At 8,500 square feet, Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten’s new shop — his seventh — is his largest, bigger than the ones in his hometown of Antwerp, Belgium, or in Paris. Located on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, in the home of a former jewelry factory and across from the stalwart diner Norms, the spacious store, which opened Friday, would feel ambitious in scope even if it weren’t for the fact that it came together during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We thought, 'Well, it’s not the most obvious time. It’s not the most easy time,'” Van Noten said on a Zoom call from Paris this week. “But on the other hand, we thought, ‘Why not now?’”
Van Noten had been looking for a place to plant his flag in American soil for the last decade but things never came together (ah, real estate). Last year, however, the former Opening Ceremony retail store hosted a shop-in-shop to celebrate the designer’s buzzy Verner Panton collection, and Van Noten was enchanted by the location. When he heard the space had become available, he acted quickly. “It’s a nice and charming building, very straightforward and not too complicated," he said. “Not a marble palace, which I really didn’t want.”
Straightforward and not too complicated might seem at odds with the designer’s sumptuous aesthetic. Since he started his business in 1986, Van Noten, 62, has cultivated a reputation as a designer’s designer, a man who chases beauty in its most sybaritic forms. Known for his striking prints and patterns, a penchant for resplendent textiles and an eye for color, he is wistful and romantic in his designs yet still attuned to the realities of modern life. Over the years his brand's fervent cult following has grown steadily as Van Noten eschewed certain fashion-industry conventions such as designing commercial preseason collections, advertising in magazines or courting social media influencers.
“I tried to do something you could only do in L.A.,” Van Noten said of the store in his clipped accent and soothing timbre. “We wanted it to feel how linked everything is there. For me, that’s why a store like this can only happen in L.A.”
Van Noten’s Los Angeles store is airy, bright and modern, as opposed to his jewel box-like Paris store near the Seine. The new store is a capacious two stories: womenswear on the ground floor and menswear above. The designer is known for his love of gardening and so palms and local foliage surround the L.A. building, also a nod to the local environs. Off the street and down a shaded walkway is a sunny yellow door beckoning; just beyond it, a Steinway piano and sleek chaise set the mood, indicating the store isn’t a mere shop but more like a cultural salon.
Van Noten sees the shop as an ever-changing gallery, a place to host art shows, literary readings, performances or intellectual tête-à-têtes.
As the world grapples with a future postpandemic retail scene — one that could expose the tenuous state of even the most vaunted luxury retailers — Van Noten’s response to broaden the store’s focus beyond commerce might be a brilliant way forward. He plans to invite artists and other craftspeople to show their work in rotating exhibitions. For the opening, L.A.-based artist Adam Tullie has painted directly on the wall and can continue to update his work as he sees fit.
In a few months, Tullie's work will be painted over and replaced with a new one. Van Noten delights in that bittersweet ephemerality.
In another room, oddball wooden busts from sculptor Richard Stipl look on, while flowers from botanical artist Azuma Makoto help filter light from a nearby window into what Van Noten likens to a living stained-glass window. A detached bungalow in the parking lot is a pop-up store dedicated to the tableware and cutlery designed by fellow Belgian fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester in collaboration with Serax.
The new store won’t only sell clothes. Vinyl records and vintage books are on offer — many of which have helped inspire recent collections. Those too will be curated by different creative minds on a rotating basis. (For example, musician Devendra Banhart has something in the works.) Van Noten said he'll allow the L.A. store’s staff to help shape the future of its cultural endeavors, allowing the store to take on a life of its own.
“For me, a store has to be unique, reflect the city it's in and the person who keeps the store,” he said. “I don’t like chain stores. I like stores that have something special. They show you the personality of the owner. I like it when the staff can explain things to you, not try to sell you something. But if you’re interested in something, they can give you information on it.”
Still, the interior of the new store itself is relatively simple, which the designer likens to a blank canvas that the clothing and accessories fill like a Fauvist masterpiece. Van Noten said he likes his stores to reflect their immediate surroundings, so he seemingly swept away all the Baroque clutter he favors in his European stores and created a clean, modern setting — a nod to the Midcentury lines made famous in Southern California.
In this sharp-eyed framework, there are areas carved out for eveningwear, swimwear, accessories and the current season’s collection. Van Noten’s store shrewdly addresses some of the issues, most urgently sustainability, that have vexed him in recent years and that have weighed heavily on his mind since the COVID-19 shutdown. All the furniture, for example, is repurposed or recycled, such as a rustic white table displaying shoes, which is actually a wooden cable wheel turned on its side and painted (it cost a whopping $25). In a brilliant stroke, there’s an area dedicated to archival pieces from collections past — the first time he’s offering up vintage items. “A garment doesn’t lose its value after a few months,” he said with a furrowed brow.
Postpandemic, customers will be able to sell their pieces back and have them repaired and refurbished.
Two years ago, Van Noten sold a majority stake in his company to the conglomerate Puig, which has headquarters in Barcelona and Paris. It's a fact many bemoaned as the end of one of the last independent fashion brands.
“A lot of people said, ‘Oh, this is the end of Dries Van Noten,’”’ the designer said, "saying it would be just products and handbags and logos like all the others. I think the proof is that we are doing exactly the opposite.”
The investment has allowed him to take on a project like the L.A. store with this sort of scope. “When we came to them with a really crazy idea — to open a store, during lockdown, in L.A. — other people would say no way,” he said of Puig. “They said, ‘Let’s take the risk.’”
Puig helps ensure Van Noten's brand will have a life beyond him. “I’m not getting younger, but there will be a future for the company,” he said. “That was important to me. I have such loyalty — people who have worked so long for us. That the moment that I’m not working, they wouldn’t have a future, I don’t have to worry about that now. I can focus on being creative.”
Van Noten’s spring 2021 collection, unveiled last month as a look book and video by Viviane Sassen, was one of the standouts of the season. It was a pared-back, sharper take than in recent years, which had leaned into his love of decadent decay. “It was cleaner,” he said. “We said, ‘Do we need all this fuss? We need to find a different kind of beauty.’ I want to create beauty but not beauty of the past, nostalgia. I wanted beauty that had energy.”
In May, Van Noten released an open letter that asked for a reassessment of standard fashion industry operations — namely when clothes arrive in stores and the timing of discounts and sales. He was one of the first designers to ask that the pandemic be used as an opportunity to rethink conventions that no longer serve the industry.
“Listen, it’s a new reality,” he said. “Some brands want to continue as if nothing happened, but I believe the mentality of people really changed, fashion changed — has to change. You can feel that people look to fashion in a different way. There’s no sense to say, ‘Let’s go back to business as usual as soon as possible.’”
Van Noten saw the excesses of an industry spiraling out of control and knew that it didn’t serve his most urgent purpose. “Everything was pushed to such a crazy rhythm and crazy quantities, press flying around the world, staff and models,” he said. “Why? Is this really necessary? Is it making fashion better? More creative?” In a word, no.
One can’t help but get the feeling that it’s this rebelliousness that fuels a designer who continues to make such arresting clothing decades into his career. When asked what he liked about quarantine, for example, he instead said what he missed: cooking for friends and having them visit his legendary garden, which had a particularly lovely spring. “In April, it was the most beautiful season,” he said. “I really wanted to share everything and invite people over, but we couldn’t. So you see the beauty and you enjoy it, but it’s a gilded cage. You’re stuck.”
Van Noten would still go to his office — alone — during Belgium’s shutdown and style clothes on the floor and send pictures and videos to his team. It’s a haunting and endearing image: the sign of a man who has a restless creative spirit and, despite his outwardly modest demeanor, a certain drive. It’s what led him to, against all logic, dream up a store, an oasis in a desert city, that would provide a bit of beauty during these trying times.
“Why not? Let’s take a risk,” he said. “Let’s show people that there’s a future, and there’s hope. I just want to do it now. Why wait?”
Dries Van Noten, 451 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 880-6125, driesvannoten-la.com, open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.