What Drives Fashion Designer Dries Van Noten

When seeing the work of artists, we are constantly wondering: where do they get their inspiration? A new exhibit attempts to explain the source of designer Dries Van Noten's creativity.

Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty

Fashion designers—creative people of all stripes, really—are constantly being pressed to describe their sources of inspiration. The result, usually, is a soundbite with quickly-rattled-off references. This begs the question: can creative people coherently explain the myriad of ideas swirling in their minds? In Dries Van Noten: Inspirations, a new exhibition in Paris at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (on display until August 31), the question is given serious reflection over two-floors of space dedicated to the Belgian designer. Van Noten’s clothing is juxtaposed with famous paintings on loan, archival garments from museum collections, and video clips of runway shows and his favorite movies. Altogether, this assortment produces a multi-dimensional moodboard of the sources that have fed the designer’s imagination and resulted in his fashion creations.

Van Noten was born in 1958 in Antwerp to parents involved in fashion and retail. He attended Antwerp’s Royal Academy and launched a men’s ready-to-wear line in 1986, with women’s ready-to-wear following the next season. When he began showing his collection, he was initially grouped with five Belgian friends who came to be known as “the Antwerp Six,” including Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, and Walter van Beirendonck.

Over the decades, the 55-year-old designer hasn’t played the game the way most fashion folks do. He does not create inter-seasonal pre-collections, for one. His showroom remains in Antwerp rather than a major fashion capital like Paris or London. And he does not produce advertising campaigns. Given Van Noten’s “I’m-doing-it-my-way” stance, it’s all the more intriguing to see how he has achieved success without conforming to the usual à la mode strategies.

Though Pamela Golbin, the Arts Décoratifs’ general curator of contemporary fashion and textiles, is officially credited with putting together the show, the exhibition was guided by Van Noten’s vision. He was involved in selecting the key artists whose work was specially brought in (namely Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, and Elizabeth Peyton). He selected archival museum pieces that coalesced with his vision. And, he combed through his own archive in order to display the most representative pieces of his work.

The exhibition kicks off with a section entitled “Fashion Chaos,” featuring late ’70 and early ‘80s-era influences such as bulky Claude Montana jackets and lamé metalloplastic Mugler dresses. The scenography here is a little heavy-handed, with “key inspiration” words plastered on the walls, ceiling, and floor, that mainly serve as a distraction.

Some of Van Noten’s inspirations are more visually focused. A section entitled “Butterflies” shows an Elsa Schiaparelli dress placed before Damien Hirst’s large spherical “Rapture” canvas, colorfully composed of dead insects. In the optical illusions section, lovely geometric black-and-white dresses from Lanvin (1935-36) and Balenciaga (1952-53) stand adjacent to a black-and-white Victor Vasarely Op Art painting of squares and circles. Other themes are more character-based, such as the “Bowie, Cocteau, Visconti” section, in deference to dandies and dapper men. The homage spans several vitrines: military uniforms, embellished jackets, tartan suits, embroidered vests, John Singer Sargent paintings, and a casement of gorgeous footwear with rows of buckles, bows, and tassels.

The upstairs portion of the exhibition is all about exuberance. First, there is the elaborate mural custom-made by Japanese artist/designer Makoto Azuma: floral backgrounds cheerfully tackle the horizon line in a fresco of abstract, yet natural, forms. An array of flower-printed Balenciaga, Dior, Nina Ricci, and Chanel dresses are displayed like a wondrous bouquet, with printed satin, taffeta, mousseline, crêpe de Chine, and organza in lieu of petals.

The colors of the exhibition get even more vibrant from there, as international influences come into the mix. There are rich shimmering fabrics from India, with a look from Van Noten’s own ethnic-inflected Spring/Summer 2010 collection placed next to authentic saris and a Raqib Shaw piece, Still Life with Bush Baby II, composed of glitter, enamel, and rhinestones. Van Noten has been working with embroiderers in India since 1987, and he included 13 short two-minute videos of their work scattered over one wall. The videos show close-ups of the artisans sewing sequins and beads, tending to the delicate minutiae of the designs with adept fingers.

In a section on Spain, Yves Saint Laurent’s 1979-80 lamé “ensemble du soir” homage to the bullfighter is placed next to Rineke Dijkstra’s photo of one. In a beautiful pairing nearby, a Pedro Almodovar film poster looms behind a stunning and dramatic Roger Vivier red-velvet high boot. Van Noten’s own black embroidered pieces neighbor a 1945 Picasso gouache of a bull. The last section, “Orientalism,” is exquisite and gilded, with golden-hued floral wallpaper. Draped dresses and kimonos embody graceful luxury, presided over by an elegant portrait by Kees Van Dongen, who painted many a wealthy Dutch patron in their finery.

While the exhibit’s free-associating felt uneven in parts, and the scenography overly literal at times, the eclecticism offers a more complex look at how visual diversity stirs up new artistic impulses. On the one hand, the exhibit traces Van Noten’s overt influences that are easily identified in the pieces he has produced. One photo by Jackie Nickerson, of an African woman with textiles tied around her waist, translates to a layered look by Van Noten in a way that obviously mirrors the shape of the image, while also giving a completely different effect.

Whether we can ever really get to the bottom of creative inspiration remains elusive. On a cursory level, the answer seems to be “yes,” but it’s not quite so simple. There is no formula for creativity—at least not with true artists—and so the way in which varied elements come together to generate a distinct new work remains mysterious. It’s precisely this mystery that attracts audiences, and more specifically shoppers, season after season. We remain constantly curious about what great designers will turn out from their capricious artistic alchemy.

Dries Van Noten: Inspirations is on display at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs through August 31.