The video which Dries Van Noten commissioned for the virtual launch of his new men’s collection featured his models posing atop a staircase in what looked like a temple. Behind them, birds wheeled across a brilliant blue sky which dramatically darkened as, in the space of ten minutes, clouds rolled in, and night fell. The whole thing was memorably monumental. You certainly couldn’t tell it was filmed on the backstairs that lead down to the basement of the old warehouse where DVN is headquartered in Antwerp. Ah, the ingenuity of fashion!
Dries is no stranger to such a notion. Belgium has been particularly hard hit by the virus so it has been slammed with restrictions. Van Noten’s spring collection was created in quarantine, everyone working from home. Without access to the studio to experiment with form or fittings, it fell on the fabrics to create an impact. The result was a defiantly exuberant burst of colour and print. For the winter collection, the studio was able to use a window between lockdowns to restore at least some semblance of normality, to try new things on real live humans. “It’s not a different agenda from that earlier collection,” Van Noten insisted. “Everyone is asking what will be important in life, what will be important – or not – in fashion, what will we want to buy when this is over.”
His answer was what he called “a fresh take on the familiar”. He based the new collection on menswear staples. “We wanted traditional without being too old school.” For anyone who was enchanted by spring’s exuberance, winter blew distinctly cooler. I would have said restrained, but Dries thought that sounded boring. He preferred calmness, lightness, the way a shirt-weight fabric was used for an overcoat, for example. That would usually be too light, but here it had a layer of padding. The lightness wasn’t compromised but there was still a sense of soft construction. The same idea of subtle padding was used throughout the collection, from a double-layered T-shirt to the squeezable shoes and sandals, even a padded bucket hat. Van Noten wanted everything tactile. Clever, because touch is something people are craving after a year when they’ve been told they can’t. But difficult to convey via video.
Still, it was clear enough that old familiars like a camel coat or a classic striped shirt had been given sensual new life. The former became a side-slashed poncho, the latter was elongated into a shirt-dress. Trousers were hiked high into soft paper-bag waists. They puddled on the floor, or they were boyishly cropped. Their matching jackets slouched over shoulders. Sleeves were repurposed as scarves. There was a general pyjama-like silkiness, something Van Noten said he has always liked. He’s also said in the past that he likes dipping into his own archives and here I saw distinct echoes of his Spring 2015 collection for men, the one that was inspired by dancers like Rudolf Nureyev. He agreed. “In that collection, I focused on skin, but here, using superlight fabrics, drape and a luxurious slouchiness, the effect was quite similar.” The shorts-and-legwarmers outfits were particularly evocative of some kind of rehearsal ethos. Van Noten added that he still designs for ballet. “Dancing is always on my mind. Movement is part of my life, and part of my aesthetic.”
With all the padding, it was easy to see the clothes as a subtle cocoon, shelter from the storm promised by those dark clouds in the video backdrop. Van Noten blanched at the notion. “It’s not negative,” he said emphatically. “It wasn’t stormy, it was a beautiful night.” When we spoke a few months ago, he described this collection as the first one he would have designed where there was no chance of it being presented to an audience on a catwalk. He felt that would change his approach. Now, he insisted there had been no change. “We wanted to make clothes as if we were having a fashion show. This is a post-covid collection. I want to move on, evoke the next thing.”