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Dries Van Noten AW16
Backstage at Dries Van Noten AW16Photography Evan Schreiber

An homage to dandyism at Dries van Noten

Marchesa Luisa Casati and her lover Gabriele D’Annunzio inspired the designer this season, resulting in a mix of feathers and masculine tailoring

The hand painted haunting eyes on the Dries van Noten invitation should have clued us in. They were of course the eyes of Marchesa Luisa Casati – the early 20th century dandyess – who has been a prolific muse in life and in death, inspiring designers such as Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano. At Van Noten though, the myth of Casati and her quaintrelle persona (someone who expresses their life through personal style and culture and seeks pleasure wherever possible) was hybridised with her on and off lover, the Italian poet and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio. He was a seeker of decadence too, both in his literature and in life. And so their wardrobes intermingled, their spirits intertwined and their characters merged at the hands of van Noten, and it had a devastating beauty to it.

“For me, it’s about having a happy life because if you search for something so hard, like Casati did, you don’t have a happy life,” said van Noten. “I think for me it was really important to create a passion to really push it, and the outfits, the hair and the makeup. It was a darkness of decadence but also with a positive side, because I think that when you go for that, it really has to be really beautiful.”

The darkness to Casati and D’Annunzio’s relationship played out in ways that made van Noten’s normal surface decoration more striking and extreme. It’s often forgotten that the first and true meanings of the word “decadence” is deterioration, decay and decline. And so the female dandies that stalked the runway had a menacing edge to them with their hollow cheekbones, blackened eyes and Marcel waved hair. Even as they wore cricket jumpers, collegiate jackets and what could be classified as 1920s sportswear, there was something brooding that lay beneath the surface. There was also a steely sense of danger to the big cat prints, which van Noten neatly contained within a wardrobe of rigorous tailoring and robe de chambres that D’Annunzio might have worn. To the pounding volume of violins clashing in Igor Stravinsky’s seminal Rite of Spring, that tension was even more heightened.

“The female dandies that stalked the runway had a menacing edge to them with their hollow cheekbones, blackened eyes and Marcel waved hair”

When the myths of Casati emerged in the collection, that’s when you could really feel the presence of her dandyess existence. “She was very famous because when she moved to the house, she covered the floors with animal skins, and had cheetahs and leopards as pets. The most famous story of her that she was walking naked at a party, with a living boa constrictor around her neck. When you start with something like that as a starting point you have to keep going.” And so Casati’s pearls were strung up into loose tunics, illustrated cheetahs gallivanted across a navy suit and serpents snaked their across feathered dresses for the sort of naughty parties that might have popped up in an Evelyn Waugh novel.

When you talk about contemporary fashion concepts such as ‘gender bending’ and ‘hedonism’, van Noten’s collection isn’t perhaps what immediately comes to mind. But in his own potently poetic way, van Noten manages to express his idea of gender fluidity as well as a strength of individualism that feels ever potent today.