Dries van Noten exhibition “Inspirations”

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Design & Product / History

The consumer’s insight into the backstage side of fashion is bigger than ever before. Bloggers and the press demand early previews of collections before they are shown on the catwalks and designers take us along on their journeys of inspiration on Instagram. However, mostly we stay on the surface.

Dries van Noten’s exhibition “Inspirations” takes us deeper into the universe of the Belgian designer. Garments and the ideas or objects that inspired them are displayed together.

Tomorrow, the exhibition is being opened in Antwerp. I took this as an impetus to finally pick up my notes and download the pictures that I took when I went to see the exhibition in Paris last year.

Durable and honest

Dries van Noten’s clothes are durable and honest. This has been the case from the very beginning when he started his label almost 30 years ago (well, at least they were when I started buying his clothes in the mid 90s), and long before “sustainable” became a buzzword. What sounds like a cliché is actually true for his clothes: you wear them for many years. Some of them I still would, if they’d still fit me.

His honesty shows in the way his collections are put together and presented. It was in the 90s when designers like John Galliano started to produce showpieces that would gain attention from the press but were never intended to be sold in the stores. Everything that is shown on a Dries catwalk is also ready for production.

Evolutionary

Van Noten’s influence on fashion is not a radical one, like, let’s say the impact of a Vivienne Westwood or Rei Kawakubo.

Still, his impact is felt today. The concept of mix ‚n’ match was new in the 90s and van Noten was one of the first designers to promote it. Back then, people still very much wore looks, head to toe, preferably by one designer.

Van Noten’s collections didn’t necessarily look like they were designed by one person. Prada – You would recognise. Van Noten – Not so much. Maybe the fashion-savvy would, but there weren’t as many as today, where everyone seems to know everything about the subject. To people not in-the-know, a Dries look could have easily been regarded as a blend of pieces from the flea market, hand-crafted knits and designer rags.

He also introduced us to layering and the untucked shirt, which was unheard of before, at least in business. Today, an untucked shirt under a women’s blazer can even be seen in banks, where work attire remains at its most formal.

India

Van Noten’s collections are often referred to as ethnic, but he prefers the term folkloric. In any case it doesn’t mean that he travels to all the places he is inspired by. It is in fact the image and the fantasy the designer has that goes into his designs.

India is one of the few countries that has had a direct impact on his designs – and direct references can be spotted in many of his 90s collections. He is fascinated by the contradictions of India – the joy and the sadness; the ugliness and the beauty.

But his visits to India were not solely inspirational on a creative but also on a business level. For almost 25 years, Van Noten has manufactured in India. He started at a time when “Made in India” stood for cheap but he managed to turn a disadvantage into an advantage and connected the notion of India with “handmade”. With their work for Van Noten, 2000 to 3000 Indians now add to their incomes.

British tailoring

What I didn’t recognise before seeing the exhibition is how much of Van Noten’s work is actually inspired by British tailoring. Although the term “dandy” springs to ones mind instantly, it is the concept of “foppishness” that seems to fascinate him.

For me, not being a native speaker of English, “foppishness” is one of the concepts that is quite hard to understand. In German we like black and white. Something is good or something is bad.

The German translations of “foppish” all have negative connotations. Even the Oxford English dictionary describes a fop as “A man who is concerned with his clothes and appearance in an affected and excessive way”.

However, I asked a native (British) English speaker who told me that “foppish” itself is generally kind of neutral. It can be put in a negative context, but the term isn’t necessarily negative to start with.

I followed a guided tour at the exhibition and from what I understood, “foppish” reminds me of the term “quirky” which in German we would translate as odd, strange, cranky or particular (all with slightly negative connotations).

But from what I actually understand “quirky” is a rather charming concept.

“Quirky” describes a state that might be hard to grasp for non-Brits. A state between the odd and the charming, the run down and the enchanting. A state between black and white – a grey zone that might be neither nor, and yet highly pleasant.

In my opinion, this is Van Noten’s interpretation of British tailoring. Never quite perfect, looks worn even when new but always special, charming and dressy in an understated kind of way.

The Author

Bjoern Luedtke is a freelance journalist, editor and writer specialising in fashion and marketing

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