A year ago, Dries Van Noten was the first designer during Paris Fashion Week to hand out masks at the entrance to his show. The collection sounded its own kind of alarm. We weren’t even into the Roaring Twenties and Van Noten was already imagining a transition between glittering decadent excess and “something else which was going to go very wrong,” as he described it. He couldn’t have known at the time how very right he was, how very wrong the year would go.
His response to everything that has happened since has been one of the fashion industry’s most intelligent and engaging. The designer who helped define the fashion spectacle has been devising insightful new ways to interact with fashion, using a mix of film, photography, written and spoken commentary. It’s a more reflective approach than ten-minutes-on-a-catwalk-then-off-to-the-next-show, but it still fully acknowledges fashion as a physical experience. On those terms, Van Noten’s Autumn/Winter 2021 presentation was truly the best of both worlds.
As recently as his men’s show a month ago, he was talking about his love of dance. “Movement is part of my aesthetic,” he said. With his women’s collection, he went whole hog: major choreographers, dancers from three companies becoming models as they partnered with models becoming dancers on the stage of the Red Hall at deSingel, the most commanding venue in Antwerp. It was a three-day shoot, three sessions a day, filmed by Casper Sejersen, photographed by him and Pamela Berkovic, who between them took more than 40,000 pictures, working from 9 in the morning till 11 at night. Intense? Bet on it. Especially when dancers, models, hair, makeup, crew — 46 people in total — had to be shepherded in and out of quarantine to allow the whole thing to happen.
But you do that to prove the triumph of the will, don’t you? “The first word I said when we thought about the season was emotion,” said Van Noten. “I was thinking about Pedro Almodovar, the master of exaggerated emotions, and Pina Bausch’s choreography and Belgian contemporary dance. And all these theatres are empty, and all these dancers don’t know what to do. They need money. So let’s see if we can do a totality of emotion and movement and beauty and happiness and love and anger and fear. All those things have to be in the video and in the pictures.” So that’s how it started.
Fashion and contemporary dance were locked in a passionate embrace just as the pandemic struck. Marc Jacobs and Karole Armitage, Jun Takahashi and Damien Jalet, Francesco Risso and Michele Rizzo: was it really only a year ago that these three designer-choreographer pairings were responsible for some of the most unforgettable shows I’ve ever seen? Van Noten’s star collaborators Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Marie-Agnès Gillot helped him inject equally memorable drama into his scenario, with Almodovar’s presiding spirit infusing an extra edge of emotional extravagance. “With all of that, we knew we had to go bigger than life, so it was the symbols of glamour, really the clichés: the red lips, the red roses, the pumps, the tinsel, the marabou…”
Aside from the lavish entertainment value — in movie and stills — of the presentation, the best thing for any long-time follower of Van Noten’s was how the clothes rose to the challenging occasion. He told his performers to make the garments part of their dance. In other words, work it!, which elicited a response you would never have seen in a plain old fashion show. An oversized coat in felted grey wool (as stolid as the Joseph Beuys artwork that could easily have been its inspiration) wrapped a silver tinsel minidress that Zso Varju kicked into gear (sheer kneesox and high-heeled pumps to go). It was one of Van Noten’s most perfectly fetishistic combinations of masculine and feminine. “Always my world,” he noted. But it also highlighted the presentation’s artful animation of items that were essentially as simple as an overcoat and a pair of baggy pants, a shift or a sweatshirt. The most artful touch of all was the use of print. What looked like crumpled drapes of lush jewel-toned duchesse was scanned and printed on garments in such a way that you got the impression the model was being dragged sideways. There was an urgency, a rawness. Maybe that’s what Van Noten meant when he talked about getting rid of clutter. “The collection had to be smaller, budget-wise and time-wise. We had more ideas than ever, but we had to edit them and that’s something we never had to do in the past. It takes you back to the essence of the story you want to tell now.”
For him, it was intensely personal. The first look in the presentation was a woman in a long white cotton shirt dress, something Van Noten originally designed in 1981, when Antwerp was less than a flicker in the fashion cosmos. She was wearing satin pumps with an 11cm heel and holding a bunch of red roses, which links to Almodovar. He called her the symbol of the collection. Something old, something new, something pure, something primal. Call it hope.