched you. Thanks for commenting.
      Dries dares us to dream in a world which pulls us away from his type of humble, virtuosic,dedicated personal vision. In his spirit,we should dare to dream in our careers too 🙂

      • Hung Tran

        Oh, by the way, I know this is a little random but you should check your Facebook friend requests! Look for the cat with a laptop. 🙂

    • HI Hung, sorry I missed this. I tend to keep FB separate from the blog. Otherwise everything gets really intertwined, you know what I mean? Call me old skool! 🙂

  9. Wow what a beautiful/bittersweet story. I really enjoyed reading it….I think the fact that you even got called says it all. Beautiful and inspirational- thank you for sharing 🙂

  10. What a great story Jackie, and it’s all real. Thanks for sharing it. I like his designs but have been hard pressed to find something that would fit my size save for a cropped sweater. P.S. There are twice-a-year stock sales in Antwerp where various Belgian designers, including Dries Van Noton and Ann Demeulemeester, heavily discount their previous collections (usually 50% or more) for 3-4 days. The next one for fall/winter has not be announced yet, but if you’re interested, here’s the site:

    • Oh you are a wealth of information, Angelina. I’ll be going shopping soon methinks 🙂

      I’m ashamed to say that, in the midst of the eternal discussion on why some designers do not dress women above a certain size, I overlook that they often do not dress women on the other end of the scale too.
      And his clothes are often particularly wafty and voluminous which doesn’t help. He doesn’t do body conscious dressing much. I think I would have to become friendly with my local ingenious tailor so that I was not deprived of me Dries no matter how much fabric he foisted upon me 🙂

      • Good that you have a local tailor that you can count on!
        P.S. if you do go to Antwerp for the ‘contemporary fashion days’ (i.e. stock sales), be sure to download or grab one of the maps with all the locations of the retail venues as they don’t always take place in the shops themselves. Last year, Dries van Noton’s collections were in a huge space – alas, all too big for me and I don’t have a tailor here in Brussels 😉

  11. The polarity of your career could have been switched at that Antwerp assignation and while all indicators show that you landed squarely on your feet Jackie, I sense that I might understand the attraction that he had for the little stitched book or more importantly, for its compiler.

    There have been a small handful of people who have brushed briefly against me at different times of my life that continue to leave a positive impression on me today – you and I are among the lucky few in this respect.

    • I think so too, Mike. I think everyone flits through our lives to give us something at the time and we must acknowledge it, but never regret it if they don’t stick around. They are due to flit through other people’s lives too and we can’t hold them back. I’m sure another graduate was hired by Dries and she was just the ticket.

      And I have this fond tale to regale my students with when they forget that college is the time they should develop their own point of view before they become conditioned and lose what makes them interesting. Use the time wisely as it is limited, I tell them.

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