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At Dries Van Noten and Undercover, Conquering Heroes

Van Noten and Jun Takahashi prove that an actual fashion show is still the best, writes Tim Blanks.
Models walk the runway for Dries Van Noten Spring/Summer 2023.
Models walk the runway for Dries Van Noten Spring/Summer 2023. (Getty Images)

PARIS — Hail to the conquering heroes, home from the pandemic wars. Dries Van Noten and Jun Takahashi were back in Paris on Wednesday after a 30-month hiatus from the fashion capital’s catwalks, and it was all we’d been waiting for. Both designers are past masters of thoughtful provocation and, with barely a beat, they were back at their best, both of them proving that, after all that debate during lockdown, an actual show is still the best vehicle for people who have something to say with their clothes. And I say that as someone who was quite happy at one point to sit on my fat can in front of a digital doodah forever more.

Van Noten’s invitation was symbolic: a scratch card (coin thoughtfully provided) with a black square scraping off to reveal pretty pastel flowers. Darkness into light. He opened with 20 or so stark black looks, highly constructed but softened with sculptural swoops of fabric, curves of ruching, torrents of ruffles and trailing fringes. The soundtrack was a stark, ticktocking beat to match. The second chapter saw the same shapes softened, colour creeping in with Art Deco shades of mushroom, pistachio and eau de nil, clusters of rosettes, corsets of macramé and a jacket of cobalt blue sequins. The beat intensified, adding layers of sound. The third chapter opened with faded pastel floral deconstructions of the black looks from the beginning. They also steadily intensified into clashing collages of flowers as the soundtrack resolved itself into Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” another brilliant dissection of a classic song by Van Noten’s longtime DJ collaborator.

The clothes were accompanied by handblown glass jewellery. “Hard but fragile,” said Van Noten. “A symbol of the world we’re living in.” Much like “Heart of Glass,” a song about heartbreak with an irresistible get-up-and-dance disco beat. The ambiguity was typical. It often feeds a melancholic stream in Van Noten’s work, but here he was adamant that the collection was unambiguously upbeat. His return to the catwalk was cause enough for celebration, even if Van Noten was sensitive to the fact that this is no time for parties. But he wanted optimism, and he got to say it with his flowers. Darkness into light indeed.

Speaking of heartbreak, Jun Takahashi has spent 30 depressing months unable to show in Paris, the city he calls his heaven, the place he can truly do the thing that fulfils him. “The pain of these three years has not healed yet, it’s going to take a long time,” Takahashi said through a translator. He added that his emotions have been piling up over the years, and he was ready for release.

He curated a remarkable soundtrack: Erik Satie (Parisian classic), “I Remember” by Molly Drake (mother of Nick, the iconic lost boy of British folk), Laura Marling’s “What He Wrote.” The music brought the heartbreak, the collection brought the pain, but also a sense of survival. Undercover was back, after all! On T-shirts spelling LOVE, DREAM and SWEET, the letters were slashed across the middle. There were more slashes dissecting the tailored suits that opened the show, baring shoulders and midriffs. A novel way to reveal the body, but so surgically precise that they were unsettling, the kind of double take Takahashi excels at. A black MIA was slashed to create an off-the-shoulder almost-evening look, flashing orange lining. In the back, it was tied in a generous bow. Seconds later, a black leather biker, its slashes limned with zippers. There was more ingenious chaos in the boulversé tops and dresses, spare sleeves and trouser legs artfully dangling, like a strange train. The show closed with similarly disarrayed cocktail dresses and four big strapless bubbles of fabric which Takahashi called his haute couture. The models wore sophisticated pumps, like Takahashi’s subtle nod to Paris, the capital of haute fashion.

He’s been reading about Zen Buddhism, asking himself how he wants to live the rest of his life. It’s nothing religious, more a search for serenity. Perhaps it was a similar impulse which led to his choice of venue, the American Cathedral, its magnificent stained glass windows soaring above the audience. Patti Smith sang the show out with the spiritual “Trampin’” and its closing line “Tryin’ to make heaven my home.” I hope the enthusiastic reception made Takahashi feel he’d rediscovered his.

Further Reading

‘I can’t complain about the business,’ said the designer as he turned a rundown 18th-century mansion in Paris into a Wunderkammer for his latest collection and the launch of his new fragrance and beauty offering.

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