PARIS, France — Dries Van Noten believes it’s important for a collection to tell a story. What he presented today was a masterclass in fashion narrative. The early 20th century amour fou of the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Marchesa Casati, an eccentric who was, at one point, reportedly the richest woman in Italy, promised such an overload of Dries-style inspiration that it was a wonder the designer managed to curb what would have been a perfectly natural inclination to run riot through an outré world of exotic decadence.
He said he’d backed off because John Galliano had already so successfully gone to that well for inspiration (true, the presentation of Galliano’s Casati-influenced Spring 1998 couture collection for Dior stands for eternity as one of the greatest fashion shows of all time), nevertheless, the fact Van Noten managed to find his own way into the story meant that his collection offered an interpretation that was an ideal, irresistible and — dare we say — commercial translation for his audience: decadence with discipline. The kind of self-indulgence you can learn to live with. Unlike Casati and D’Annunzio who, as Van Noten so astutely pointed out, self-immolated in their quest for new sensations.
Casati was notorious for her love of critters. She’d walk cheetahs on leashes; greet guests swathed in nothing but boa constrictors. She also sustained a lengthy affair with the equally notorious, equally dandified D’Annuzio. How could Van Noten not orchestrate an artful union of their wardrobes?
First look: his tuxedo jacket, shirt, bullion badge and slicked-back hair, her cheetah-spot pants and panda eyes. Going on, the symbiosis was gloriously realised with his elongated coats lined with her (faux) cheetah, his club jackets swathed in her eccentric furs, his cabled cricket sweater over a net of her pearls.
Casati did love pearls. That was another of her hostess-with-the-mostest tricks: guests would be greeted by the Marchesa, stark naked but for strings of the things. At which point, presumably, the merest suggestion of dinner would be served. Van Noten draped pearls hither and yon — jacquarded them, let them flow un-stringed down a gold jacquard skirt, wrapped shoe-heels in them.
The profligacy wasn’t just Casati-induced. He was thinking too of Helmut Newton, a photographer whose work was emblematic of a time when fashion dared to provoke and disturb. “Things have to stand out now,” Van Noten insisted. “We need to dare, not shock, because that’s too easy, but be daring, be courageous.”
So was the toxic beauty of his collection brave? It didn’t really feel that way when retailers began their post-show raves. Not brave. Just necessary.