12/02/2011 12:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dries Van Noten Talks To 'WSJ.' About Designing, Saddam Hussein

Dries Van Noten is an enigmatic designer, preferring to dwell under-the-radar in Antwerp than hobnob on L.A. red carpets or air-kiss at Parisian cocktail parties.

But occasionally he does open the door to his 19th-century Belgian manor and let a reporter in. Dana Thomas caught up with Van Noten for this month's WSJ., learning about his day-to-day life as well as the rocky history of the Dries Van Noten brand.

One particularly harrowing episode occurred in the early Nineties:

Most fashion companies lost a great deal sales-wise because American retailers slashed their spring/summer 1991 orders as the country went to [the Gulf] war in January. Van Noten experienced that and more: "That season," he says, "I made the collection inspired by Iraq and Iran" -- having conceived and designed it before Iraq invaded Kuwait. As it happens, he says, "we have a system where jacket names begin with a B for blazer, and skirts are with an S for skirt, so that season the blazers were called Baghdad, the skirts were called Saddam, and so on. All the shipments to New York were blocked in customs because the papers were filled with names of cities of Iraq and Saddam."

"That," he says quietly, "nearly caused us bankruptcy."

Eek -- maybe cheekily naming a clothing item after Saddam wasn't such a good idea.

But that was just one reckless moment by an otherwise controlled, restrained designer. Van Noten, like Azzedine Alaia and Vivienne Westwood, is of the belief that when it comes to creating new fashion, less is more:

"Personally, I think there is too much fashion in the world... Now you can go on or blogs and there is always another collection launch, cruise, resort, accessories, and on and on and that's a pity. For me it's an overdose."

In other words, don't expect to see a Dries Van Noten for H&M collection anytime soon.