Dries Van Noten made headlines earlier this year, spearheading an open letter to the fashion industry that called for major changes. Among the letter’s top priorities—agreed to by scores of other designers, executives, and retailers—were realigning seasonal deliveries and delaying sales periods so that, for example, sweaters don’t go on sale before Christmas and sandals don’t arrive in stores in January.
Now, he has the chance to put those changes into action himself. Van Noten is opening a new store at 451 North La Cienega in Los Angeles. At 8,500-square feet, it’s a prodigious space, and the Belgian designer has come up with innovative concepts for every corner, not to mention the Little House at the back of the parking lot. The new store will double as a gallery, event space, and, most thrillingly for DVN devotees, a shoppable archive.
The address might ring a bell. An Opening Ceremony boutique used to occupy the 1940s-era office building. When it shuttered earlier this year, Van Noten knew he wanted it, having enjoyed working with OC as a partner on pop-ups and the like. He oversaw the renovation entirely on Zoom. Some will ask who opens a store in COVID-19 time. “It’s a sign of hope and positivism which I think is necessary in this moment,” Van Noten said over, yes, another Zoom. “It’s been quite interesting as an exercise. What is retail today? You have e-commerce and you can share so much information online that you can’t do in a store. That’s why we changed quite drastically for us what a shop has to be.”
Ask any fashion person their favorite boutique in Paris and more often than not the answer comes back Dries Van Noten. To step inside the Quai Malaquais space feels almost like walking into Van Noten’s personal flat. The L.A. store has a distinctly different flavor. “I wanted to keep in very raw,” he says of the L.A. space. “I didn’t want a marble palace.”
Down a long corridor shaded by tropical plants is a bright yellow door. A 1928 Steinway grand piano enjoys pride of place in the foyer; in the room facing the street a painting by the Los Angeles–based artist Adam Tullie graces the wall. You’ll notice there’s no frame; that’s because Van Noten has invited local artists to work directly on the walls and plans to invite them back to make updates if they like before asking new artists in to paint them over a year later. “The concept is the store is a center for creativity,” Van Noten explains, pointing out that post-COVID-19 food experiences including a chocolate competition will be on the table. “We’ll have all these possibilities. That’s the fun part, it’s everything I love.”
The first floor houses Van Noten’s womenswear and the second floor his men’s; both floors are subdivided into rooms. Downstairs: women’s ready-to-wear is housed in the white room, evening is in the black room. In another, a rotating series of invited guests—fellow designers, jewelry makers, artists, you name it—will showcase their work. Upstairs, the vinyl room will operate in a similar fashion. Each month a musician or DJ will curate 20 favorite records. The Belgian musicians Too Many DJs are up first and with each new audiophile the store’s vinyl selection will grow.
The archive rooms are the game-changers. Upstairs and down, they’re papered in photographs from Van Noten’s nearly 35-year career; on the racks are select pieces dating back as far as the ’90s. The women’s archive features what Van Noten describes the “most important pieces” of the Lacroix collaboration of spring 2020. “I didn’t want all those beautiful embroidered pieces that were so precious to me on sale, especially in this period, so I took them out of the shops and put them in our stock rooms.” Now they’re available in this store. “Post-COVID,” he explains, “we’ll propose to clients they can bring back pieces at least six years old and we can sell those pieces as well. The idea is that a beautiful piece stays beautiful and it really keeps its value.”
At the back of the store’s parking space is a 1950s bungalow that Van Noten is calling the Little House; he intends to use it for additional exhibitions. Up first is his fellow Belgian and member of the Antwerp Six, Ann Demeulemeester, who has turned her attention from fashion to porcelain tableware, glassware, and silverware that she makes under the label Ann Demeulemeester Serax.
So, is this the beginning of an American retail rollout for Van Noten? He did lose one of his biggest stateside accounts when Barneys New York closed its doors for good in February. The Belgian designer says…maybe. “L.A. is a good city to experiment in. I think also it’s a very open city. You can take risks that you can’t do in New York. It’s a laboratory, to see where do we go, what can retail mean now, what’s important. It’s all those questions that everybody has for this moment.” With old-school wholesale businesses unraveling, Van Noten’s new concept could actually reshape the brick-and-mortar model for the future. “Let’s try it,” he says, “let’s see.”