Ann Shayne and Kay Gardiner — the Mason-Dixon ladies — are two of my favorite people in the yarn world, and I’m really happy they now have a webshop and warehouse because it means Ann now works in the same building as me, which means I get to have lunch with her from time to time! A couple of weeks ago, she told me about her idiosyncratic take on thrifting, and I thought it was the perfect way to kick off Long-Worn Week of Slow Fashion October. So here’s Ann—
I have a very specific way of approaching slow fashion: I buy old clothes on the Internet.
One very specific kind of old clothes: anything by Dries Van Noten, the Belgian designer.
A decade ago, I discovered Dries Van Noten when I was lying flat on my back in bed with a cold. It was late, and the Nyquil was kicking in. The Style channel was on, and Elsa Klensch was recapping fashion shows. Willowy women floated into my bedroom, wearing Japanese-inspired fabrics and shapes, and Elsa talked about how this Dries Van Noten person was drawing on paintings by Whistler for inspiration.
Sublime. I thought I was hallucinating. I was a goner.
And I was really gone when I found that his clothes came with astronomical price tags.
That was in 2006. I began to follow Dries the way some people follow the Green Bay Packers. I await each new season, curious to see what will happen next. His fashion shows in Paris — here’s the most recent one — are ten-minute dream worlds where his explosions of color and pattern and texture and shape can bring me to tears.
I do not typically cry about a pair of pants, just saying.
I sense in him something rare: a combination of patience, curiosity, discipline and refinement that should be held up as an ideal for anybody who creates things. The energy necessary to create four collections of this quality each year — two for men, two for women, for 25 years — is hard to imagine.
This is my favorite Dries video because it shows him talking, filmed in his gorgeous Antwerp studio.
Dries Van Noten runs his fashion empire in an unorthodox way. He owns his company, meaning that he answers only to himself, not to a corporation pushing him to improve profits, expand The Brand, or create bedsheets or beach towels or derivative crap. He preserves a pure vision this way.
Van Noten isn’t interested in keeping up with his competitors. In fact, he refers to them as “colleagues” – an indication, perhaps, of a magnanimous spirit that is rare in an industry transfixed as much with the bottom line as it is with hemlines. “Style-wise I do the things that I want to do,” he says. “But organisation-wise you have to run a company, you have responsibilities.”
Those responsibilities include to his stockists, his staff, and his suppliers. “I try to see that every season we have prints, so that we can work with our six printers. In India we have a cottage industry involving 3,000 people working on many techniques of embroidery, so for me it’s important that in every collection we have embroideries. Sometimes they’re very in-your-face and visible, sometimes they’re subtle. But they’re always there, so that I can give work to these people.”
Dries Van Noten, the Belgian designer for whom embroidery is a part of his signature, has been working with the same family-owned business in Calcutta for the past 25 years. “A lot of people assume that if you are going to do embroidery in India, it’s ipso facto ethnic,” says Patrick Scallon, a spokesman for the designer. “But it’s a very respectful creative process. He has his designs, they have their views, and they both inform each other.”
Dries Van Noten’s relationship with the Indian embroiderers has been carefully nurtured, with one full-time member of his staff essentially splitting time between the workshop in India and the designer’s base in Antwerp, as choices are made about beads and fibres.
“It demands investment,” Mr Scallon said. “You can’t just phone it in. Maybe some companies send the work off through an agent but it is worth it to invest in this relationship.”
Most extraordinary: Dries buys no advertising. You will never see an ad in Vogue from Dries Van Noten. But you will see him in the editorial pages, because the editors can’t deny the quality of his work.
My first piece of Dries was a skirt I found in London, 60% off. It was by far the most I’d ever paid for a skirt. Ten years later, it’s my favorite skirt, a dark jacquard with asymmetrical tucks that make no sense except that they shape the skirt in a fantastically tidy way.
I found a few pieces on sale here and there: A coat with a deep brocade border; a quilted skirt; a jacket with Japanese fabrics; a shirt with crewelwork all over it. For the most part, and for many years, my fascination was abstract. I couldn’t see how to justify spending so much on clothes, no matter how much I admired them.
Technology, as has so often happened in my life and work, changed the whole Dries situation.
Clever shoppers have shopped thrift stores for ages, but I never had the focus for them. Too much randomness for me. Now, the Internet has revolutionized the market for clothes sold by consignment. Sophisticated technology allows you to find exactly what you’re looking for. The online consignment business has exploded, and it’s possible to buy the most exquisite clothes in the world for a fraction of their original price.
The Dries I used to dream of is now something I can collect without any pain to my pocketbook. It is indulgent in its way, sartorial ice fishing. You never know what you’ll catch. And often, you come up empty. But I’m telling you about this because this new consignment technology means that beautiful, well-made, enduring clothes are available to us in a way they really weren’t, even a few years ago. Yes, eBay has been doing this for years. But eBay is the Model T of this technology.
If the goal is to find clothes that last, that are made by designers who care about the people making their clothing, that inspire you every time you wear them, then sites like The RealReal and Poshmark are doing something of real value.
And something that is a lot of fun, too.
Thank you, Ann! For my part, although I’m a devout garage saler and flea marketer when it comes to furniture and home goods, I’ve never been a clothes thrifter. But over the past couple of decades, I have managed to hold on to some things so long they’re actually vintage — it’s just they’ve been in my closet the whole time! That’s what I crave now, as I said last year: clothes with long lives and legacies. What about you — is thrifting part of your wardrobe, and how so?
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