The family of Belgian designer Dries Van Noten has been dressing the people of Antwerp for three generations, and now the work of its most famous son is being celebrated in Paris.
Strictly speaking, the Dries Van Noten exhibition, which opened in Paris on Saturday, is not a retrospective. We were told at the exhibition’s opening in Musée des Arts Decoratifs not to expect the Belgian designer’s career highlights, but that the show would instead reveal the creative process. The exhibition begins with the designer’s initial inspirations, by way of a room celebrating various artists through song and film titles, album covers and pieces by fashion designers of the 70s and 80s. The room emphasises the inter-connectedness of fashion within the greater cultural picture, and also gives an impression of the pivotal creative times that Van Noten emerged into as a young designer and part of the Antwerp Six. London features heavily here as an influence, through images of David Bowie, punk, and archival pieces from designers including Vivienne Westwood, but there is also evidence of America’s counterculture: Divine, Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson. Some of these spikier influences might be surprising given that the designer is known for louche, elegant fashion but it explains that a Van Noten garment is never just a piece of clothing, there’s always something extra there: an intention, a gesture or a subtle visual clue.
In terms of his menswear, off-centre heroes loom large in what he has to say about men and how they dress. There is a strong theme of foppishness and elegant androgyny with The Duke of Windsor, Cecil Beaton, David Bowie, Marcel Proust, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas and Visconti’s leading men all cited as archetypes. Van Noten has an interest in cultural outsiders, the kind of people who struggled for recognition and acceptance in their own time but pushed us further on in terms of tolerating difference.
But Van Noten is no period costume reconstructionist, as his glam, punk and new romantic roots demonstrate; the elegant designer also has an edge, and a sense of humour. While fabrication often gives a firm nod towards historical richness, it is juxtaposition that he really mastered – a single mismatched fur lapel, antique florals fused with hi-tech sportswear – always with a certain knowingness, a disregard for evoking any specific time period.
Paired up with Van Noten’s own designs are inspiration boards showing relevant archive pieces from the museum’s collections. A Francis Bacon painting, a butterfly collage by Damien Hirst, portraits of Proust, Lord Alfred Douglas and Cecil Beaton are just some of the artworks on show. Van Noten is an expert in both reading and communicating the subtle visual codes of dressing. He has an interest in both revealing and concealing human traits, through subtle design gestures and evocations. Clothing can allow for people to create themselves anew, he says, including the potential of blurring genders. The displays include menswear and womenswear, an intentional statement about the rules and codes of dress. In one telling interpretation, a 1930s cabaret scene is described as being like a birdcage, the feathered costumes of the female dancers within merging with the men’s suits, blurring the gender lines and adding fragility to the spectacle.
The exhibition is punctuated by a striking slowed down video installation featuring models wearing Van Noten’s designs but given the reflective surfaces of the glass cases – inset video screens and vivid displays within them – all this leads to sensory overload and disorientation, with many an eager fashion fan literally bumping into the shiny surfaces. Upstairs the exhibition has more focus on the elaborate processes involved in creating his womenswear, but throughout, there is an attempt to emphasise androgyny even when it isn’t being addressed directly within the collection. Esoteric themes such as enchanted gardens, feathers and camouflage (which Van Noten interprets as a natural phenomenon rather than purely in a military sense) are explored here, also India, from intricate beadwork and fabric printing to the excess of the Rajasthani historic aristocracy and contemporary Bollywood.
A show based on something as intangible as inspiration could have felt very disconnected as a story, but Van Noten’s world has been expertly curated. The exhibition forms a circle, you start where you came in, and Van Noten’s comment on his own creative process is both an introduction and a final statement:
The starting point of a collection can either be very literal or abstract. A painting, a certain colour, a thought, a gesture, a smell, a flower, anything really. What matters to me is the journey from the first flash of inspiration to the final destination, the individual garments, the collection.
Dries Van Noten: Inspirations runs until 31 August at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.
Matthew Miller’s collection was a big highlight of London Collections: Men for me a couple of months back, and as the private orders/sales/re-see season came around I was very keen to see it up close. In particular, the intriguing textured material produced with Danish fabric experts Kvadrat demanded to be touched. So last week I headed over to a studio in Soho to see the collection up close and grab a feel of that fancy fabric. And I was not disappointed: at close range it delights your sense of touch, like the kind of very expensive upholstery you might stroke in an uber chic hotel or furniture showroom. On the body meanwhile, it feels surprisingly light; the bulk of the fabric making the constructed form stand away from the skin slightly, leaving a cooling layer of air around you, with the promise of warmth when it’s needed (being made from wool).
In terms of individual pieces, the Kvadrat items kept drawing me back but also the high-grade leather of the biker jackets (after all what is a subversive collection without a biker jacket or two?), the glorious Corgi-produced knitwear and those zip details with the exaggerated grosgrain pulls all drew my eye. But, overall, it’s the subtle colour palette spanning chalky grey, navy and forest green make the whole collection feel so grown up and desirable.
Matthew’s name does not appear in the garments themselves: like untitled artworks, there is the suggestion that what you as a viewer (and in this case also potential wearer) bring to it is what creates the final piece. But that’s not to say that his signature isn’t there; it is there in the cut, the choice of the extraordinary fabrics and in the very idea of sartorial democracy and adding your own signature to what you choose to wear.
Not all fashion trends make it from designer’s studio to shop rail, but dark florals will be blooming this summer, bringing a touch of art history to sportswear.
Last summer I noted the rise of dark florals as a menswear theme for this coming spring/summer, and now the look is taking root in men’s stores, from high-end designer to the high street. At Prada the style is a dark take on the tropical foliage associated with the Hawaiian shirt, a kind of aloha noir, while the botanical prints of Parisian label Ami are straight out of exquisitely illustrated horticultural books. Closer to home, London-based House of Hackney offer prints that are equally lush, especially as seen in their actual flower-shop fronted east London outlet.
High-street brand River Island has also produced its own take on the aloha noir feel and the current range includes prints verging on floral tapestry. For the most refined take of all, take a look at Dries Van Noten’s current collection featuring overdyed flower prints, the rococo details pointing to research for his upcoming career retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
What makes this direction different from the all-over digital print trend that has only just receded? Well, in the best examples, a certain sombreness of tone in the prints themselves. There is nothing cheerful or brash about these flowers. Think painterly blooms full of brooding detail reminiscent of Flemish masters such as Jan Brueghel the Elder, rather than the neat, small-scale prints of traditional men’s summer shirts. It is as if in a post-Goldfinch world, the desire to wear clothing celebrating decorative art history suddenly makes sense.
Something else saving you from looking like you’re wearing chintz curtains is that the trend is being fused with sportswear – sweatshirts in particular, where details such as ribbing on cuffs and waistbands offsets the floweriness, reining it in to something more wearable. Yes, a big floral print makes a bold statement, but when framed in an easy-going, familiar shape such as a sweatshirt, bomber jacket or simple T-shirt it is made less challenging, especially when presented with plain contrast sleeves or finishing. It is infinitely more modern than that English summer party staple, the floral shirt, and is a more streamlined alternative to the classic Hawaiian. There is a long history of men wearing flowers and horticultural prints, and this is a refreshing update on that story.
All images supplied by the brands below, except Prada and Dries van Noten courtesy of Style.com.
Grenson x LC:M designer collaborations: Sibling, Katie Eary, Matthew Miller, Agi & Sam, Christopher Raeburn, Craig Green.
Showing a very timely allegiance to London’s up-and-coming menswear designers, Grenson has just announced a range of collaborations with the cream of LC:M designers, available through Mr Porter. Following three successful seasons of working with designer Lou Dalton on footwear for her collections, this surely makes Grenson THE British shoemaker most aligned with the new generation of design talent in our menswear industry. Usually when such a batch of collaborations is announced, there are obvious hits among the range and others likely to languish in the Sale corner. For once, I’m having a difficult time choosing a favourite, though Matthew Miller‘s crocodile embossed leather derbies and Agi & Sam’s very grown-up monkstraps are most definitely contenders. Following the announcement of a flagship store in Bloomsbury, Grenson are riding a wave of positive exposure, having sensibly focused on affordability, quality product and openness to new design ideas.
Other Grenson coverage
Here are some shots of the SS14 collaborations:
My support of Duckie Brown is no secret, their studio was among the first I visited for Sharpened Lead and I love the fact that their vision is so oppositional to most of what can be seen in New York in terms of men’s fashion. As I reported earier this week, the Duckies presented womenswear alongside the menswear for AW14 which feels like a natural progression of the constant gender boundary-pushing within their work. I can see that a Duckie Brown women’s line could be a big hit, arguably there are more fashionable women in New York who know of and celebrate the duo as designers (I meet many of them) than men who would wear such high-fashion pieces in that city, where understatement in menswear is by far the norm. My only fear was that the menswear would be outshone, but, if anything, the womenswear pieces only made the men’s seem more exceptional. For AW14, Duckie Brown continued to explore the short-over-long disrupted proportions of recent seasons, with bombers over slim coats (creating skirt-like layers) over silky trousers in exotic, Chinoiserie-toned brights. This season the Florsheim collaborative shoes were elegant evening slippers in chic black leather suggesting dressing for haute occasions rather than battling the elements. The boxy double-faced T-shirt also reappeared and proportion play continued with the exaggerated widths of the cropped military greatcoats. The clash of strong colours was echoed in clashing fabrics, with some great woven pieces and a digital print blurred until it looks like a watercolour. “Masculine” pieces like the donkey jacket and the cropped yet broad-shouldered coats were contrasted with the silkiness of the pants. It’s not unusual for designers to show menswear and womenswear side by side, what is more interesting here is the interplay between these two elements of the collection: what the womenswear said about clothes for men and vice-versa, a fascinating exchange of ideas, as if a mirror had been held up between the two.
Sneak peaks of what’s to come at New York Fashion Week have started to surface, and, as ever with New York menswear, nothing bubbles more provocatively than a Duckie Brown collection. Emerging yesterday, this video, replete with the couple’s dry humour, announced that the Duckies will also be showing womenswear this season. As the video says, having produced a label for 12 years showing menswear based on womenswear, the Duckie’s will finally be showing womenswear for women this season. While I will (slightly) miss the audacity of their menswear flying solo in the face of American conservatism, at least with a women’s line on board their mastery of fashion design and craft may be more fully appreciated. And I’m sure the menswear will still have the kick of a potent martini.