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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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, 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!
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