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Dries Van Noten’s Empire of the Senses

‘I can’t complain about the business,’ said the designer as he turned a Paris mansion into a Wunderkammer for his latest collection and the launch of his new fragrance and beauty offering.
Designer Dries Van Noten described his latest Autumn/Winter 2022 collection as “visual fireworks.”
‘I can’t complain about the business,’ said Dries Van Noten as he turned a Paris mansion into a Wunderkammer for his Autumn/Winter 2022 collection and the launch of his new fragrance and beauty offering. (Dries Van Noten)

PARIS — As one of fashion’s greatest showmen, Dries Van Noten truly felt the pinch of the pandemic. He couldn’t imagine the season without a live event to wrap it up, the consummation of his team’s hard work, and their reward. But he managed to pivot gracefully, teaming up with artists such as Viviane Sassen and Casper Sejersen to create digital alternatives to the shows that traditionally showed off his collections. And it worked. The clothes were still gorgeous; the intellect that shaped them was still dazzlingly apparent. You might almost think that he — along with Marine Serre and John Galliano — was pioneering fashion’s new post-show reality, necessity being the mother of invention.

Then came the Spring 2022 shows and a return to physical presentations. But Dries stuck with his new approach. He described his collection as “visual fireworks,” and Albert Moya’s film, with its kinesis and its colour, captured the mood exactly. But after all my championing of Van Noten’s virtual experiments, I wished I could see this collection living on a runway again. Turned out that he felt the same way. “It was really sad because there would have been all this movement with all the fringes and all the layers and that would have been really nice,” he told me when I visited him during Paris Fashion Week.

And yet, if he felt deprived by being unable to show his Spring collection live, Van Noten once again opted out of the runway circus with his presentation for Autumn/Winter 2022. It took place in the Hôtel de Guise, an early 18th century mansion on the Left Bank, last decorated in the 1920s and now fallen into a state of dilapidated splendour. He chose the location not only because there were certain things that reminded him of the house he shares outside Antwerp with his partner Patrick Vangheluwe and their terrier Scott, but also the atmosphere of the place made it an ideal setting for the story told by the clothes. Van Noten wanted people to get close to them, touch them. So no show. “I was very happy we could present them in this way because this collection is very detailed and elaborate and on a catwalk, it just passes by you, so you don’t really notice it in that way.”

It felt like every shadowy nook and dusty recess in the building had been pressed into service for a Van Noten vignette. If a show is a movie — or at least a video — this was a series of cinematic stills, posed on old Adel Rootstein mannequins bewigged by Sam McKnight and painted by Lucy Bridge after the makeup look she created for Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s film that accompanied the collection. And if they had an eerie hyperreal indolence, like the women on an early Roxy Music album cover, the clothes had a similarly saturated glamour.

“Opulence, too much of everything,” said Van Noten. “Lots of leather, lots of fabric, lots of sequins.” A floor-sweeping zebra coat with voluminous red velvet pants, for instance. Or sweeping quilted cocoons which evoked the innovation of America’s lost fashion genius Charles James. Or impossible combinations of lace, brocade and leopard print, anchored by tortoiseshell or porcelain boots. Some of the pieces — like the “Charles James” jacket in blue sequins — are so labour-extensive that only a couple will be produced.

Van Noten had actually been thinking about Italy — “Too much passion” — and, in particular, two legendary Italian women. “Mina’s now in her 80s, she still sings beautifully but she doesn’t want to show herself anymore. And you also have Ornella Vanoni, 86, also still singing, but she did so much plastic surgery she really became kind of a caricature of herself.” The power of those performers animated the volumes, the shapes, the round silhouette.

I wondered if he was drawn to such people because they were so far outside his own experience of life. “No, it’s something which I admire, that you can do something with so much… passion is the best word. You really give yourself. And there’s the proudness of daring.”

Equally important to the collection was mid-century Italian polymath Carlo Mollino, architect, designer, photographer and fetishist. He was also an arch-controversialist for what other people imagined to be his view of women, obsessively disseminated through hundreds of erotic polaroids. But the women are the agents, not the objects, in Mollino’s images. They are strong. That realisation changed the way Van Noten thought about Mollino, because he found a compatibility with his own point of view. Mollino’s eroticism became his own, in the way, for instance, that a slip dress of diamante seemed to louchely slither off one mannequin’s shoulders, dressing, undressing, promising a frisson of revelation.

Mollino created a Wunderkammer in his apartment in Turin, where every design element contributed to an outward expression of his state of mind. Van Noten’s own work has often seemed like a fashion Wunderkammer, weaving collections out of other times, places, precious associations from the past.

A passage from “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust, one of his favourite authors, was projected on a wall. It referred to the “paradise of the past.” But the soundtrack playing quietly throughout the house had Marcello Mastroianni, another Dries favourite, contradicting Proust with his preference for paradises of the future, much more entrancing because we haven’t discovered them yet, so they’re shimmering somewhere in the distance. “To dream is to stay young forever,” murmured Mastroianni. Van Noten agreed. “Especially in the world we are living in now, I think we have to dream, and to think about the future. For me, dreams are a necessity. I’m too down to earth to use them really as an escape, because then I wouldn’t live in today. But I like to use them to push my mind further.”

“In this collection, I think you see that we went really quite far,” he added. Was the opulence a response to the pandemic? “It came quite spontaneously. You see those materials and you really want to push your creativity to see how far you can go.” The leather accessories were particularly pushed: skin lacquered or crackled or porcelain-like. Startling!

“I can’t complain about the business,” said Van Noten. “Interesting things are happening in China.” He claimed his audience there is younger, more informed. Plus, he has a new shop in LA, which opened in mid-pandemic. It’s become something of a laboratory, reflecting his conviction that “stores have to become more than a place where you just sell clothes.” Three art world institutions — Jeffrey Deitch, White Cube, Thaddaeus Ropac — curate the gallery space. There are book launches, in-store soundtracks curated by friends of the house, regular exhibitions by florists. And there is the Archive Room, surely the most enticing draw for Driesophiles, where highlights of past collections live again.

Dries Van Noten's new lipstick collection.

As fashion headed into its first big lockdown, Van Noten was poised to launch his epochal Christian Lacroix collab for Spring 2020. It got lost in the Covid chaos. The thought of that collection ending up as deadstock was too heartbreaking to consider. Fortunately, there were the Archive Rooms in LA and Shanghai. And there is also a growing army of collectors for such a fashion moment.

But it’s not only in China and the US where interesting things are happening for Van Noten. The Hôtel de Guise was the backdrop for the launch of his fragrance and beauty ranges, something he called “the consummation of a dream” made possible by the sale of his company to Spanish group Puig, best known for its designer scents business, in 2018. At the time the Dries Van Noten label was doing estimated annual sales of around $100 million, most of which came from apparel. Puig is aiming to boost that figure through fragrance and beauty revenues and the added awareness that such an offering can bring to ready-to-wear.

Three decades of fashion shows have left Van Noten with an appreciation of the makeup artist’s craft, “the transformative power of a slick of lipstick.” He has vivid memories of his mother’s. “So, I thought lipstick is the first thing we have to do, but only on the condition that we can find something that adds to all the lipsticks that are already out there in the world, and Puig really put a lot of energy into it so that the formulas were really exceptional.” There are 30 all told. His own favourites are the startlingly intense matte finishes.

Dries Van Noten's new fragrance collection.

But it was the ten fragrances that grabbed centre stage at the Hôtel de Guise. In an industry which releases products at a bamboozling pace, it was bracing to see an appeal to the senses that was so…um…appealing. The bottles realised Van Noten’s impossible combinations in their juxtaposition of coloured glass and different bases: wood, metal, printed porcelain… (One favourite, Fleur du Mal, matched violet glass to tortoiseshell.) The scents themselves were liquid embodiments of that duality, intense and allusive, not gender-specific, although Cannabis Patchouli has proved instantly popular with men. Again, Fleur du Mal snared me. Osmanthus is a note that creeps up on you, an angel turning devilish, as Fleur du Mal’s nose Quentin Bisch pointed out.

The bottles are shipped in clever moulded packaging, a bit like egg cartons, made from renewable natural wood fibres. At point of sale, you’re offered a choice of six pouches using fabrics upcycled from previous collections. I can’t think of another designer fragrance launch that feels like such an intimate expression of the designer’s own ethos. It’s almost like he’s bottling and packing the stuff somewhere out the back himself. Lately, when I hear the word “authenticity” in fashion, I reach for my crucifix and garlic. Here, though, the word had the ring of truth.

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