I was in Paris for a couple of days this week, and on Wednesday night I emailed on the off chance that there were press previews the next day of the Dries Van Noten exhibition, titled “Inspirations”, which is about to open at Les Arts Décoratif.
There were. I was told I could go at 4pm.
And so I arrived there at 4 the yesterday, expecting just to wander round, like a normal preview.
But there in the entrance hall was Dries Van Noten himself, around him gathering a small group.
Which I joined.
And soon, we were taken up to the start of the exhibition.
For a private tour of Dries Van Noten, given by Dries Van Noten.
After a couple of seconds, I saw people around me taking notes, and felt the usual shame of the journalist who goes around without pen or paper.
Then I remembered, it’s the 21st century.
And on my phone is a voice recorder.
And so on it went.
The following 40 minutes were among the most extraordinary I’ve had since working in fashion.
The exhibition is deep, rich, generous and complex.
Rather than stage a retrospective, Dries and the museum’s chief curator Pamela Golbin have brought together his work with the pieces that inspired him, both garments by other designers, and also art and film.
The result gives total insight into his way of thinking, and his creative processes.
It also shows the depth of his understanding of fashion and art, and the links between the disciplines.
It also feels like an act of generosity, by presenting these historical garments in a new light that heightens their relevancy, and also shows the breadth of time – that really, something we think of old is not from that long ago.
It was extraordinary having Dries talk through the entire show, and so I have transcribed his words here pretty much as they were spoken.
I’ve skipped a couple of bits for clarity, and occasionally my voice recorder turned off, or I lingered over an item and so missed his introduction to the next theme.
But it’s all pretty much here.
I thought it was important to have it all recorded and written down. And so here is the transcription, with my usual shoddy photos. Occasionally Pamela joins the conversation, and I’ve tried as much as possible to give the names and dates of either the collections, or artworks.
[We have just left an entrance hall that is covered with the names of those who inspired him in his early years as a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He talks about the importance of his influences at that time, from 1977 to the very early 80s]
DRIES VAN NOTEN: In the second room you see the clothes of the designers. For me that’s important to show the fashion that for me shaped that period. So I thought it was time we did an homage to Montana and Mugler, all these people in that time. As a backdrop we have images from that period. We have Klaus Nomi, we have drawings from Antonio, we have covers from Per Lei, ads from Calvin Klein, images from Bowie, you have publicity from Gianni Versace, I owned in fact that leather jacket, I had it as a student, I was very proud of that [the image is high up on a wall, but I tried to get the best shot of it I could].
You have iconic images from Avenue magazine, the Dutch magazine, you have Peter Lindbergh, a shocking image from that time, when he was doing images on top of the Chrysler building, he took this very glamorous image of Pat Cleveland but with a bottle of milk, so that for me was really really important, that showed you could see fashion not always in a glamorous way, which again changed afterward completely with the Japanese designers showing them in the same year that Montana had shoulders like that [he makes a motion to show large shoulders], Rei Kawakubo showed a sweater with holes in it.
We have Kenzo, Mugler, Montana, we have Catherine Deneuve as a vampire, we have Gianni Versace, a very early piece of Gianni Versace with metal mesh, then we have Giorgio Armani, a completely new way of looking at the men’s suit, then we have Claude Montana, Mugler, two pieces from Kanzai Yamamoto, and on this side you have World’s End Vivienne Westwood…
…the orange dress is early Gaultier from 81, a very early garment from Yohji from 81 also, I think it was the first show in Paris, and three pieces of my graduate collection, also from 81. [It's amazing how humble he is about his own work - it's something that happens throughout the tour - he'll just say "this is the collection about…". There's no self-importance. Here's that graduate collection, apologies for the shine on the glass]
So there you have the snake coat, also completely embroidered with these shiny motifs, and two dresses made in Indian silk, finished also in snake. [Here's the back of the coat]
It’s still quite fun to see that things like that continued afterwards in my career.
PAMELA GOLBIN: From our first conversations it was obvious this was not going to be a chronological exhibition, but much more of a thematic one. And with these three pieces it really establishes the aesthetic vocabulary of Dries, and the style he was going to use today. So we really worked around themes, and this first part was really the introduction to the exhibition, having the mannequins with heads are really all the pieces that are designed by Dries, and all of the museum pieces that come from our collections are treated more like objects, on stockman dummies with no heads and no arms.
[We walk through to the next space, the first to bring together examples of Dries’s work with pieces from the archive of Les Arts Décoratif, alongside inspirations from art and film]
So the first theme is Punk. And it all started with one suit, and not just any suit, it’s the tailleur Bar, the Bar Suit that launched the New Look for Christian Dior in 1947, and it’s really with this that we began the exhibition.
DVN: So the tailleur Bar, the Bar Suit, was a rebellious act, because making a skirt with thirty metres of fabric in the year just after the Second World War was also an act of rebellion. It’s also an extremely feminine shape, the symbol of femininity, where you have also the Blue Venus from Yves Klein.
Here you have our dress made with silk duchesses [from autumn/winter 2010] which afterwards we took a brush, dipped it in blue paint and painted it blue like a rebellious act.
This collection [AW10] was an ode to do-it-yourself fashion from the 70s and 80s, when customisation was very important, taking sleeves out, putting sleeves in, making a tailleur Bar from a men’s jacket, so you have like a men’s jacket that you put pin-tucks in and a full skirt underneath to mimic a little bit that image.
In the middle you have the little artwork of Cornelia Parker that really speaks to me, because you have bourgeoisie, the establishment, that is crushed by 250 tonnes [the work is called Alter Ego, of two trophies, one left in its real state, the other crushed completely flat by 250 tonnes].
PG: And what was evident from the beginning it was going to be a very full story, so that in each of the cases you have a work of art that’s tied with the collections, with our collections and also with the shows and films to really create a whole set.
[We walk over to the other side of the space]
DVN: So here you have an incredible Damien Hirst [called Transgressor, from 2007], and in front of it you have a dress from Schiaparelli, painted with butterflies, the coat the net to catch the butterflies.
So it’s about in fact life and death, beauty, catching beauty. It’s also boy becoming man, innocence, losing innocence. So in the backdrop you have an image of The Clockwork Orange. The collection [from spring/summer 2000] was really inspired by all that aggression young men becoming older, you had the fashion show held in a squash court behind glass, so the boys started to look also a bit like butterflies caught in a case.
[Dries then walks us to a section called The Kiss, about the crossover from menswear to womenswear, and he talks of the importance of the tuxedo and white shirt. We move on.]
PG: So there’s some themes that directly inspired collections and this is one of them, the Francis Bacon collection from 2009/2010, well [talking to Dries], you should say it, it was directly inspired from a visit to the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Tate Modern.
DVN: So here you have a very literal translation of art to the fashion that I make. You have the studio of Francis Bacon, with the colours of all the works of art really inspired me to use really unexpected colours for making clothes, where you have that strange pinkish raincoat with yellow and mustard colours completely fading, a lot of use of skin colours and grey tones.
And here you have some folded paper from the studio of Francis Bacon, which was the way that Francis Bacon created his distorted figures.
So he folded away parts of face and things like that, painted on the papers and kept all these things, he had more than 3000 of those scraps in fact.
These things for me were the starting point to make the prints, we made photographs of dresses, which we translated in black and white, and we folded away parts of those dresses. So that’s a very literal way how I sometimes also work.
[We move on to the next area]
Here you have The Piano, again life, death, the wish to survive, live. You have one of my favourite paintings here, which is the seascape by Thierry De Cordier, which comes from the Biennale in Venice, in front of it is the mussel pot of Marcel Broodthaers, the Belgian conceptual artist from the 60s, and then three pieces from the collection of the museum, with a cape of Worth, and a jacket of Schiaparelli.
PG: With an embroidery sample of Lesage from 1948 that he did for the house of Schiaparelli that he did out of mussels as well [apologies for the poor quality of this image…]
DVN: Then the collection [he means his own, from spring/summer 1999], really for me it’s about a woman who falls in the sea like you have in the image of The Piano, where she wants to survive so she takes her boot off and her boot floats further in the sea, so the motifs on the dresses and everything is really dripping and drowning. You have the jewels all made from pieces of mussels and fishing nets and shelves.
[We walk into the next space]
Then here you have gold. One of my favourite things. The brash, the shine, the religious side, the power side, all these things to play with. The collection from the 90s which about Afghanistan.
It was the first time we made all these foil prints, shiny, dull [Dries then says something about Madame Pouzieux, the incredible woman who makes braid for Chanel – she’s the one who works from her farm, as seen on Loic Prigent’s Signe Chanel documentary. I sounds like she did something for this collection, but I can’t make out what Dries says].
Then we have three incredible pieces from the museum, an ethnic piece, an outfit of Chanel from the 60s which I think is the most shiny gold you can imagine, and inside it’s pink and bright green, then Thierry Mugler [the Chanel is the gold skirt suit on the left, the Mugler next to it].
PG: Thierry and Coco.
[We move on]
DVN: Here you the force of graphic paintings. Vasarely… [A work called Opus III by Vasarely, alongside Dries dresses from spring/summer 2009]
…but I also wanted to show the Madonna by Jean Fouquet, which is the most important painting that I know, it’s hanging normally in the museum in Antwerp but just now it went to the Prado in Madrid, so we filmed it.
PG: It’s the only painting we didn’t get.
DVN: Yeah. But I wanted to show it. In fact it’s really big, and it’s really most incredible because it looks like a surreal work, it’s done in 1450. So there you have the cherubs in bright blue and bright red, so its really fantastic I think.
[We move to the adjacent cabinet]
And here you have my ode to Paris and the craziness in the 60s, with Vasarely, Pol Bury [a kinetic work called "2000 billes sur un plateau" from 1971]…
…who also did the fountains in the Jardin of the Palais Royal where we did the fashion show [here's that show, from spring/summer 2009].
You have Jeanne Lanvin, Balenciaga, Madame Gres, in fact its 30s, 50s and 80s, and then more pieces from our graphical collection.
[We walk on, stopping at a vitrine about hats, into a large space full of male portraiture]
Then here you have the portrait gallery. We talk about menswear, about foppish, extremely elegant men. I think these works of art have never presented together. You have John Singer Sargent, you have Jean Cocteau by Jacques-Émile Blanche… [To me this work is a total revelation - I've never seen an image of Cocteau before when he was young - and that afternoon I'd just been at an exhibition about the life of Jean Marais, which compounded my idea of Cocteau as only ever old]
…Boldini, behind that is Anthony Van Dyck, and behind it you have Proust [also a portrait by Jacques-Émile Blanche]. So for me it’s really about a man’s attitude. Why can certain men wear certain things, and other things other men can’t. It’s really for me how you carry your clothes. So a fur coat on some men it will be perfectly OK, and other men will look ridiculous in it. For me that’s foppish, that makes the attitude.
[We move over to the adjacent display]
Cocteau for me is very important in all this world. On this side you have the portrait for Cocteau, with the outfit that he made when he became part of the Academie Francais, and also the sword designed by Cocteau and made by Cartier.
You have two collections here, both inspired by the world of Bowie, Cocteau and Visconti [his collections are from autumn/winter 2011, and autumn/winter 2009]…
[Here, for some reason, my phone decided to stop recording for a few minutes. When I realise and turn it on again, we’ve gone through a display about uniform, which includes the most extraordinary Schiaparelli coat from from 1939/40…]
[…and have moved on to the next space]
DVN: and here you have the Duke, the Duke of Windsor, one of the style icons for me [the cabinet features one of the Duke’s suits], you have a self-portrait by Cecil Beaton, the crown was made by Stephen Jones for Vivienne Westwood, and you have also the drawing of the duchess by Cecil Beaton.
A very important element is the dog coat made by Karl Lagerfeld in 1980 for the dog of one of his clients
DVN: The dog was called Lucy [here's that Lagerfeld dog outfit]
And here you have the patchwork outfits that I made with the checks with the flowers, really started from the wardrobe from the Duke and Duchess [the collection is from autumn/winter 2005]
And then on the other side important you have the small painting by Elizabeth Peyton which for me was one of the starting points of this collection. It was not to have a painting by Elizabeth Peyton, we really wanted to have that particular painting [it’s called “Democrats are more beautiful (after Jonathan Horowitz)”].
So for Pamela and for me it was very difficult to talk to all museums, collectors and galleries so the first time we could bring art and fashion together in this way.
PG: and it isn’t an art exhibition or a fashion exhibition, it’s about creativity and the creative process. It wasn’t just as a decoration for each of the cases, there’s a symbolic reason, and each time we were very rigorous about why these pieces were chosen to tell the whole story of the theme.
[We have almost finished the first floor. At the foot of the stairs are two slow motion video works that show the clothes in movement. Dries says it’s as a breather before the craziness of the garden upstairs. And so up we go. I get a bit caught behind, so when I reach the next room, Dries has already explained most of it]
DVN: …a movie clip of Fred and Ginger, there you have feather hats from the museum collection with film from David Attenborough, and here you have camouflage, to hide away in nature. Here you have pieces from our camouflage collection, you have the working jacket of Paul Poiret, and a contemporary French army suit just in front of it [the Poiret jacket in the back is described as "veste de travail portée par Paul Poiret" from 1920]
[We have moved on]. This is by Dior from 1953, which I think is an incredible piece, with embroidery by Lesage, and then behind it you have a small video of Pina Bausch, always one of my all-time inspirations.
pieces of our Sport Couture collection where you have the military parkas with elaborate embroideries, and then to add a crazy element you have the coat that Cecil Beaton made for himself for the Garden Party in 1937, in the full surrealistic time, where you have the eggs on it, with the egg whites, can you see, if you look closely it has plastic which stands for the egg white. It’s the first time that we have the suit which normally is in the V&A.
[We move into the next space, a display of remarkable floral dresses]
So here you have all the dresses of Balenciaga, Dior, Chanel, Pierre Cardin, it’s all pieces that are really important for me.
The silver blouson of Saint Laurent is amazing I think [it is by Yves Saint Laurent from autumn/winter 1980].
This whole combination of crazy flower prints led me to the flower collection which I made which was not about creating fabrics, it was about cutting up pieces of garment and making new garments of it. In front of it you have one of the most beautiful dresses that I know, which is the Marrakesh dress by Paul Poiret from 1923 I think…
[Pamela holds up four fingers]
DVN: 1924. Sorry! In two days I should know my lesson.
Then you have also the black flower collection that’s with a painting by Christopher Wool, and then outfits of that collection [autumn/winter 2005].
[We turn to look at a wall of videos showing embroiderers at work on pieces for Dries].
The video wall was important to show how important handwork is for me, and also how handwork is made. Because we see so many embroidered pieces on the high street and everywhere and people forget that every sequin every paillette, every bead has to be put on by hand. Here you see also in fact it’s done by men in India, because you see that embroidery for men is a very prestigious job in India, which is a good thing. It goes from father to son.
PG: And something that Dries doesn’t mention often is that the fact that if there’s a lot of embroidery, it’s because all these people depend on him. that Every season in the collection there is a certain amount of embroidery so that these families can continue with their work.
DVN: In fact we have 3000 people in India working for us to do the embroideries. So it’s a responsibility that I have. It’s all villages around Calcutta, it’s all organised from a company in Calcutta who sends them out all the garments to those villages where all those people work on the frames to do their embroideries.
[We walk past a couple of vitrines with examples of shoes by Dries, before moving onto the next space]
DVN: And here we are in India. So India has a lot of different ways of looking at India for me. That side is really the aesthetic way where you have the beautiful fabrics, the saris, like the jackets I made out of silver woven sari.
Then you have two garments – a sari made for the Belgian princess Lilian in the 50s by Dior, and a sari from Balenciaga.
And on this side you have the kitsch side of India, you have Bollywood, you have the synthetics, you have the bright colours, brash shiny gold, all these elements, that’s a collection from 96 [it's autumn/winter 96].
You have a small vitrine from my dear friend Iris Apfel.
PG: Very minimalist.
DVN: Very minimalist. I said, you have to be present in one way or another in the exhibition, so she sent over some jewels and she phoned every day, “Dries, darling, is it enough? Is it enough?” So I said, I think it’s enough. You only see half of it what she sent.
PG: She sent three times as much for the one mannequin.
DVN: From the craziness of all the colours of India we go to marble. Marble for me stands for hippy, bohemian. The backdrop is an artwork by Philip Bradshaw that’s made completely in metal chains. You have an incredible jacket of Schiaparelli [it's from spring/summer 1938]…
…and then you have pieces of that collection where you see the jewels are clearly inspired by Iris Apfel.
In between all those silhouettes there what’s also quite fun you see a preview of the movie by Albert Maysles, the Maysles Brothers are the ones who made Grey Gardens, one of the brothers died, are making on Iris Apfel. [David Maysles died of a stroke in 1976] It’s a work in progress, but you see already a sneak preview here. [A trailer also exists on Vimeo, here it is…]
[We move on to the next room]
After all the colours, we go to Spain, we go to life and death, passion, dance, romance, all these things. Here you have have Gypsy, a collection from the 90s that I made [it’s autumn/winter 98], where you have all those elements already of passion and the ruffle and dance and all those passionate elements, next to one folkloric piece.
In the back you have an incredible dress from Saint Laurent, the Picasso dress, which I couldn’t resist to associate it with Almodovar, again the exaggeration, the too Spanish, too beautiful, too much of everything.
[Dries talks about pieces inspired by Mexico, but I stay looking at the Saint Laurent dress for a while. I rejoin them as he is talking about another Saint Laurent piece]. And on the other side you have a toreador from Saint Laurent, with an image by Rinoko Dijkstra…
…and some elements from the men’s Spanish collection, also the toreadors [the collection was from spring/summer 2006].
[We move on]
And here you have the Spanish collection, but here the black and white version of it [the collection is from spring/summer 2012]. We have a Picasso which comes from the Musée Picasso, which normally doesn’t loan but Pamela convinced them to. This work for me which was so important to have it here [apologies for this being so dark, but I wanted to show the Picasso with the clothing].
On the lightboxes you can see prints from the photographer by James Reeve, which we used on the garments. The volumes were clearly inspired by Balenciaga, and you have two very beautiful pieces there from Balenciaga.
I’m very happy that we could also show Balenciaga’s direct inspiration, which is the photos by José Ortiz Echagüe. We got permission from the grandson of Echagüe to make new prints to show them together with these garments.
[We move onto a room about Orientalism, and the 1920s fascination with the Orient, but I’ve slipped behind at this point so don’t catch Dries’s words clearly. I catch up as we reach the final room]
DVN: And we end with this. So when I said, Pamela, I would love to have a Renaissance portrait, and with preference by Bronzino, she started to laugh and said that’s going to be impossible.
PG: And the next thing I know…
DVN: Then the impossible came true. It left the Louvre for the first time since Louis XIV bought it, and it’s hanging here now, paired with a Gerhard Richter [The Bronzino is called "Portrait of a Sculptor" from the 16th century. I'm afraid I didn't get the name of the Richter, but it's amazing].
It was very important to have a combination of those two. For me, the Richter could be almost be the back of the Bronzino painting. I wanted to show also that sometimes the back of fabric can also be very nice.
[He briefly talks about the adjacent cabinet]
This was the men’s collection of this season, where you have the photo of Jimi Hendrix with the jacket of Jimi Hendrix just in front of it, and the waistcoat from the time of Louis XV, so for me it’s the perfect example for me that men can wear flowers.
[Dries moves back to the Bronzino, and starts to tell a story about the importance of the back of fabric, and of a particular replica cloth that arrived at his studio] but I loved it so much when it came in, because it was with all the yarns of silk hanging on the backside, and I thought it could be nice to show also for once the technical side, and the beauty of the technique of it, so we made the coat and left the yarns uncut. We made the skirt with the yarns partly cut, we made the coat which is in fact reversible which you can show inside and outside. [I didn’t take an image of these pieces, but here’s how it appears in the catalogue]
And then you have two black dresses again with all the ruffles and the gold. And as the last piece you have a selection of all the finales of our fashion shows.
[And that’s it. There is a pause, and then someone says, “c’est ça”, and we all applaud]
DVN: So if you want, wander around, look at things you want to see…
PG: there’s over 400 objects…
[And everyone starts to talk, and disperse, and I go straight back to the beginning to look at the whole show all over again]
What I’ve shown here is barely the start of it.
I absolutely urge you to go and see the show.
It has as much clarity, intelligence, power and force as the Alexander McQueen show at the Met in 2012.
The show is on until 31 August, click here for more information.