dries van noten’s new dawn of decoration in menswear
All is fair in love and war. On the second day of the Paris men’s shows, Dries Van Noten tackled the uniform trend of the season and pushed the boundaries of embellishment in menswear to dreamy new heights.
How far can you push embellishment in menswear? This was the question Dries Van Noten asked himself at the beginning of the season, and a subject that undoubtedly weighs heavily on the anti-minimalist's mind at any given moment. Especially, you might say, in a time when menswear's tension between the understated and the expressive - the real and the dreamy - is greater than ever. It would be easy to say that Dries looks for a balance between the opulent and the masculine - a word that has somehow become synonymous with the unembellished - but as the designer once again illustrated in his autumn/winter 15 collection on the second day of the Paris men's shows, his work is not about finding a compromise between magic and pragmatism. Dries is all about the dream.
So how did he avoid turning his uniform-centric collection of tribal and military elements from the West to the Far East into one of those Liberace-goes-to-Disneyland parades you might see on the runways of Milan? (Not that there's anything wrong with those, of course.) The answer lies in Dries' tireless pursuit of new worlds and new men. As a highly travelled gentleman, who has done more than a few Grand Tours in his lifetime, he has seen all the real worlds, but in the fourth decade of his career, Dries' work is no longer about portraying a real realm or culture, but about creating a new, imaginary one using the things he's seen around the globe. Welcome to Dries' enchanted world of fantasy where this overlord of all that glitters makes the rules, and the rules become law.
It was very irreverent what he did in that abandoned station at Rue de la Croix Nivert on Thursday evening. For Dries, it's as if the more time he spends in a fashion industry forever preoccupied with being all cool and understated, the more he feels like going against the grain, and proving to people - over and over again, and to new heights every season - that menswear (and fashion in general) doesn't need to be pretentious to be clever and covetable. The best testament to that fact was looking at those men sitting around that runway with eyes as big as teacups whenever Dries sent out a new heavy, embellished, magnificent coat, or listening to comments like, "That is insane," being whispered aimlessly into the room because people just had to let out the emotion.
"For me it was an exercise in embellishment, to see how far I can push decoration on garments for men and still keep it masculine," Dries told i-D backstage. "For that reason we went to really iconic sartorial pieces like uniforms, tuxedos, protection, fireman's jackets, and punk - which is also one of the classics for me in menswear - but also the ethnic: the Miao tribe," he said, referring to the Chinese minority known for their elaborately embellished costumes. "It was really interesting to see that often decoration in menswear is happening in stripes, like all those uniform stripes, the tuxedo stripes, the stripes going over the jackets. And then we started to play with the tuxedo stripes going over the coats, and putting protection things in places where they don't belong."
Dries had been burying himself in Jimmy Nelson's Before They Pass Away - the book of tribal portraits from around the world - "trying to translate it into a collection." It showed in elements such as the chunky tribal neck rings and the embroidery and beading of virtually every garment in the collection, but the tribal vibe was just as much there in the elements he ascribed to punk such the beautifully adorned kilts and that plaid jacket with Miao motifs that made the buyers in the room look like they'd just opened their first Playboy. But in a season centred around uniforms, it was Dries' expert take on the uniform trend that really blew the roof off the runway. He just waltzed in, mid-late show season, and waved that magic military wand around that he knows so well, and to life came these astonishing army jackets and coats. It almost wasn't fair, but as we know, when it comes love and war, anything is.
It landed the collection somewhere between Soviet naval officer, medieval Asian warlord, and Indonesian colonist - who dabbles in punk, obviously - and it was interesting that something so romantic and fabulously larger-than-life was all derived from historical battlefields. In these times of people talking about men's couture and artisanal this and that, Dries is unapologetically decorating his men's garments like something out of a fairytale, and without ever mentioning a word about his intricate embroidery methods or how many hours he spends patchworking together a coat. Why? Because he's leading the way for a menswear landscape, which doesn't need to excuse its fondness for larger-than-life dressing with anything other than liking and wanting it.
Speaking of being secure in your own skin, choosing to play DM Stith's rather mellow version of Be My Baby for a show focused on lavishly decorated military wear could either be seen as incredibly sentimental or incredibly provocative. "I just wanted a love song," Dries said casually, giving little away as to which of those reactions he'd been aiming for. Maybe it was directed simply at his own affection for these types of garments, and for a kind of menswear - and a type of man - that's uninterruptedly searching for the sublime. After last night, we all got a little closer to finding it.
Text Anders Christian Madnsen
Photography Ash Kingston