An affection for flowers and a respect for tradition: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
Fashion designer Dries Van Noten made it big from his small hometown, Antwerp.
It’s unlikely that I’ll swish about the annual colony fete in clothes by Dries van Noten or gather watercress for soup from a vast garden estate like he does. But the Belgian fashion designer sprang to mind while discussing petunias this week at my little local nursery. An assertive person with long, loose hair, wearing torn-at-the-knee jeans, strode in and brusquely demanded service from the nice nursery man who noticeably shrank from the tone. The stark fashion dictum that popped into my head was from Dries van Noten’s teacher: “Knees are ugly, jeans are for poor people and long hair is untidy”. I may not have remembered this obscure remark, half of which I disagree with, if so many things hadn’t coincided; and even then, not have recalled it but for the person’s rough manners.
Back in the tenth century in Srirangam, which is Vaishnava Central out south, the great saint and social reformer Sri Ramanuja is said to have fainted when many things suddenly coincided. When he walked through town silently reciting the girl-saint Andal’s eighteenth paasuram (devotional verse), a little girl with bangles clinking on her wrists opened the door just the way described in the verse he was reciting. Obviously, no such epiphany or moment of sudden, great revelation happened to me. However, I feel I didn’t do too badly, for Dries van Noten is actually an interesting person for Indians to think about. For one, he made it big from his own small hometown, Antwerp. His grandfather had a tailoring shop in Antwerp and he often accompanied his parents on buying tours for the family business. But when his family wanted him carry on with the firm, he chose to design clothes instead. After design school he was one of ‘the Antwerp Six’, a hugely successful group of young designers, before setting up shop on his own well away from Paris, the great fashion capital.
I vaguely followed van Noten’s doings on the side partly because of a mild proprietary interest in things Belgian after living in that country in my twenties; more so in van Noten’s work because fashion was my first beat for the Delhi papers in my ‘where-are-you-Susy-Menkes’ days (Menkes being a formidable international fashion editor). Also, van Noten is known to love gardening, make plum preserves, respect tradition without glorifying it to suffocation and use Indian decoration on his clothes (and hopefully pay his embroiderers well). His independent streak seems mixed with a love of genuine things. His clothes look beautiful. I can’t wear them but such clothes combine art and history, so one may admire the creativity and quality invested in them without owning them. One enthusiastic fashion blogger says that a van Noten ensemble can be worn for twenty years. I can’t think of another garment besides a sari, dupatta, lehnga or shawl that a modern person could wear that long; in our case, even longer. It’s a standard of value in India, the land of lovely cloth and clothes. Roots, identity, quality; these positive thoughts from a jarring moment were the sudden gift of the day.