Dries Van Noten seems to be a designer that I somehow take for granted; someone whose collections I always assume I'll like and certainly when you see it on the rails in stores, any lukewarm feelings that you previously had almost certainly become impassioned ones. On the surface, one might have thought that A/W 12-3 would prove challenging. References to Qing dynasty robes reminiscent of the Chinese costume dramas that were my teenage guilty pleasure, heavy doses of Japanoiserie/Chinoiserie and gilding the cultural lily for all it's worth – these don't sound like things that might make for a Susie-friendly collection given my previous thoughts on cultural appropriation in fashion.
All doubts were dispelled though as soon as I scrambled backstage after the show to ask Van Noten a few questions. It turns out he took a trip to the V&A and its East Asia department, studying physical pieces as well as being assisted with books and photographs. Such a scholarly approach might have resulted in a straight forward costume rehash/replica but in actual fact, what Van Noten did that was extremely clever was to revel in the flatness of the way these historical textiles are displayed and abstract those planes into prints that ensure that no dragon, phoenix or lotus flower look straightforward.
The V&A is another institution I take for granted, perhaps not realising what a national cultural gem it is until you visit other museums. Its presence as a resource for designers has resulted in a fair number of collections and items inspired by objects in the museum but this Dries Van Noten collection strikes me as one of the most intelligent ways of using the museum's artefacts, from source to process to finished product. The V&A is in the process of moving its collection of textiles and fashion pieces over to Blythe House in Kensington Olympia which will become the new Clothworker's Centre, a facility to study, conserve and store these pieces so I was lucky enough to catch a few of the pieces that the Dries Van Noten team looked at when gathering source material for their A/W 12-3 collection. Helen Persson, curator and manager of V&A's Chinese textiles and dress collections was kind enough to show me these pieces as well as talk a little about this new Clothworker's Centre which sounds like any fashion enthusiast's dream haven.
In particular I looked at a 18th-19th century Chinese Qing dynasty robe that may have been made for a female member of the imperial royal family but Persson concedes that it was probably not worn by anyone as the robe was assembled at a much later date. What's interesting is that in the collection, instead of the obvious dragons and imperial yellow that leaps out at you from the original robe, it is the striped wave motif at the hem of the robe that is predominantly used as the base pattern, spliced with khaki and black in the tailored coats and trousers. In the silk shirt and skirt pieces it's the the way the pattern is cut up, repeated and blanked out in unexpected areas which means that the original context of the robe is pleasingly misplaced. Weirdly, it was a good thing that the Dries team didn't see these garments on a mannequin or a dummy (as you would in say a traditional fashion exhibition) because when they are laid flat or seen in aerial view photographs, they take on a completely different appearance and it's precisely that flatness that gives Van Noten the license and encouragement to arrange the prints on his garments in this abstracted way.
A Japanese jacket from the early 20th century is similarly given the same treatment and even though the print is reproduced like for like as per the original, its placement on a sleek white blazer or wide legged trousers isolate the pattern from its roots. Without even seeing the curator you can already glean a ton of information from the online database, an incredible resource for those not in London. The pattern on the jacket was created with a "tsutsugaki" technique where the pattern is drawn out using a special paste made of rice flour, lime and water, squeezed from a paper tube treated with persimmon juice, creating a protective coating on the patte
The pattern on these Chinoiserie phoenix and lotus pieces are taken from this Kesi tapestry woven paneland from a huge blanket made in the 18th century, meant for export to the West. The original piece was already a mish mash of cultures as Chinese motifs mixed with Indian ones as it was meant for a Western taste palate and so when reproduced in the Dries pieces, it takes on another layer of orientalist affirmation. In the end, whilst Dries Van Noten openly credit the sources of the collection's inspiration, it's almost not important to cite the exact source of every pattern as they have shifted the context so far and away from simplistic replica or pastiche.
Persson is pictured here on the right with Anna Jackson, keeper of Japanese textiles and dress on the left, endearingly showing her support and love of the collection by wearing a printed shirt. Apparently they both spent a long time picking out pieces from the Dries Van Noten concession in Selfridges.
I too haven't escaped from the collection's clutches as the Dries Van Noten store in Paris (one of the loveliest spaces of a mono-brand store EVER) lured me in during the shows and I bought these printed wool trousers, that emphasise the striped wave motif of those Qing robes. LN-CC, Far Fetch and Browns seem to have the best Dries selection online at the moment if you too are seized by this excellent example of museum-to-garment mastery.
Going back to pending opening of V&A's The Clothworker's Centre at Blythe House, it feels like an exciting prospect to have a facility like this at the disposal of designers, students or enthusiasts in or visiting London. It's due to open in late 2013 and is definitely a must-see for anyone planning a trip to London anytime soon. Even the name is appealing. Clothworker's. Not fashion. Not textiles. Not design. It sounds a place worthy of studying garments that have had a lot of graft, craft and thought put into them. Blythe House itself is a beautiful Grade II listed building and with V&A intending to offer extended and increased access to the collections, it sounds like I'll be wiling many an hour here when it opens.