Dries Van Noten with his Women Design Team, working on prints for the Women Summer collection 2016
“Nobody needs revolutions in fashion right now,” announces Dries Van Noten somewhere near the start of Reiner Holzemer’s new documentary, DRIES. “To shock now you have to do really crazy things,” he’ll continue further down the line, “because nearly everything’s on the market, everything’s on the internet so it’s very difficult to stand out by shocking.”
Refocusing his lens on the fashion industry, Holzemer – elsewhere responsible for films that highlight photography heavyweights like Juergen Teller and William Eggleston – here explores the iconic Belgian designer’s world, from his love affair with cloth to his 28-year relationship with partner Patrick Vangheluwe (“When did you fall in love?” enquires the director; “What kind of movie is this?” retorts the designer with a smirk).
Marrying archive footage with his own sequences, the film begins with Hanne Gaby Odiele opening the SS15 womenswear show and concludes with the AW16 menswear show held at Palais Garnier, a venue the team had spent 15 years trying to attain, delving into Van Noten and Vangheluwe’s home – and exquisite garden – life as well as studio visits both in Antwerp and India.
Rejecting the prescribed narratives of other fashion films, over an hour and a half we see Van Noten reflect on his earlier involvement with The Antwerp Six and ask – several times – “should their hands be in their pockets?”, while his own attention to detail is mirrored when his team adorn show invites with red stained kisses. Below Holzemer fills us in on how he managed it.
What drew you to Dries Van Noten, and when did you decide that he would be a good subject for a documentary?
It was in 2011, I was shooting a film on Juergen Teller, the photographer, you know the name?
Yes, big fans.
Ok, so it was a documentary for Arte that I made, and he was shooting Dakota Fanning in a Dries collection for American Vogue in the garden of Dries Van Noten. So I went with Juergen – I was shooting the shooting more or less – and then I met Dries for the first time, and I was quite intrigued by the collection as well as by the person because I thought, in a very positive sense, he was quite normal, a very normal man and I liked that because he wasn’t so extraverted, what you might expect from a fashion designer. I found him very interesting and I found his collections very interesting. And then I did some research about the work he did and the role he plays in fashion and I found that all very interesting, and that was the reason I wanted to make a documentary about him.
The other reason was, in 2011 there was this scandal with John Galliano who was fired from Dior – do you remember that?
Yes (of course).
I read many articles about the stress and the pressure in the fashion industry, so I was interested in general in this topic and this issue, but I was looking for the right angle to get a deeper insight into that world as a documentary filmmaker. These were the two reasons I was drawn to Dries Van Noten.
And what was your relationship like with his work beforehand – was that shoot your introduction?
I did research on the internet, I looked at his collections, there were a few books that were published, and I read other books and articles about him, and I found out that he plays a very specific role in the fashion industry, so the most important thing was that he was an independent designer who follows his own rhythm, who does his own thing, that was the most interesting part for me. Then I talked to people who knew him – that’s normally the way how you start research – and I went to the Arte TV station, they had a fashion programme, they still have it, so I thought this might be the proper place to place that documentary.
So I talked to an editor and said, “I’ve met Dries Van Noten and I think his work is very interesting, do you want me to make a documentary about him?” They said, “Oh, that’s unbelievable! We’ve been following him for years already and we’ve never managed to get him. So many filmmakers tried before so if you get him we’ll give you this job to make this film immediately!” So I went to Dries and I said, “Ok, would you like to make a documentary with me?” and then I found out that it was not so easy – he is a person who lives quite discreet and works quite discreet; a man who hates cameras around him and doesn’t like to be filmed or photographed. So to make the story short, it took me three years to convince him to make this film with me!
Reiner Holzemer and his soundman shooting during the rehearsal of Dries Van Noten’s men winter 2016_17 show on stage of the Opéra Garnier in Paris
What do you think clinched it in the end?
The main reason in my opinion is that he knew that I am not a documentary filmmaker who comes from the fashion world. I am a documentary filmmaker who portrays art; I have made films about photographers, filmmakers, different artists. And I explained to him my approach – most fashion films have a narrative that concentrates on the backstage world, the stress, and the drama behind the scenes, let’s put it that way, and my focus was from the beginning, I said “I want to do a portrait of you, I want to show you at work, I want to see how you work and how you design, and I want to look back into your development as an artist and designer, and I also want to look at your private life to find out what kind of person you are, and what’s your general view you on your creative process.” I think he liked that idea.
Then we made a test shoot when he had his exhibition in Paris at the end of 2014. He had said, “Oh the filming might distract me from my work and there’s all this pressure to deliver four collections, and I’m so busy with the exhibition.” And I said, “If you ever want to make a film with me, if you let me make this film one day, I think you might regret that we missed the shooting of the Inspirations exhibition in Paris because it’s such an important event in your life,” I thought at that time, and I said, “Let’s make a test. I’ll shoot for one or two days while you’re working on that collection, and then you decide afterwards if you feel comfortable in front of my camera or not and you can say no and we’ll stop, if you’re comfortable we’ll go on.” And we went on!
Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were making the film?
I wanted to introduce him not only to the fashion world who knows him already, but more to a general public that is interested in art. So you can make two different kinds of films, you can either go very deep into details, how fashion is made, but I thought no, I wanted to introduce him as a person, with his philosophies and the way he thinks about fashion; I wanted to make it more like an artist portrait, that was very important to me.
Your lens has previously focused on photographers and the art world, why did you decide to move to fashion?
When you look at my work, I’ve made almost 10 films about photographers; in 2011 when I shot the Juergen Teller film it was very interesting to shoot a film about Juergen because he is so different as a photographer, in fashion, in the art world, in the documentary world; he has his own view. But in general I was a little bit fed up with the photography world, because I was almost an expert, more or less, about photographers and I can approach every big photographer, every well-known photographer, every star in the world of photography because they all knew my films – they used my films for education at art schools and universities.
But for me, in a creative sense, I was a little bit fed up and stuck with that kind of filmmaking, because if you make a few films about photographers you use the same techniques to introduce them, so I was open for something new. But I’m always working with portraits and portraying people, so that was my main focus, and I was interested in the creative process mostly, also because it’s a self-reflection of my own work as a creative, as a filmmaker. So Dries felt like the right thing to do at that moment, when I was open for new ideas and so on.
How Dries compare to your previous subjects?
I think the biggest difference, let’s put it that way – firstly, compared to my other subjects, Dries is a very discreet person, so it was a challenge to open him up, to get him in a relaxed and quiet moment, in a concentrated moment, because he is a very busy man. He’s not only working on the creative side of his company and his brand, he’s also the business, the owner, the CEO or however you might… So he has a very busy schedule every day. The difficult thing was to get him to sit down and concentrate. To get him really deep into his philosophy, to get deep into his mind and his thinking was very important.
The other important thing was to see him at work to see who he is, and I found out that this is not so easy in the fashion world because the fashion world – that’s the big difference to photography and other art forms – is so much focused on perfectionism, because they are trained at the schools and academies to present an image of a design as late as possible, when it is as perfect as possible. So to show – like you saw in the film where they put pieces of fabric on a body of a young man – that was the most difficult part for Dries, to show the imperfection in front of the camera. But I said, “This is so important, trust me no one will blame you for showing that.” Almost over the whole year that I was shooting that was not so easy for him to show that.
So the biggest thing that I had to achieve was to get his confidence and trust in me that I will put the images in the right context and I’m not focusing on the things that were going wrong, because that is often the case in fashion documentaries, but to focus on his art and his knowledge and his skill and his philosophy. But in the end he liked the film, he loves the film! And the whole company – the people that have known him for 20, 30 years – they say, “This film shows Dries how he really is.” And those people, those friends from the early days, they could never imagine that it is possible to get him in that way in front of a camera.
Dries Van Noten and model Sylvia during a styling session for the Women Summer collection 2016
Yeah, I am really proud of it. Of course, you cannot change the person. So some people might say, “He’s too normal, I like the more Karl Lagerfeld type of designer to watch because I like people who are crazy and wild.” But I cannot change the personality, I have to take him how he is. I love the person how he is and I really admire him for all the work he does and the amount of work that does. He is also a designer who puts a hand on almost 5000 pieces each year, and that is an amazing amount of work, and he likes to put a hand on the fabrics, and in that case he’s an artist for me; he loves what he is doing.
What was the most surprising thing that you learnt during filming?
There is a reason that I make documentary films – and especially this film – and that is that they give me access to a world that I didn’t know before; that’s really a huge privilege that I have in my work. So I thought, in the beginning, I want to know more about fashion: are those people artists? What kind of people are they? And I had the chance to follow him so I really learnt what a highly skilled industry it is, that is the most important thing that I learnt about the industry in a way.
But what I learnt about Dries, it was so surprising how many ideas that he had every day. Sometimes I was shooting – at the beginning of that men’s collection for example – so he was talking about white suits, and checks and stripes, so I followed that a little bit and then two weeks later I came to shoot again and there was a Marilyn Monroe fabric on the floor, and I didn’t get that. How did he put those elements together? Two weeks ago he was talking about white suits and stripes and checks and now we have Marilyn! So he surprised me with so many new ideas, and that almost happened every day, and I thought about how much creativity and how much experience and knowledge must be in his head and must go into each collection. It was really surprising and amazing to see that.
DRIES is out now on DVD and on demand via Dogwoof. Like this? Buy the Summer 17 Issue here.