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Dries Van Noten: “Is fashion art? I don't care about that”

The designer leads us on an intimate journey through his new sensory-laden exhibition in Paris

For Dries Van Noten’s new exhibition we take to Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs. In the six-month-long exhibition – which opened to the public this weekend during PFW – Van Noten successfully bridges a gap between fashion and art, by exhibiting the two mediums together. In a series of separate rooms, Van Noten has pieced his vast 30-year oeuvre with collections of corresponding objects, and works of art that have inspired him – sculptures, videos, paintings and the work of other designers. The rooms are known as ‘gardens’, and like a lush and bountiful garden, the interconnecting rooms are a vividly sensory experience, taking us on a journey through Van Noten’s creative process. He prefers to call the exhibition a ‘documentation’ rather than a retrospective, and though vast and dense, it comprises just a small selection of the Dries Van Noten archive.
Amidst the chaos of Paris Fashion Week last week, we slipped into the quiet of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to be given a tour of the exhibition by Van Noten himself. Here we break down one of the most intriguing and captivating garden rooms of the exhibition, titled ‘The Magic of Disguise Explored.”


The extract from late expressionist choreographer, Pina Bausch’s 1982 film, Nelken transports its audience to an intoxicating sea of rose tinted carnations in an enchanted forest designed by Peter Pabst. “It is one of my all time inspirations”, says Van Noten. Amongst the bouquets wanders a near-naked woman playing an accordion, tiptoeing amongst the flowers lost in a world of escapism. 


Nick Cave dances, disguised in one of his exuberant ‘Soundsuits’ – an irreverent pink rabbit for the 2012 ‘Bunny Boy’ film. Straddling the worlds of art, fashion and interactive performance, the somewhat unsettling dance nods to a world of obscenity, a wonderland parallel to that of reality, where nothing is quite what it appears to be. 


“As a crazy element, we have the coat which Cecil Beaton made himself for The Garden Party, in 1937”, Van Noten tells us. Taking us through the looking glass, we find ourselves in a labyrinth of bucolic references – rose buds, disheveled green leaves and most surprisingly, eggs. Made in an era of surrealism, Dries explains how when you see the coat up close, it is embroidered with plastic, representative of egg white. It is the first time the suit has left the V&A.


Capturing the beauty of the botanical, Japanese artist Makoto Azuma plastered the surrounds of this room with an installation of the digitally manipulated photographs from his ‘Encyclopedia of Flowers’. Linking the plethora of florals cited in Dries’s work, these flowers perfectly encapsulate the work of Cecil Beaton, Pina Bausch and Christian Dior in an ethereal manner. The work of Azuma somewhat channels the work of Daniel Ost and the wall of flowers he created as a backdrop for SS07 Dries Van Noten show.


One of many 1950s Christian Dior collections inspired by the designer’s own English garden, this dress is embroidered with a heavily detailed abstract floral print. “We have the Dior dress from 1953, I think it is an incredible piece”, Van Noten says of the dress. In fact, the design on the dress looks not dissimilar to the 17th century style botanical etchings used in Dries Van Noten SS12.

In December last year, ahead of the exhibition, Siska Lyssens visited Dries Van Noten in his Antwerp studio to talk gardening, archives and the theatre of a fashion show.

DD: It must have been intense to work on such a large scale exhibition. Was it difficult to edit your life’s work?

Dries Van Noten: Of course, it’s quite confronting when you have to go through everything you did the past 30 years. The good thing is, we said we weren’t going to do a retrospective, and the way we put it together is a combination of elements – everything that inspired me. I think this approach also made the selection easier. What you’ll see in the exhibition is no more than ten per cent of our archive.

DD: You chose not to present your work in a chronological way, but in ‘gardens’. Why was that?

Dries Van Noten: My inspirations comprise a lot of elements. It’s art, it’s movies, it’s music, it’s David Bowie. But gardening is also part of my life. It’s only natural to me that gardens are an important part of the exhibition.

DD: How do you feel about displaying fashion in museums – do you see fashion as art?

Dries Van Noten: For me, fashion is more like an applied art. This, of course, is the discussion of the century. We always laugh about it, ‘Is fashion art?’ Yes? No?’ I don’t care about that.

DD: Do you always start researching your collections by looking at the past?

Dries Van Noten: I do, but it’s a combination. It’s not that I look to the past only. I’m not nostalgic. I have a lot of respect for the past, I have a lot of respect for tradition, the skills. But then I try to create garments that are really for the future.

DD: You sell everything that goes on the catwalk, there’s no piece that’s made just for the runway. Is a difference between the show and the in-store collection?

Dries Van Noten: The fashion show is a very important moment for me every time, because it’s the only moment when I really can explain what the collection is about. We don’t have advertising and it’s not that I go to parties often. For me it’s more like theatre. The colour of the light, the soundtrack, the way that models move, all these very small elements are what make the imagery clear. That for me is a very important thing.

DD: Is there something that you hope to have contributed to fashion?

Dries Van Noten: That’s difficult for myself to say. I think I changed fashion in a few ways – the importance of prints, the importance of separates. That’s now become more common as an idea.