Review: Dries Van Noten Exhibition at Musee des Arts Decoratifs
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.