Eclectic Inspiration

A new exhibition at Mode Museum, Antwerp, curated by Dries Van Noten, encompasses his wide-ranging influences in an intimate exploration of the designer’s creative process.

Fashion exhibitions have become big news in recent years with audiences numbers surging across the globe. The transfer of the blockbuster Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty from The Metropolitan Museum, New York, to the Victoria & Albert, London this spring means the trend shows no sign of abating. However, an exhibition based on Belgian designer Dries Van Noten (b. 1958) takes a different approach, exploring the cultural influences on him, from art, design, music and cinema as well as geography and ethnicity, rather than collating a retrospective of the designer’s practice so far.

Inspirations at MoMu (Mode Museum, Antwerp) gives a glimpse of the working processes of Van Noten and provide “an intimate journey into his artistic universe.” With a variation of Inspirations having been shown at Les Arts Décoratifs, in Paris last autumn, Kaat Debo, director of MoMu, explains that it is a particularly important time to be celebrating the fascinating work of Van Noten because the label is “doing really well at the moment, not only in Belgium but also on an international level. This important contemporary designer is highly respected within the fashion community.”

Initiated into the world of textiles by his parents who were both fashion retailers, Dries Van Noten studied fashion design at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where he graduated in 1981. Since Van Noten showed his debut collection in 1986 he has been inextricably linked with the with fellow Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts alumni Walter van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee as a member of the “Antwerp Six”. An avant-garde visionary, Van Noten produced colourful, heavily printed, ethnic inspired and somewhat eccentric designs which were a breath of fresh air in the power-suited, money-motivated fashion landscape of the 1980s. Since his work is consistently eclectic, mining the myriad creative motivations behind his clothes is an obvious step, and Debo admits that an exhibition on Van Noten had been on her wish list “for a long time.” However, the relentless schedule of the fashion world postponed the exhibition for a number of years “as designers are subjected to the very harsh rhythm of fashion, presenting their collections every season. We are constantly waiting for them to have time to work on an exhibition.” She adds that Van Noten needed time to prepare for his input and it had to be at a point in his career when he was ready to look back: “That kind of reflection on your life work and your career is an emotional exercise.”

Van Noten was closely involved with organising Inspirations, and personally selected Paris and Antwerp as the twin venues because they are central to his career: “Antwerp because he lives and works here, has studied here, and has built up his professional House here, and Paris because he has been presenting his collections there since the end of the 1980s, has a showroom there, and has been investing a lot in the culturally vibrant French capital as well.” However, it seems Antwerp does not provide a direct inspiration for Van Noten’s work. Debo argues, “It’s difficult to say, living and working in the place myself, but I don’t think that Antwerp is a direct inspiration for Dries’s work; however, I do believe the city is present in his work and that somehow it’s reflected in the exhibition. I’ll leave that for our visitors to decide.”

Described as an “evolution” of the Paris exhibition, which showed Van Noten’s work displayed in tableaux and Renaissance-style cabinets of curiosities, Inspirations in Antwerp has been constructed to link closely to the designer’s more recent collections and features a significantly revised selection of art, adapted at Van Noten’s request. Debo explains that he “wanted the exhibition to be interesting for people who had already visited the exhibition in Paris. We worked very hard on the object list so that they would discover new things and different inspirations.” Interestingly, one installation is fragranced specifically to “add an extra layer to the exhibition”, while the pieces that Van Noten himself selected from the world class costume and textiles archives at Les Arts Décoratifs will also travel to Antwerp. “When it comes to costume and textiles the Arts Décoratifs collections provide one of the most important and relevant archives in the world. There are some beautiful objects and beautiful textiles…, so for us, this collaboration is a great opportunity.” Aside from this revision of the artworks, the differences between the Paris and the Antwerp exhibitions are rather subtle. “We have kept the basic concept, and the idea of having different rooms and a very intimate atmosphere, and in the different themes the visitor will discover the inspiration for the creative universe of Dries Van Noten.” Because Van Noten himself has been so heavily involved in the curation of Inspirations and due to the significant contribution from Les Arts Décoratifs, Debo admits that “MoMu has been less involved the curatorial matters than usual.”

Living up to its title, the exhibition displays Van Noten’s designs alongside objects, artworks and artefacts that have directly inspired him as a new, alternative way to discover his work. This focus on inspirations and the working process rather than giving a shortcut to the final pieces came from Van Noten himself. Debo explains: “With this exhibition, Dries really wanted people to understand how his creativity works, the diversity and interpretation of his inspirations, and how this becomes a collection.” Although the full list of artworks for Antwerp was not finalised at time of going to press, Van Noten’s inspirations for the Paris show include paintings by Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko, a collage from Damien Hirst, designs from Vivienne Westwood, reportage photography of the British punk era and the American counter culture, as well as installations revelling in themes from thirties’ cabaret, to the exquisite colours and detailing of both traditional and contemporary Indian dress. Debo says: “I think he succeeded very well in translating these inspirations in the exhibition because he presents the artworks, objects, fabrics, and looks from his collections, and combines them with stills from film, photography and fashion shows. It gives a very good insight into his body of work and his world. It appeals in an emotional way.”

Of particular importance in Van Noten’s canon is a focus on textiles, print and colour which reflect the international inspirations to which he constantly turns. Debo acknowledges that the artist is “certainly not unique in using international sources” but argues that “he is quite unusual in the way he translates them into a collection.” While the fashion industry is becoming ever-more globalised, what makes his use of international references stand out is both the consistency and the innovation with which he applies them.

“This is not really different from his thought processes 20 years ago, and I think that makes him an interesting designer because his signature style has a number of elements that keep coming back but in different translations. Recurring motifs in Van Noten’s work include “embroidery and his passion for textiles, always shown in new variations. It is beautiful to see how he has progressed together with his manufacturers. This means they have also pushed each other to discover new technologies and new ways of experimenting.”

Van Noten’s career has spanned almost three decades, and it is this delicate balance of trademark features combined with constant innovation that keeps him interesting as well as frequently apart from the trends gracing the fashion capitals. The designer has always had a look that revolves around bright colours, prints and eclecticism and even in recent years, when the luxurious minimalism of Céline, The Row, Calvin Klein et al has dominated fashion, Van Noten has maintained his signature styling. His love for textiles, techniques, and embroidery in particular are central to the Van Noten look. Debo adds: “And I think he’s amazing at combining hues, bringing together colour schemes often in very surprising ways.” She also emphasises that the way in which the designer conducts his research is vital for the success of translating the inspirations into final collections with a coherent, engaging idea. While Van Noten’s early ideas included a lot of ethnic influences for which he is still well known, Debo cautions against pigeon-holing the designer in this way, adding, “lately he has been researching haute couture and there are now a number of his collections that allude to haute couture, in particular the work of Dior and Balenciaga, which I think are very interesting and more like an experimental ‘coup’ in design.” This is conceptually unique and an important example of the result of his extensive research process.

The idea of looking into the inspirations of designers is universally appealing, as if these glimpses will give viewers a degree of creativity by association, simply through understanding the thought process that led them to arrive at their final project. Debo wants audiences to be inspired by the visual memories of the exhibition, and cites the tableaux of artworks set against a backdrop of prints as being particularly strong. Inspirations also provides an opportunity to meditate on the processes of fashion “because people are often overwhelmed by fashion images, catwalk images and catwalk shows, but rarely get the chance to think more deeply, to discover why the designer used a certain kind of embroidery or lace.”

An important element of Inspirations therefore is engaging with this and appreciating how much time, research and effort are involved in achieving a designer’s final collection. It is particularly important because there is so much plagiarism of ready-to-wear designers across the high street now that ideas can become diluted and fashion starts to cannibalise itself. “I know how much is invested in the creative process at the House of Dries Van Noten and it’s amazing to make two collections starting from scratch and developing prints for each one. It’s so labour intensive and I want people to discover the craftsmanship and the value of it, and to understand that, despite its speed, fashion has a preciousness that we forget.”

While the exhibition focuses mainly on Van Noten’s own inspirations and creative process, in turn he has inspired young designers, not least in maintaining (like fellow Antwerp Six member Ann Demeulemeester) the independence of his eponymous label where so many other fashion experts are supported by large conglomerates such as LVMH and OTB Group. This enables a rare artistic freedom and ability to innovate. Although he has a strong signature style which he maintains throughout the industry’s fluctuating fashions, Van Noten is also always in a constant state of flux, refusing to stick to a staid formula just because it has proved commercially successful. Debo highlights: “he brings new stories and I think he manages to trigger people in a creative and artistic way through his work. That’s because he keeps on experimenting and doing new things.” Focussing on the continual journey that Van Noten travels in order to deliver the prolific output required of today’s ready-to-wear designers is inspiring. His working practice and magpie attitude should provide inspiration for us all and it will be interesting to see how, by being closely involved with the curating himself, Van Noten decides to transcribe this process to the visitor.

This institutional passion for big-name fashion exhibitions shows no sign of fading and it’s something that MoMu has embraced since opening in 2002. However, Debo is cautious that, although fashion is very approachable and relevant to millions of people, “a lot of museums have discovered that fashion attracts a lot of visitors” and because of this many institutions can “underestimate that it’s a hard thing to curate. Fashion is very dynamic and the biggest challenge is how to retain the dynamism within an exhibition space.” It is Van Noten’s awareness and confrontation of this challenge that contributes to Inspiration’s success: “The richness, the projections of imagery, and the combination of pretty objects and different periods make the presentation dynamic.” This is a key point, which only signifies the show’s timely relevance.

Dries Van Noten: Inspirations runs from 13 February until 19 July in Antwerp, Belgium. Visit the website for more details.

Ruby Beesley