Claire de Rouen Books, London
You could be forgiven for missing it. Only a lonely street placard shyly announces the existence of Claire de Rouen Books on Charing Cross Road in London. But its ultra-loyal following of course know the way by heart, having come to see Claire and her pug Otis since she opened up the doors to her L-shaped first floor store above a sex shop in 2005. Specializing in photography, art and fashion publications, Claire de Rouen Books has been a Soho institution since. Lucy Moore, who took over when Claire sadly passed away last year, has also lost the nearby Central St. Martins college customers and suffered from the new Crossrail line remoulding the area’s buildings and streets. But the store – with its rare titles by premium photographers and authors – is still capable of drawing the crowds. Once you’ve found the space and climbed the narrow staircase, a world of lost treasures, beautiful images and carefully selected magazines awaits. Only a few doors down from bookstore giants Foyles and Blackwell’s, this is the kind of personal and dedicated specialist bookshop that the internet’s mass consumerism can never replace.
In the 50 square meter space, Lucy regularly organizes literary events; recent book signings have included Christian Patterson and Tim Walker. This year Claire de Rouen Books will also launch Juergen Teller’s latest title in-store, and there’s a project with German artist Christian Flamm lined up. The shop holds over 3,000 publications and Lucy’s favourite is the Eley Kishimoto-curated issue of Singapore-based Werk magazine. According to the current proprietor, Claire herself preferred challenging and difficult photo books, like the work of Antoine D’Agata. “On the other hand, she loved Bruce Weber, and I have a feeling he loved her – he still visits when in London,” she says.
Ask designer Margaret Howell to define her brand and she’ll most likely use words like functional, utilitarian, timeless and authentic to describe the clothes. These are characteristics that inform both the mainline and MHL collections. Over the years, Howell has become known for this pure and simple approach to life in general, and clothes in particular. But hers is a lifestyle brand setting the tone for more than just wardrobe staples. Howell’s devotion to this particular aesthetic obviously colours the whole company. Visit one of her London stores – the Wigmore Street HQ, the MHL shop in Shoreditch, or this newly opened store at 22 New Cavendish Street – and you’ll get a holistic 360 degree insight to Margaret Howell, the person and the brand. Just as the clothes are an extension of Margaret herself, her shops are brick and mortar versions of the brand: simple, light, versatile and modern. Although of course limited by physical dimensions, Howell’s stores boast a sense of space and light. Maybe the collection’s sparse colour palette helps create this? Or the neat merchandising and shop staff’s subtle style? Like the Wigmore Street shop, the new MHL store is deep. As you enter, you get a feeling you’re not only walking into her shop but experiencing the full might of Margaret Howell’s sublime sartorial universe.
As a follow-up to London’s first standalone MHL shop, situated on Shoreditch’s Old Nichol Street, the new Marylebone location is a 47.5 square meter space housing both the men’s and women’s MHL collections. Like all Margaret Howell shops, the New Cavendish Street store is designed by William Russell, a partner at Pentagram Design. Featuring the original parquet flooring, a wooden shop front, birch wood shelving, stainless steel fittings and bespoke lighting track, it’s moulded in the aesthetic of Howell’s Japanese MHL stores, of which she has opened ten in the last four years.
Criss-crossing every continent, we find David Hellqvist stepping off the catwalk conveyor belt and onto the beaches of Rio
The waves crashing in on Rio de Janeiro’s famous Copacabana beach are some of the fiercest I’ve ever encountered. You can only battle them for 15 minutes before having to leave, completely exhausted but it’s one of the most enjoyable exercise sessions I’ve ever experienced. Luckily, the many beach bars dotting this legendary spot are selling strong and sugary Caipirinhas for eight Reals (just north of £2) that will perk you right up again. Smack in middle of a beautiful Rio triangle, lined with the Sugarloaf mountain, the Christ statue and the equally classic Ipanema beach, this is a golden spot to observe casual Brazilian life. And it’s true; just about everyone - bar the lads and European tourists - wear thongs on the beach.
You just have to get used to it, it’s a way of life here. Though it’s tempting to stay on the Copacabana beach all week long, I was actually in town for Fashion Rio. As the other fashion week in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro has always taken a back seat in this emerging economy as São Paulo is considered to be more urban and gritty with higher quality collections. But I’m not sure Brazil is still ‘emerging’ though? Has it not got ‘there’ yet? In terms of fashion, its biggest claims, from an international POV, is having Francisco Costa heading up Calvin Klein Collections womenswear, and Alexandre Herchcovitch showing at New York Fashion Week. Not bad going for a country otherwise mostly known for flip flops and bonkers carnival outfits. Having just got here from Moscow Fashion Week, Rio actually showed off a mature and refined side for autumn/winter 14. I visited Rio two years ago for the same occasion, and this was definitely a step in the right direction.
Except for Herchcovitch, who was the undoubted star, despite only showing his denim-heavy diffusion line, a number of talents impressed with coherent and conceptual designs. Second Floor was a stand out show. Despite the shockingly bad name, Second Floor displayed a brilliant and consistent print throughout the mixed men’s and women’s show. Remixing a vague floral print, it appeared in different colours and fabrics - and skilful layering made the looks even more appealing.
Alessa took a more conceptual approach by working mannish silhouettes into her womenswear collection. Though on the formal side, she played with proportions by including oversized collars and shoulders - all in a monochrome colour palette with a stylish splash of red. Sacada, although quite Dries-like in its aesthetic, managed to create an intriguing collection - mainly through mixing and matching odd colours and fabrics; black with blue, brown clashing with gold, and denim, lurex and brocade-style fabrics mixed with oversized T-Shirt and sweatshirts in cotton. I liked it, it had an air of understated elegance to it, that kind of relaxed luxury we all strive for but struggle to nail.
Ausländer was less subtle. With body-con silhouettes, lots of black and white, angular shapes and plenty of capes, this is supposedly how we’ll dress tomorrow. I’m not sure about that one. I think Rio and São Paulo will benefit from encouraging more designers to take the Alexandre Herchcovitch route. With his utilitarian and wearable yet challenging aesthetic, he’s right on the money. It’s aspirational as much as it’s achievable - just the right balance between fiction and reality.
Last of the Independents Standfirst Dries Van Noten and David Hellqvist discuss the Belgian designer’s romantic aesthetic, his upcoming Les Arts Décoratifs exhibition in Paris and the pros and cons of total independence
Dries Van Noten is quiet for a moment as he ponders the validity of his brand. Not that I have questioned it, but he seems the kind of person that evaluates and analyses a situation thoroughly before making a decision. All of a sudden he breaks the silence: “As a businessman I ask myself sometimes if there’s still space for someone like me and my brand – or am I just like the musicians playing violin on the Titanic?” Thankfully he concludes that, yes, there is a gap in the market for a designer and person like Dries Van Noten. And most people in the industry would agree. Ask any editor or buyer on the circuit what shows they liked that season or what designers they keep coming back to, and the soft-spoken and humble Belgian designer’s name is bound to pop up. And if there ever was any doubt, the Les Arts Décoratifs museum in Paris has decided to dedicate an entire exhibition to the designer’s aesthetic next year. That sort of settles it, doesn’t it?
Van Noten seems to be having a good run at the moment, and there’s a plethora of reasons for the current love-in with his designs. In the last few years, most of his collections – for both men and women – have been positively reviewed and critically acclaimed among movers and shakers. Previous seasons have seen him explore a wide variety of sartorial themes – subcultural punk (SS11), high-tech sportswear (SS12) and army camouflage (SS13), for example – while keeping a romantic slant to the clothes. Dries agrees but, like any designer with integrity, adds his own safety clause. “Yes, people sometimes call my clothes romantic, and some of them are, but more than that I follow my own feelings – I want the collections to be modern, cool and relaxed,” he says. “I want people to want to wear the clothes, for them to become their own garments so they have a personal relationship with them.”
As one of the Antwerp Six, a clutch of Royal Academy of Fine Arts graduates who made a splash by travelling in a truck to London in 1986 to show their avant-garde fashion, Dries Van Noten needs little or no introduction. But ‘avant-garde’ is far from accurate as a way of describing Van Noten in particular and his menswear vision is not as conceptual as, say, fellow Belgian Martin Margiela. Instead, Van Noten pursues a wearable aesthetic sliced and diced with bouts of elegance and the aforementioned romanticism. “It’s 2013,” he says, passionately. “Men can easily look masculine in silk and floral prints. Menswear is all about materials – it’s limited in other ways since it’s not as rich as the womenswear prints.” Van Noten believes a lot of the potential beauty of menswear is lost in this fear of pushing boundaries. “Floral prints used to be accepted… how come men can wear Hawaii-printed shirts but a rose print isn’t okay – what’s the difference?” He namechecks Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones as colourful personalities who wore bright velvet jackets and got away with it. “We look towards Louis XVI, Oscar Wilde and Cocteau for inspiration, they all had extravagant looks.” But it’s all about small and subtle changes in the colour palette and choice of fabrics: “I don’t want women’s clothes for men – that’s cross-dressing…”
Long before he left for London, Van Noten had his fashion career carved out. He came from a long line of tailors and menswear-shop owners. “That’s where it all started for me,” he remembers. “My grandfather owned a men’s store and my father worked there before opening up his own shop. I went there after school to do my home work, looking at fashion while studying. It was the beginning of my passionate affair with fashion – that’s where I learned the trade.” It’s telling that his background involves as much number-crunching retail as it does creative high-end fashion. Today, and ever since he launched his eponymous brand in 1986, Van Noten is in control of his business, which is still independently owned. In the late 90s and early 00s, contemporaries of his, such as Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, were picked up by big fashion conglomerates, which injected money into their brands but asked for access to the creative process in return. Going back to his initial thoughts in our conversation, it’s clearly a subject Van Noten struggles with a lot. “It [being bought up] wasn’t a solution for me. I needed to stay independent. Admittedly I have nothing to compare it to – this is all I’ve ever known – but it just felt right.” But there’s no denying that running his own company has its downsides. “Yes, it’s a big responsibility. I look after a lot of people directly and indirectly. I suppose it’s both nice and scary.” Van Noten employs about 150 people worldwide but also keeps over 3,000 professional embroiderers busy with his four annual collections.
His Antwerp base is very much part of the brand. It’s reassuring to know that not all designers have to live in New York, Paris or London to feel in control of what they do. The tempo and hectic lifestyle of the metropolis doesn’t fit everyone, and there’s something about the mental image of Van Noten pottering about in his garden before walking to his studio that fits with the man, the brand, the business and the clothes. “I get a healthy dosage of fashion here – I don’t have to go to a fashion party every night. It’s a calming lifestyle but still central. It only takes a few hours to Paris or London.” He raises another valid point of life in the big city: “There, people tend to live in villages anyway – they live and work and hang out in the same area without moving about. I’m always surprised by that when I visit London.” Anyone living in a capital city who took an honest look at their lifestyle and social patterns would surely agree.
Once Van Noten is in Paris, though – he shows there four times a year – he’s got no problems getting involved. After all, the occasion is joyous: he’s showcasing his latest collection. Unlike many other big-name designers, he even cherishes the mundane sides of the show day. “I love the creative side of my job but also the other bits, like staging the shows, choosing music and lightning.” He also uses interaction with his models as part of the process. For him, they’re not just male machines parading the collection, but people wearing his clothes. “Yes, I learn a lot from seeing how models react to the clothes when they play around with them, style and body wise. It has to fit the model otherwise it turns into a lie on the catwalk. I need them to feel ‘happy’ in the clothes. It might sound slightly naïve, but it’s important to dress the character and personality rather than the model.” For his latest collections, AW13 and SS14, this meant models stomping down the catwalk in a ‘walk of shame’ look: “They look like they’ve just grabbed the clothes from the floor and walked out. It’s an eclectic look. We mixed nightwear, like pyjamas or robes, with rough-looking leather trousers.” The result was, once again, a rich and sophisticated elegance mixed with masculine attitude.
The major Dries Van Noten exhibition at the Les Arts Décoratifs museum on Rue de Rivoli kicks off in late February. The display – “It’s not a retrospective. I’m still alive and kicking” – will look closer at Van Noten’s career and highlight his sources of inspiration. “It’s an insight into my world,” he explains. “But it will also give people a good idea of how a designer works creatively. In this case it’ll take you deeper and deeper into the brand’s history and you’ll see how it’s all connected. For me it’s all about intuition and connotations; it’s about stimulating the mind, whether I’m looking at grunge or couture for inspiration.” The expo preparation fed into the SS14 collection, shown back in June – Van Noten used prints found in the art institution’s archives and adapted them for his show. “The best thing with this exhibition is that it is completely my story, but also that, as opposed to a ten-minute catwalk show and a two-minute post-show interview, people visiting the expo can spend three hours looking at the clothes if they want to!” That’s Dries Van Noten for you – always putting the punter first.