“What’s your inspiration this season?” – it’s the stock question of all fashion journalists, who want a pithy quote backstage after a fashion show. I even say it in my head with a faux-Valley Girl accent because it has been reduced to such levels of dull banality. I’m scratching out that thought though. As Dries van Noten shows us in an exhibition, due to open tomorrow at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, simply titled “Dries van Noten: Inspirations”, inspiration is indeed everything. Everyone has inspirations but on display here is a masterclass of how to cleverly use references with nuance. Dries says that his clothes are neither a “photocopy or a homage” to the things that he looks at, be it a piece of clothing, a painting or a film. Instead, it’s a complex mix of many things, cooked up in that wonderful Antwerp kitchen of his (I remember he once described himself as a bit like a chef, mixing up ingredients) and then altered or changed until it fits within van Noten’s own design universe. His research and mind might travel to China and India or back into the dapper past of Duke of Windsor’s style but Dries never loses sight of who he is as a designer.
And so the exhibition plays out, not as a straightforward display of all his clothes in chronological order, but split up into themes and motifs, attributed to one or two collections – punk, summer flowers, butterflies, Francis Bacon, dandies, Spain, folk etc etc. If that sounds simplistic, think again. Curator Pamela Golbin and Dries jointly picked out pieces from the collection of the museum – all the greats of Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Pierre Balmain, Jeanne Lanvin, Christian Dior – and placed them next to trios of his own womens and menswear collections, correlating in theme. Videos of show footage, additional film references are layered on top on screens and antique artefacts, images and even original artworks from the Louvre hang beside them.
I could go into rhapsody describing every single section and I could have had over 200 images here honing in on every detail. I absolutely do not want people to experience this exhibition through my paltry images though. It’s an exhibition that deserves time, effort and definitely multiple visits. Instead I’ll pick out certain highlights. The sheer oddness of Jane Campion’s The Piano alongside a pot of muscles and a sample of muscle-embroidered fabric from Lesage, inspiring Dries’ A/W 99 Victoriana-hued collection. Folded up pieces of paper directly from Francis Bacon’s studio, which inspired the A/W 09-10. A display of blindingly gold Coco Chanel and Thierry Mugler pieces next to several of Dries’ collections – it’s interesting that he revisits themes multiple times and comes out with very different results. When we get to the floral section, wrapped and packaged in Azuma Makota’s flower photographs, this is where Dries really comes into his element. It’s well known that he is an avid gardener so it’s no surprise that the floral and plant theme gets split up into several sections – Cecil Beaton’s garden party costume, excellent examples of Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga and Pina Bausch videos are all there in the inspiration mix.
As well as inspiration, Dries expresses gratitude to the labour process of his work with a video wall of indian handiwork. He has 3,000 people in India depending on Dries van Noten as a business for their livelihoods. It’s therefore natural that Dries has turned to India multiple times for inspiration from the traditional attire of saris to the kitsch of Bollywood. And on and on it goes until we get to the final section about his S/S 14 collection where a “Portrait of a Sculptor” by Renaissance painter Bronzino hangs next to a Gerhard Richter piece. Why? Only Dries knows. In his head, that makes sense.
It’s an exhibition structure that works magnificently but it also emphasises the fact that not every designer has a reference library as rich as van Noten’s. And not everyone can take these references and mine them into an own personally innate signature the way Dries does. For fashion naysayers, here’s a chance to learn about why fashion matters or why it’s so rich in its outreach because it can touch so many different areas. Every section is an immersive mind map and truly a joy to see, as the creative process unfolds before you. Inspiration is one of those things that can feel so arbitrary and sometimes far-removed when designers talk about it. Here it unfurls gracefully and in turn inspires you to think deeper in whatever creative endeavour you’re embarking on. And yet there’s still some mystery left. How all of these things congeal together to create the many brilliant collections that Dries has designed is still left unexplained. And that’s a good thing. It leaves something to the imagination.
Tim Blanks’ wonderful video tour for Style.com of the exhibition should definitely sway those not in Paris to take a trip whilst the exhibition is on (until August 31st – go on, Brits – get yourself those cheapie Eurostar £59 return tickets).