History, Music, even a single colour can ignite the creative force of Dries Van Noten, a designer whose ingenuity is being honoured in a Paris exhibition.
Inspiration can strike us in any number of ways. It’s said that the late Lou Reed often found himself unwittingly writing songs while driving, his mind wandering with the bends in the road. The abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky was so taken with classical music — most notably Richard Wagner’s opera Lobengrin — that he dedicated much of his life to giving the masterpiece a vivid, visual reality. John Lennon, of course, found his enlightenment when he met Yoko Ono, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled wife Zelda lives on in his novels under various guises.
For Flemish designer Dries Van Noten, inspiration comes in abstract form. Although there is never a speciﬁc muse in mind, the cornerstone of each of his collections is a story or a character — the seed of which can be a piece of music, a work of art, or even a single colour: the robust reds favoured by American expressionist painter Mark Rothko, for instance.
“Colour is something I love to play with; it can be very emotional,” says Van Noten on a cold Paris evening. “I think red is one of the most powerful colours. When you are at a big party and you see one woman or man wearing red in the middle, everyone will look at them. It’s also the reason why the military have used red for uniforms: it’s imposing and it catches the eye. When you think of the armies in the 18th century and you have one army in blue and one army in red, the bright red is going to look far more impressive — double the size — when you see them coming in from a distance.”
This observation is typical of Van Noten, whose way of working has always been instinctual. Since he launched his ﬁrst collection in the mid—80s, he has honed in on a remarkable intellectual process that only a few of his contemporaries share (Raf Simons and Phoebe Philo spring to mind). It’s one that encompasses a catalogue of historical and contemporary cultural references which Van Noten, in particular, brings to life in a very real way. Case in point was the electrifying performance by Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood at the women’s spring/summer ’14 presentation in September — which brought his creative vision for the collection to full circle. ’
“Coulour is something I love to play with, it can be very emotional," says Van Noten on a cold Paris evening. "I think red is one of the most powerful colours. When you are at a big party and you see one woman or man wearing red in the middle, everyone will look at them. It's also the reason why the military have used red for uniforms: it's imposing and it catches the eye. When you think of the armies in the 18th century and you have one army in blue and one army in red, the bright red is going to look far more impressive - double the size - when you see them coming in from a distance."
This observation is typical of Van Noten, whose way of working hs always been instinctual. Since he launched his first collection in the mid-80s, he has honed in on a remarkable intellectual process that only a few of his contemporaries share ( Raf Simons and Phoebe Philo spring to mind). It's one that encompasses a catalogue of historical and contemporary cultural references which Van Noten, in particular, brings to life in a very real way. Case in point was the electrifying performance by Radiohead's Colin Greenwood at the women's spring/summer '14 presentation in September - which brought his creative vision for the collection to full circle.
So astute is Van Noten’s unique aesthetic vocabulary that it is the focus of an exhibition at the Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris opening this month, entitled, Dries Van Noten: Inspirations. The museum is attached to the Louvre and includes one of the largest exhibition spaces in the world dedicated solely to fashion and textiles.
“Dries has created his own universe in which not only fashion but also high and low culture has also been systematically used in his vocabulary,” explains Pamela Golbin, the museum’s chief curator. “He has no hierarchy — with ﬁne arts at the top and applied arts of fashion at the bottom — for him it’s all the same.”
She cites inﬂuences as varied as the Christian Dior bar jacket (which has time and time again informed Van Noten’s female silhouette) and the Sex Pistols as important benchmarks for the exhibition. “[To Dries] the Sex Pistols and the punk movement had the same cultural shock value as the suit, which revolutionised and redeﬁned certain aspects of femininity,” she says.
The designer’s creative process has informed the way the exhibition has been organised: thematically, not chronologically. “We decided very quickly that the exhibition wasn’t going to be a retrospective, so we mixed early collections with more recent ones,” says Van Noten. “Of course, I have my favourite collections, but the story of inspiration had to be clear, and it also had to be interesting to look at.”
Alongside Van Noten’s archival pieces, works by the likes of Yves Klein, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst will be on display, in addition to multimedia (ﬁlms like Jane Campion’s The Piano) and items from the museum’s own archives — the Dior bar jacket included. Golbin ﬁrst approached Van Noten about the exhibition in 2012 and the designer admits he initially deliberated over his decision to take it on. “Of course, it’s a big honour, but it’s a lot of work and I had to see if the company could physically manage it,” he says, “because when I do things I want to do them well.”
That would mean revisiting and potentially restoring his archives, which would be a time—consuming process. Particularly for Van Noten, who is meticulous in every task. “Dries is extremely detail—orientated, he really looks at every detail himself,” acknowledges Golbin, who worked closely with him, travelling back and forth from the designer’s studio in Antwerp during the process. “No decision can be made unless he has okayed it.” Deciding which collections and what pieces to feature in the exhibition wasn’t easy for the designer, either. “I have to say, it was very confronting,” he says. “I had to check if the outﬁt still looked good — did it age well? We really had to review things and often the memory l had was an ideal image of a certain collection. Sometimes you have a good surprise and sometimes a not so good surprise.” It’s almost 30 years since Van Noten, alongside his contemporaries — including Ann Demeulemeester and Walter Van Beirendonck — who were famously known as the Antwerp Six, revolutionised fashion with their intelligent and artistic take on ready—to—wear. As students of the famous Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (where Martin Margiela and Raf Simons were also schooled) their curriculum was quite traditional — Van Noten has often mentioned his teacher Madame Prigot, who thought jeans “were for poor people” and that knees should always be covered.
“AS A DESIGNER I LOVE TO TAKE RISKS. I REALLY REFUSE TO USE A SYSTEM, TO SURPRISE MYSELF AND I WANT TO SURPRISE MY TEAM”
But restrictions and rules can often foster intense creativity, as was the case with Van Noten’s classmates.
At the time there were also external factors at play: the punk movement had dug its heels in and the old guard of couturiers in Paris had taken a back seat. “When I started it was a very interesting time,” he says. “Fashion wasn’t dictated by traditional houses, so brands were more accessible. It had changed so much.”
Today Van Noten is an award—winning designer, he’s received a Council of Fashion Designers of America award and a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres among others, and in addition to having boutiques in Paris, Antwerp, Tokyo and Hong Kong, he has a formidable retail presence. Not to mention a very loyal customer base — to his many fans, Dries Van Noten is not a “seasonal” brand but a lifetime obsession.
Multimillion—dollar business aside, Van Noten still manages to maintain his rebellious streak. He is entirely independent or, as elderly style icon and Van Noten devotee Iris Apfel once quipped by way of introduction: “Free from all of the hazards of the money— grubbing, trendsetting—plagued boardrooms.” There will never be an It bag bearing his mark (the bulk of his business is ready—to—Wear), he doesn’t advertise — choosing to use his runway presentations to “communicate and immerse people in the brand” — and nor does he produce pre—collections. He lives by his own rules.
“What makes Dries so unique is an attitude,” says Golbin. “There is an independent spirit that is part of his DNA and that translates into his work. It’s an attitude that he uses in every form. He’s a very authentic person and I don’t mean that others are not authentic, but he is particularly rigorous with himself.”
Just as he likes to challenge the system, the designer also likes to challenge his own methods and he sees the creation of every collection as an opportunity for discovery. “As a designer I love to take risks. I really refuse to use a system because I want to surprise myself and I want to surprise my team,” he explains. “For instance, if there are colours that I don’t like, they will often be the colours I choose to work with.”
He adopts the same approach when it comes to fabrication as well. “Fabrics are the starting point of the collection, I love the way you can create colour, the feel, the mood with fabrics,” he says. “It’s my toil, my joy, to play with it.”
This is hardly surprising: an array of rich and textured fabrics is, certainly at ﬁrst glance, what sets Van Noten apart from other designers. Every collection is opulent with weaves, beading, embroidery, printed patterns and digital prints, and he develops almost all of them so they are exclusive to his brand. Many of the manufacturers, most of them small scale, have worked with him for decades now, and he holds their skills and tradition in high regard.
It’s ﬁtting then that his work will be honoured in an exhibition in Paris for the ﬁrst time in a museum that is known for its focus on textiles. Not to mention that he used some of the 19th—century textile patterns from the museum archives in both his men’s and women’s spring/summer ’14 collections. As ever, with an artist like Van Noten, the search for inspiration knows no bounds.