ollection 2009 by Dries Van Noten (Pics from left to right). Photo © Luc Boegly
Couture meets Collage
by Silke Bücker
May 2, 2014

How to describe a man whose fashion creations are so complex that they fill entire books? Antwerp-born Dries Van Noten’s oeuvre is inspiring, unexpected, and full of poetry and now reaches back almost 30 years. And it has all been gathered together and is being documented and displayed in an exhibition at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, in the north wing of the Louvre, that runs thru August 31. The title is telling: “Inspirations”. And the exhibition underscores Van Noten’s deep and passionate interest in artists such as Damien Hirst, Francis Bacon, Anthonis van Dyck, Agnolo Bronzino, Gerhard Richter, Pablo Picasso, not to mention other fashion-makers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Yves Saint Laurent and Cristóbal Balenciaga – with countless exhibits placed in dialog with his own creations. On top of which it is clearly the fabrics that he seeks out and develops so assiduously that form the bedrock of the Dries Van Noten style. The Belgian is considered a past master of bringing together seemingly irreconcilable patterns, materials, details and colors in idiosyncratic combinations that show that fashion can function as applied art. Nevertheless, Dries Van Noten’s designs are definitely fit for life, as streetwear.

An extreme emphasis on opposites

No other mixes the styles up as much as does Dries Van Noten: In addition to art, he also samples music, social and ethnic themes. He loves toying with opposites: With his fashions, he whisks us away to India, to a society torn between wealth, trashy Bollywood culture and shocking poverty; he couples profane rave elements with the discerning opulence of the Renaissance; or designs amazingly different prints and then composes them to form a collage. They invariably reveal his preeminent preference for rich fabrics such as velvet, brocade, or jacquard, and for elaborate embroidery and applications. He skilfully then combines the various worlds with what is usually an androgynous silhouette, inspired by classical bespoke tailors, sportswear and uniforms. This extreme emphasis on opposites make his fashion so exciting and surprising: If a strict grey woolen dress is ornamented with filigree feathers, if the “weighty notions” of great painters decorate a sporty tank top or if a simple jersey sweatshirt is adorned with embroidered couture flowers, then you know you’re looking at a Van Noten. This tightrope act does not always bear fruit, sometimes is off-putting, not to say controversial, but certainly ensures Dries van Noten’s creations are all the more unique. Given their detachment from any zeitgeist, the fashions often become life-long companions of his loyal clientele. Anyone who has fallen in love with this artistic, rich language will constantly fall for it again.

To name but one example, take the 2013 summer collection, for which the man who is currently probably the greatest anarchist in the fashion world revamped the style of 1990s grunge. Van Noten staged the consciously run-down, worn-out look so epitomized, romantically, by singer and anti-hero Kurt Cobain and his partner Courtney Love: He combined a checked shirt with a calf-length skirt resplendent in embroidered flowers, interplayed silk that resembles aluminum foil with transparent organza, and festooned an elegant tux blazer with thick silver chains reminiscent of bike locks. What runs like a red thread through the collection is the check pattern that van Noten strips of all the clichés associated with it. “Come as you are” as style cue, and in his wake many other designers and lower-end fashion chains emulated the idea, which continues to influence the shape of fashionable street-life the world over.

Forever refusing to follow the fashion industry rules

In an age when designers are long since not just creative minds but rather have to be daring business people and astute strategists, and above all work at high speed, Dries van Noten is consciously level-headed, relaxed, and praises deceleration. Although the aesthetic language of other cultures lays the foundations for almost all his collections, he prefers to seek inspiration in books and not, as one could imagine, by traveling in the respective countries. “I find it more exciting to concern myself with the art of an Anish Kapoor than to fly to India,” he explained in Paris, when giving a personal guided tour of the exhibition. And in doing so consciously took a stance at odds with the habits of many of his colleagues for whom “inspirational travel” is their daily bread.

Dries van Noten never followed the rules and statutes of the trade. His grandfather and father were both in the fashion business, his father ran several boutiques in Belgium and of course wanted a successor. In his youth, Dries spent many hours in his dad’s stores, finding out at an early age what talents you need to get people to rave about your fashions. But at some point he liberated himself from this predefined path and went his own way: “It was 1970. I’d just discovered David Bowie on TV. And to be honest that fascinated me more.”

He was interested in both Bowie’s music and in the Thin White Duke’s dazzling attire, like that of other icons of the era, such as Jimi Hendrix. “Hendrix is quite simply one of my style role models. He was the proof that men can very definitely wear flowers,” comments can Noten, who himself is far from eccentric and prefers dark elegant suits.

After graduating from Antwerp’s Royal Collage of Fine Arts he decided along with five former fellow students to go for a self-confident guerilla action. They found Antwerp, for all its art scene, to be too staid and saccharine. And they really wanted to reach out to the world, with their strong messages, for all the differences between them, and make certain the world heard them and took part! In 1986 Dirk Bikkembergs, Walter van Beirendonck, Dirk van Saene, Ann Demeulemeester, Marina Yee and Dries van Noten headed with a bus for London and sent positive shockwaves reverberating round the fashion world. Belgium emerged overnight as the fashion trailblazer in Europe. The legendary “Antwerp Six” paved the way for many another designer, first and foremost among them Raf Simons, Bruno Pieters and Haider Ackermann.

Sequined clothes from Pakistan

A kind of fashion manifesto, a way of freeing himself from the business angle in a manner no longer possible today. Not that Dries van Noten no longer needs to disentangle himself from anything, because he is one of the very few fashion-makers to still hold the entrepreneurial reins of his label in his own hands – there’s no major corporate or sponsor lurking in the wings, calling in debts. It’s quite clearly a real privilege: “Today’s system with its capsule and in-between collections forces designers to work really fast. And you can tell from most of their output. The chance to create unique things often gets lost along the way. Producing things the way I do requires an awful lot of time. I try to follow my own rhythm and only do what I love, for example to create fabrics or elaborate embroidery.”

He has the latter hand-made in Pakistan, of course at fair conditions and without any haste. So it hardly matters that the village where parts of the collections are made can only be reached by mule, and the ride takes several days. “People tend to forget that every sequin, every decorative element on clothes has to be applied by hand and are then surprised that such items cost a lot. Even the cheap high-street brands have to work that way. You should ask yourself how that can be,” the designer admonishes his audience during the tour of the Louvre and thus guides us through almost every single exhibit, and they include many originals from art history drawn from the archive of Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and he has a small story to tell about each .

He is not only a unique designer and a successful businessman, but also a charming and very refined man. Which brings us back to the question of how to describe this man whose haute couture is so diverse and who can so act the personal and pleasant guide?

The best way is to quote a good old friend of van Noten and a self-professed collector of his creations, namely fashion trend researcher Jos Berry: “I admire Dries’ fashion because with it I can wear the beauty and fashion expertise of a variety of cultures. His clothes give me the liberty to evolve my own style. I like his clothes because his designs are timeless, with classic cuts that oscillate between masculine and feminine images and are therefore very contemporary.” In short, Dries van Noten’s clothes are not just clothes. You can read them like a book, they exert an enduring fascination as you constantly discover new facets to them. And often you first grasp what they are trying to tell us long after you first encounter them.

Dries Van Noten – Inspirations
Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris
March 1 – August 31, 2014

Exhibition catalog:
Dries Van Noten
Edited by Pamela Golbin, Kaat Debo and Joseph Logan
Lanoo Books, 2014, Tielt/Belgium
320 pages, English

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“Come as you are” as style cue. Photo © Dries Van Noten
Typical Dries: Rich fabric creations combined with an androgynous silhouette – collection autumn/winter 2013/14. Photo © Dries Van Noten
Which inspirations are valuable fot this creations from his collection autumn/winter 2014?
Photo © Dries Van Noten
Renaissance of Grunge: Dries Van Noten’s summer-collection 2013. Photo © Dries Van Noten
Dries Van Noten, master of the opposites: for summer 2014. Photo © Dries Van Noten
Dries Van Noten. Photo © Dries Van Noten
The mannered gentleman: Pieces of diverse collections by Dries Van Noten oft he years 2000 til 2010. Photo © Luc Boegly
Clothes and convent: both pieces are from Cristóbal Balenciaga, who is an ideal of Dries Van Noten. Photo © Luc Boegly
Let flowers live: evening dress by Thierry Mugler (autumn/winter 1987/1988), Dries Van Noten (autumn/winter 2005/2006), “Untitled” by Christopher Wool, 1993, wall painting by Makato Azuma. Photo © Luc Boegly