Photograph by Thibault Montamat
Dries Van Noten and Raf Simons, two of fashion's leading lights, are both from Antwerp, Belgium, but the similarities end there. Van Noten is known for a whimsical mix of tailoring and colorful ethnic elements that hints at nostalgia, while Simons, who designs for Jil Sander along with his own brand, is a resolute modernist, favoring strict lines with futuristic overtones. Both are considered visionaries—they make trends rather than chase them. And though their sensibilities diverge, they agree that it's time for men to look more put-together. They sat down in Simons' Antwerp apartment to discuss the way we dress now.
Details: What does it mean to wear clothes in a modern way?
Dries Van Noten: There's no one formula. It's not just dressing head to toe in fashion brands; it's more about expressing your personality through your clothes, knowing what suits you best, and mixing things in a sophisticated way. So it's impossible for there to be one way to look modern. And that's what's good about fashion right now, that there's so much choice.
Raf Simons: It's the way a man holds himself and walks. It takes a certain sense, of course, to get dressed in a modern way. There's a modern silhouette that follows the body. Tailoring is very modern for me now. In fact, I'm really interested in finding a new type of corporate dressing.
DVN: With men's, I work in a frame. I draw a line and everything to the left is too much and everything to the right is not enough. It's a very personal line, because even my assistants don't understand the limits.
RS: I don't think about rules. That was especially true when I started my brand. My collections were more about projecting a certain attitude. Lately I've started to change that. Maybe it's because Im over 40 now. There was a period of time when I was making clothes that had zero relation to my own personal interests of dressing. Now I'm attracted to making my clothes work on different types of men.
Details: So what's the key to looking good?
DVN: It's not always just a question of quality. It doesn't have to be the finest cashmere mixed with the finest cotton, even if that helps sometimes. Looking really stylish is wearing clothes that tell a personal story and send out a good message.
Details: So attitude is an important part of the equation?
DVN: Especially in menswear, which is about bringing different things together. It's the way you wear the clothes. The same outfit on two guys can be completely off on one of them.
RS: It's important to feel comfortable in your clothes. To find a way of dressing that works for you as an individual.
Details: Do you have any concrete advice?
DVN: You can look great in jeans and a T-shirt or a three-piece suit. But I'm the last person to give orders on how to dress.
RS: I like to dictate. I always wear the same thing—black. When I was growing up, I was influenced by bands like Kraftwerk and Joy Division. That's an aesthetic I've stuck to.
Details: What can a man do to look sexy without looking like he's trying to?
DVN: Sex is part of life, and so is getting dressed.
RS: Some brands communicate sex in a very direct way. I very much like the idea of creating a type of mystique and distance linked to sensuality. If you hint at it, it can attract you to want to find out more about a person.
Details: Have you noticed differences in the way guys dress in Europe and America?
DVN: There are differences, but don't ask me which ones. Even in Europe, between Paris and Milan and London there are so many differences. On the other hand, fashion is getting much more global and moving along social lines more than location.
RS: I don't know how Dries feels about this, but I'm always annoyed when people say I'm a typical Belgian designer. I don't think it's really about the USA or Europe. It's more about a village in the south of France versus Paris. If I go to New York or Berlin or London I see so many more people with a high fashion sense than in the village where I was born.
Details: Is there a man whose sense of style you admire?
DVN: I don't really think about fashion icons. There are a lot of people with great style. But it's not the icons—it's the people on the street who I admire.
Details: Ideally, what should be in every man's wardrobe?
RS: Our brands.
DVN: In the past there was one way of dressing. Now there are multiple possibilities. You can go to work in a three-piece suit or in sportswear and everyone will still say you're well-dressed.
Details: But rules can be a good guideline for men, right? To keep them from looking absurd?
RS: I agree partly, but why are there rules for men and not for women? Women have more freedom. They can wear a black dress or a colored dress. The men are in the same black suit.
Details: Would you rather see a man in a black dress?
RS: I'm not Jean Paul Gaultier. But I would like to see a different approach.
DVN: Rules are there to bend. I went to a Jesuit school, and the game was to see how far you could push the rules without obliterating them.
Details: Is there one thing a man should never wear?
RS: Pink shoes.
DVN: Wait, Raf, my next fashion show is opening with pink shoes [laughs].
Interview by Robert Murphy
From left: An army-green anorak from Dries Van Noten's fall collection; Simons' marbled wool coat for Jil Sander. Photographs courtesy of MCV Photo
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