Dries van Noten Men’s Spring 2022

Just as we sharpened our critical talons in consideration of the latest Dries van Noten spring collection, a funny thing happened. “Private sale starting this weekend” on the previous (and in actual human biological calendar, current) spring season’s collection. Would we stop by?

In our “of course,” we yielded not just to the vanity of being wanted. Cherishing a secret and unsayable passion for the label as teens, we could never have dreamed of a personal invitation to an American flagship store on Melrose, an hour from our door. This loyalty, to Dries as part of the structure and fabric of the story of our lives, exceeds by now, after the corporate sale of the label and its rather unfortunate popularity, our desire to have all the clothes.

This is in part because at the Los Angeles store, with most of the season collected, there is just so much of it, and especially in spring seasons, where a kind of pattern has emerged. It seemed to set in spring 2019, when, then resident in Japan, we also set our own buying habits for the collections. Using dozens of variations of the archival prints of a greater (Werner Panton) or lesser (Len Lye) known artist, we get bright and sheeny coloured summer looks, from summer trenchcoats to shorts, the latter often available in multiple fabrics and lengths, which can, somewhat implausibly, result in objects which, seemingly identical when folded, produce at try-on wildly divergent amounts of lust. Alongside these signature patterns of the season there are usually two further motifs, one of tailoring, like a brilliant camel and red pinstripe suiting from SS20, and second of monochrome textures, like the current (SS21) season’s combination with dark mesh. 

We tend to lust for that tailoring because, apart from its excellence, there’s simply less of it: it’s rarer, and other designers have a harder time copying it without straying beyond the scope of their label. And other labels do copy the Dries spring prints. It’s very nearly an industry, and a shame too, since, when the collections are based on an artist’s prints, these copies represent a double plagiarism.

And yet, here we go again. Passing through the small section devoted to sober tailoring at the Los Angeles store, we saw a lone pair of satin viscose Lyn Lye print trousers, separated from the long hall that houses most of the print pieces. Isolated in this way and with the satin drape that the denim and wool versions can’t match, we smuggled it ourselves to the changing room. There, as we slid its smooth chilled surfaces over our flanks, we had that laugh-aloud magic moment, the thrilling surprise of a piece which at once fits better than we could have dreamed and which we know will go home with us. What makes those obsessively sought but too rare moments so special? They reproduce that rarest and happiest type of compliment, of a disinterested observer, with nothing to gain, telling one how special they appear. 

‘Tis ever thus. After playing hard to get with the prints of a spring Dries season, we are seduced by the combination of exquisite fabric, cut, and a made-for-us fitting. Now begins the process of buying up as much of it as we can, on the strength of our experience with this single gorgeous piece.

This familiar epiphany upended our working thesis for the new collection. Spring ‘22 we expected to be predictable. But, we reflected, if there is a version of that satin print trouser, is a groove (a circuit, repetitive, but also a little bubble of bliss, the halo which sanctifies the unselfconscious solitary dancer) such a bad thing?

None of it! Far from predictable, the men’s Spring 2022 season is all over the place. As if to assuage our concerns over recent (SS19; 21) strictly structured spring collections, the new season is all variety. Only a list will do.

We have:

*Signature summer light cotton and silk shirt-sleeved collared shirts, in two types.
*Mesh and perforation
*Chunky, black synthetic suiting we might find from Rei Kawakubo
*A black oversized shirt and cropped trouser combination in an orange blurred shutter print suggesting Yohji Yamamoto
*Abstract prints in their typically measured and clever variations/combinations
*A series of soft, light monochrome casual suiting, including shell jacket.
*90s Anglo-American thrift store working-class rocker unisex casual pieces
*Army green hefty cotton workshirts with excellent matching skirts
*Super oversized trousers, reminiscent of streetwear from the second half of the 90s
*That one must-have spring matching suit

Borderline incoherent. But the season is also a kind of classic. The key is in the show location and concept: 24 hours in Antwerp. This collection is a modest, tender, almost private love letter to Antwerp, a homecoming, the variation of clothes a “bringing it all home.” While the iconic and unforgettable Dries seasons have—for us these tend to be Fall/Winter—immersed us in endlessly surprising reimaginings of a single historical moment or artistic concept, this show’s conceit represents a nearly Odyssean reckoning with Dries van Noten’s career. The collection is a subtle and, in the way that a museum reflects a mature artist’s various departures, a necessarily unfocused retrospective.

A drone shot approaches the quayside—low duvet of clouds blocking a powerful sun, the microwaved light of a place we are from and where we die, but not a place anyone goes—scanning parking lots and loading docks before settling on the boardwalk, where a short white platform serves as a mobile runway taken around the city, the models crossing like the James Bond intro gambit. There are few people about in this love message to a city: one father and daughter look modestly at a model’s turn before turning away. And yet the appreciation and hope for Antwerp’s lived experience is evident in the variety of location shots as well as the print references. As the accompanying music by Primal Scream echoes throughout, “We want to have a good time.” Heard in the mostly empty nightclub which concludes the show, this is a conscious, responsible, grown-up message of cautious hope that has been characteristic of the label’s philosophy and clothes during these pandemic years.

What, then, are our three or four loosely connected themes for the season? As the music selection suggests, there is first of all 1990s working class boy-artist earth-tone emphasis. Look 3 involves a mustard coloured brushstroke inspired striped sweater. Long, slouchy, perhaps borrowed. The model wears a 90s boy bob haircut with artfully bad highlights to match. Think Damon Albarn.

Look 7 adds the dark military cotton familiar from recent spring Dries seasons. Here an oversized workshirt with exaggerated sleeves and pockets combines beautifully with a fitted matching skirt. Recent seasons have contrasted these dark cottons with layered bright florals. There is less of that here and much more monochrome, including a series of fresh tailored soft cotton (we think) pieces in easter egg colours: slightly oversized coats with sleeves that cleverly balloon at the cuff, layered with slightly off-matching tourist jacket and shirt accompanied by tapered lounge-formal trousers. The recent saturation of technicolor Dries summer prints makes these a welcome departure, and recall the skill required to make monochrome effective.

The label’s by-now familiar summer graphic print shirts, summer cotton and silk button-downs in collared shirt-sleeves, come in two categories. First, and winningly, a series (this writer has no press guide) which make use of early modern Flemish art prints on orange/gilded/salmon backgrounds, framed at buttons and bottom seam with a contrasting colour. These prints are also included as panels in a tapestry effect applied to t-shirts—an excellent use of a classic Dries code. Second, and rather too familiar from recent seasons are a series of the summer shirts which make use of photographic images from Antwerp in a collage (front and back) or straight photoprint effect. This is similar to the Raf Simons teenage bulletin-board-above-the-bed concept from which that designer is desperately struggling to escape. The first type of shirt is better: they imply and suggest atmosphere, giving both wearer and observer options, rather than forcing a limited range of effect and interpretation.

A worthy mention too for the shoes: puffed siliconed and enhanced leathers, zoomed-in strappy sandals. We are happy to see also the split sole leather loafers with heel tab introduced in FW21 (which we await in store) as well as a new jacked-up boat shoe, a delicious send-up of the goofy male codes in the American South. What staff at the Los Angeles store call (off the record) the “bread loaf” sandals are back for their second summer, this time in matching, quieter tones than ‘21. Less effective is an exaggerated sole, heel-heavy sneaker that looks far too close to Daniel Lee’s early sneakers at BV.

There are, as the show reaches evening, some beautifully oversized yet fitted (it’s somehow true!) tops in the perforated mesh materials which the label has explored in recent seasons, as well as unisex oversized synthetic suits which resemble something by Rei Kawkubo or recent Prada. If the show sounds slightly incoherent, a more generous reviewer might claim there is something for everyone. The sell-out print party shirt; beautifully measured abstract print combinations; a new monochrome leisure suiting that can claim the Dries name (what’s with this weird James Perse dad stuff they reserve a room for in Los Angeles?); edgy/campy/sexy/unisex/lusty night on the town pieces. They are all here. For Dries fans the big tent is welcome: the popularity of the loud prints can go its way and we will explore these encouraging monochromes. Here’s hoping the variety in the season is an organic artistic impulse, and not only an effect of a corporate push to produce and sell ever greater quantities, that feeling of glut that comes on an old Dries hunter when entering the prodigiously stocked flagship store.