Dries van Noten’s men’s Fall/Winter ‘23 campaign is a study of liminality. The “Video Fashion Show” which accompanies the collection presents a number of youths in a decaying high-ceilinged house with distressed, on-label wallpapers. In that conscious blend of formal and leisure wear that has characterised recent seasons, these boys (and from the look of it, girls) appear to be exploring a spooky abandoned house, rifling old wardrobes. Or perhaps a formal event has just concluded. We have pointy patent leather derby shoes, sequined pants and neck scarves; the younger guests having swapped into a comfortable garment to wind down.
The video opens and concludes with a couple kissing; elsewhere a young man in a quiet reverie is roused, happily or not we aren’t sure, by the touch of a man standing behind him. Was he unaware of the latter’s presence? Or surprised at the gesture? The lyrics to the film’s music come to our aid. “Dream, baby dream…” These hazy images of fantasy—a kiss? These days?!—representing so many of the imagined intimacies of the Age of Lockdown. It has taken a global health pandemic to produce an antidote to our modern pop media-as-softcore-pornography. An uncontextualized kiss today is profoundly kinky. But was it real? Or a dream?
There is uncertainty in the show’s gender play, too, a talking point about which Dries van Noten hardly needs to flash a credential. It is a men’s show with several female models, a more literal, spelled out (in this way very contemporary) variety of his traditional, and for us preferred, approach to androgyny: embedding it in the clothes. In this collection the tailoring is flared, with waistcoat-tight jackets and exaggerated—both width and length—trousers. The shoulders of the more interesting fitted jackets are squared-off, the sleeves cut to a princess/mutton shape. It’s an unlikely, and entirely successful, combination. The androgyny is self-evident, which is why we found it surprising that two suchs suits were modelled by women. The tension, it seems to us, is better displayed by a model with pretensions to masculinity. The risk here is that a woman in women’s directional (slim top to flared bottom) tailoring looks like a woman modelling women’s clothing.
The collection’s lookbook contains 73 images. That’s a lot, and there’s a great diversity, too. In fact, it’s difficult to see in this season a unifying thread, a narrative that could, in the manner of past shows, supply a title for it: Paris; Gypsies; Sports, etc. This is no bad thing. It is, on the contrary, a bold reaction, and a statement. We saw this departure in the last men’s collection , an Antwerp-themed grab-bag of the label’s past work and a critique of the fashion industry’s cash-driven obsession with classification and categorization. We mean the logo. The variety in that archival show, continued here, arrested a concerning trend among recent Dries seasons (spring shows in particular), focused as they were on a named contemporary artist, whose work supplied a close template for variations of colour. These looks were often pretty and increasingly popular. But: people on the street began to name check the designer of our clothes. Indeed, recognizable Dries patterns were becoming their own kind of logo. In our current branding moment, of, for example, the CELINE logo (and don’t be fooled, LVMH didn’t hire Hedi Slimane because of his unwillingness to go there), the diversity of these last two Dries shows represents a welcome refusal to be so easily marked.
We are happy to return to the old modesty, regardless of the eye-catching nature of the garment itself, of Dries van Noten. Either too handsomely tailored, too club-wild, or too exotically embroidered, surely, to be Dries van Noten, there is an elusiveness among the collected work, undergirded by a sober mastery of texture and fabric, an elusiveness to billboard-style classification that bewitches both observer and wearer. We are reminded of the inventory at Modern Appealing Clothing (MAC), a longtime San Francisco stockist of the label. Against the far wall of the store, hidden behind the eye-catching season’s items, rested a series of dark winter suits. In dark blue and maroon wool, a few with modest Oriental-inflected patterns, all with uniquely small designer labels inside, they represented the noble foundation for the freakier items we steadfastly collect from Dries. The flashier pieces in a Dries collections like an “it” boy with a title.
Although the emphasis is on variety, we can nevertheless trace continuities from recent seasons. The leather footwear is the industry’s best and most innovative. Bulging blister leather shapes from last Fall are supplemented here by a new medical overshoe that will test concerns of “wearability.” We believe we notice a second slightly less swollen and wrinkled variation, however, that is just right. Wider pants are evident not only in suits: casual pants in nylon satin and black cotton/wool, are big, too, some with Juicy Couture velvet and cargo pocket, each with artful interpretations of the elasticated waistband. Who knew that could be made sexy? The dark leisure pants look like Yohji Yamamoto.
Wants: this season’s suiting produces an uncomplicated lust rivalled only by Alessandro Michele at Gucci. Yes, the suits, and today that is not an easy thing to pull off. Just as the menswear newcomer dips his toe into fashion with a designer sneaker—”I don’t know what else I’ll be doing, but by God, these shoes will look fresh”—these suits are an invitation not to fear (how do I pull off a suit?), but to suiting’s first principles: come what may, this look will carry me through. A beautiful armor. The genius in these suits is the avoidance of the costuming effect of Michele’s retro nostalgia. Rather than referencing a look from a compromised past, these suits are a conscientious mash-up of lines, suggesting a pleasurably uncertain future.