“What’s your inspiration this season?” – it’s the stock question of all fashion journalists, who want a pithy quote backstage after a fashion show.  I even say it in my head with a faux-Valley Girl accent because it has been reduced to such levels of dull banality. I’m scratching out that thought though.  As Dries van Noten shows us in an exhibition, due to open tomorrow at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, simply titled “Dries van Noten: Inspirations”, inspiration is indeed everything.  Everyone has inspirations but on display here is a masterclass of how to cleverly use references with nuance.  Dries says that his clothes are neither a “photocopy or a homage” to the things that he looks at, be it a piece of clothing, a painting or a film.  Instead, it’s a complex mix of many things, cooked up in that wonderful Antwerp kitchen of his (I remember he once described himself as a bit like a chef, mixing up ingredients) and then altered or changed until it fits within van Noten’s own design universe.  His research and mind might travel to China and India or back into the dapper past of Duke of Windsor’s style but Dries never loses sight of who he is as a designer.

And so the exhibition plays out, not as a straightforward display of all his clothes in chronological order, but split up into themes and motifs, attributed to one or two collections – punk, summer flowers, butterflies, Francis Bacon, dandies, Spain, folk etc etc.  If that sounds simplistic, think again.  Curator Pamela Golbin and Dries jointly picked out pieces from the collection of the museum – all the greats of Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Pierre Balmain, Jeanne Lanvin, Christian Dior – and placed them next to trios of his own womens and menswear collections, correlating in theme.  Videos of show footage, additional film references are layered on top on screens and antique artefacts, images and even original artworks from the Louvre hang beside them.

I could go into rhapsody describing every single section and I could have had over 200 images here honing in on every detail.  I absolutely do not want people to experience this exhibition through my paltry images though.  It’s an exhibition that deserves time, effort and definitely multiple visits. Instead I’ll pick out certain highlights.  The sheer oddness of Jane Campion’s The Piano alongside a pot of muscles and a sample of muscle-embroidered fabric from Lesage, inspiring Dries’ A/W 99 Victoriana-hued collection.  Folded up pieces of paper directly from Francis Bacon’s studio, which inspired the A/W 09-10. A display of blindingly gold Coco Chanel and Thierry Mugler pieces next to several of Dries’ collections – it’s interesting that he revisits themes multiple times and comes out with very different results.  When we get to the floral section, wrapped and packaged in Azuma Makota’s flower photographs, this is where Dries really comes into his element.  It’s well known that he is an avid gardener so it’s no surprise that the floral and plant theme gets split up into several sections – Cecil Beaton’s garden party costume, excellent examples of Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga and Pina Bausch videos are all there in the inspiration mix.

As well as inspiration, Dries expresses gratitude to the labour process of his work with a video wall of indian handiwork. He has 3,000 people in India depending on Dries van Noten as a business for their livelihoods.  It’s therefore natural that Dries has turned to India multiple times for inspiration from the traditional attire of saris to the kitsch of Bollywood.  And on and on it goes until we get to the final section about his S/S 14 collection where a “Portrait of a Sculptor” by Renaissance painter Bronzino hangs next to a Gerhard Richter piece. Why? Only Dries knows. In his head, that makes sense.

It’s an exhibition structure that works magnificently but it also emphasises the fact that not every designer has a reference library as rich as van Noten’s.  And not everyone can take these references and mine them into an own personally innate signature the way Dries does.  For fashion naysayers, here’s a chance to learn about why fashion matters or why it’s so rich in its outreach because it can touch so many different areas.  Every section is an immersive mind map and truly a joy to see, as the creative process unfolds before you. Inspiration is one of those things that can feel so arbitrary and sometimes far-removed when designers talk about it.  Here it unfurls gracefully and in turn inspires you to think deeper in whatever creative endeavour you’re embarking on.  And yet there’s still some mystery left. How all of these things congeal together to create the many brilliant collections that Dries has designed is still left unexplained. And that’s a good thing. It leaves something to the imagination.

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Tim Blanks’ wonderful video tour for Style.com of the exhibition should definitely sway those not in Paris to take a trip whilst the exhibition is on (until August 31st – go on, Brits – get yourself those cheapie Eurostar £59 return tickets).

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>> It seemed a bit of a dichotomy to find a New York design duo like Proenza Schouler, with their tech fabrics and glitchy references moshed up on a glowing cube, in a prim n’ proper department store like Le Bon Marché. That’s testament to the hyper ascent that Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez have enjoyed in their twelve-year long career, particularly in the latter years. Yet here they are feted in the central atrium of the iconic department store with a sort-of-, kind-of, mid-point retrospective of their work, with every one of those seasons. “We’re super honoured that as New York designers, we’ve been asked by this amazing Parisian department store to do an exhibition like this. It’s the first time we have seen all of our stuff together like this, ” said Hernandez. “We had to choose from an archive of twelve years and we both have our personal favourites,” said McCollough. “It’s weird looking back on things we did a few years ago – like a super short skirt with heels and thinking how it doesn’t look modern or ‘now’.”

What’s interesting with this display of eighty looks, ensconced in concrete blocks, is that although the silhouette has shifted over the years, from the more chi-chi cocktail dresses to sculptural shapes, the obsession with fabrication remains a constant. In particular, the last four years has seen McCollough and Hernandez go hard at trying to outdo themselves season after season, in technical advancement. Anything one of the bonding, fusing, burning, painting, felting, pleating and printing processes are pushed to the outer limits. It doesn’t bode well for wallet-friendly pieces (outside of their commercial sales lines) but that’s why the duo are always a highlight at New York Fashion Week – the bottom line isn’t as important as driving forward their own momentum and as a result, your takeaway from NYFW is often that they’ve set the agenda.

It was telling that a documentary film (brilliantly directed by the Harry’s), filming the run-up to the recent A/W 14 show and that aforementioned glowing cube, mish-mashing past Proenza Schouler references, textures and show imagery in an arbitrary sequence were embedded inside the exhibition, surrounded by the outfits on mannequins. Despite all waffle about the duo being designers, who grew up with the internet and the digital world, the clothes still do most of the talking. The extra digital dimension is the icing on top of a pretty impressive cake. We marvelled at the cube and was diverted by the film, but most of the women were rifling through the racks and shelves containing a capsule collection of t-shirts, sweaters, PS1’s and 11’s in exclusive colours, as well as exclusive pieces from the S/S 14 collection that were not included in the show. Then the crowd enjoyed a set by Ariel Pink – another dichotomous occurrence to see in amongst the bijoux beauty counters of Le Bon Marché. The exhibition is open until the 22nd of May should anyone in Paris like to see this American intervention.

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I’m in danger of becoming a bit of a hardened cynic if I get too immersed into the cogs of fashion week-ing. It’s something that I rectify by escaping every now and again into anonymous showrooms, into a park for a random jog and into McDonald’s where nobody cares whether you’ve got an invitation or not – you just need to fork over enough money for a coffee to have a seat. No, this isn’t a “Woe is me” plea. Just a stray thought as we reach the home stretches of fashion month as Paris beckons.

In Milan though, I got the opportunity to see a different side to fashion week, handed to me on a plate as I was asked to be a social media ambassador for the International Woolmark Prize global final. Emerging designers getting wads of money as well as international recognition from the inner sanctum of the industry? I’m down with that, hence why I like following the ins and outs of fashion prizes – ANDAM, Swiss Textiles and with the latest convo revolving around the much-talked about LVMH Prize. The International Woolmark Prize, promoting the use of Merino wool, comes with an illustrious history, as Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent came together as winners at the inaugural 1954 awards, in an auspicious sign of their later years as designer foes. Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan have also scooped up prizes subsequently.

The regional finalists of this year’s edition have already won AUD50,000 and the grand prize awarded at this year’s final is AUD100,000 plus the chance to be stocked in stores like 10 Corso Como, colette, Harvey Nichols, Joyce and Saks Fifth Avenue, so the stakes were high. The finalists were Sibling from Europe, Christopher Esber from Australia, ffiXXed from Asia, Rahul Mishra from India and the Middle East and Altuzarra from USA – admittedly, they’re all at different levels and in my view, it’s a little unfair to compare say, Joseph Altuzarra, a fully emerged designer with Kering backing and support of the press, with Mishra, an emerging designer from India. But the jury bucked convention and something of a fairytale unfolded at this year’s competition when the “wildcard” finalist Rahul Mishra emerged as the winner. That was a delight to see, not because the other finalists were not worthy winners (the jury had a tough decision to make) but because the prize went to a designer, and region, that would arguably benefit the most from the money and the exposure.

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Every finalist took something away from the experience of the competition. Especially when facing a daunting jury that included the likes of Tim Blanks, Alexa Chung (who looked pretty awesome in Valentino), Angelica Cheung of Vogue China, Sarah Andelman from colette, Franca Sozzani and Carla Sozzani. Watching the finalists present their brand and their collection during the judging sessions, was terrifying only because I wouldn’t want to imagine myself in their shoes.

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It’s definitely worth reflecting on the participants who missed out on the prize as they were all incredibly accomplished and without getting too specific, it was fairly close all round in the scoring by the judges.  Cozette McCreery, Joe Bates and Sid Bryan of Sibling, are always up for a laugh and after the winner was announced, they were fairly philosophical about it.    Their collection, mostly taken from their A/W14-5 collection much like their menswear, was about lavishing love on old-fashioned craft.  They married that up with modern life as seen in pieces like the stand out pixelated portrait of McCreery, by none other than Lucian Freud (“Irishwoman on a Bed” does indeed depict the wonderful Cozette).  Or in the trailing godet-insert dresses constructed out of a machine-knit tube and then ripped and laddered, and patched-up and mended with hand crochet.  Machine meets handiwork has been an ongoing exploration in Sibling’s work and here you could really see the labour of love.

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Christopher Esber from Australia was another familiar face.  He’s been the rising star of Australian Fashion Week, following in the trail of the likes of Dion Lee.  Esber does intriguing textiles work that often skews conceptual.   For his Woolmark collection, he experimented with contrasts – between the soft and the hard – sporty mesh with chunk rib knit, shaggy shearling with sleek tailoring and then an unexpected use of puff print lines and grids that are bonded with fabric to create an interesting relief of draping.  The trompe l’oeil effect was a surreal and engaging.

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Can I get a whoop whoop for ffiXXed, a design duo headed up by Kain Picken and Fiona Lau.  Originally from Australia, the couple found themselves setting up their business in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, shuttling back and forth between the two hubs.  Their unisex label often coincides with art and design projects but they never lose sight of wearability.  Their Woolmark collection latched on to the theme of “homebodies” – being couch potatoes really on the most tactile of rugs and carpets.  They warped and glitched rug prints to create their jacquard knits that draped liked blankets and were accessorized by mohair sandals and cushion clutches.  On my next visit to Hong Kong, ffiXXed are definitely on my hitlist for visting.

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Joseph Altuzarra needs no introductions.  He is the darling of New York fashion week but he is savvy enough to know that being flavor of the season does not a business make.  Every collection he puts out seems assured and confident of his woman – and she really is a “woman” – refined, confident and with plenty of disposable income to splash out on Altuzarra’s intimidatingly chic-to-the-next-lev clothes.  His Woolmark collection went a touch softer, looking to Grace Kelly’s wardrobe in Rear Window or Marilyn Monroe’s penchant for cashmere sweaters.  Using needle punching, these fuzzy textures were felted on streamlined structured tops, jackets and skirts in a subtle way.  It was undoubtedly finessed.  Many in the industry had him down as a shoo-in for the prize.

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Then came Rahul Mishra from India.  Rahul Mishra doesn’t even have a website (just a Facebook page).  He was the one name that I wasn’t familiar with – in fact I can barely count to five when listing out designers based in India, which is surely something that needs to be rectified.  Having studied at the Instituto Marangoni in Milan, he only recently began his label and has been working hard to promote Indian handlooms, empowering and employing Indian Craft Community through his sustainable design.  Mishra had a fine story to tell and a mission statement to share.  It piqued the judges’ curiosity as everyone collectively felt like they were discovering something new.  He genuinely investigated new techniques to enable him to use wool to embroider garments – spinning his own yarn, thining it out and then mixing different colours together to create an ombre effect on wool jersey and wool silk mix fabrics.  None of it felt like wool because of the intricacy.  The motifs on the dresses – the lotus morphing into complex structures and cityscapes came from the very idea that wool is completely natural, and like a lotus remains unpolluted, and goes on to reach fashion capitals on its journey.  Mishra takes his job as a responsible fashion designer incredibly seriously and that shows in his work.  “I always think of the three Es when I start to create a collection: environment, employment and empowerment, and if you can think about all these things then your product will be perfect.”  How can you resist a statement like that?  His ideal for sustainable luxury is something that spoke to everyone in that judging room as we are in the process of shifting values in the luxury sector.  Mishra talked about fashion being all about product in the last century and that this century, it needs to be about participation.  And so he engages with villages all over India (“through the power of 3G” he says) to pass work to them at an above average wage.  “I work with people who may not have great privilege but who have a great skill and so it also savours crafts and skills which could otherwise be lost.”

It’s a backstory that isn’t superfluous.  It matters and that story showed in the clothes.  Regardless on their own, the collection was made up of beautiful pieces in their own right.  That’s what really got the judges oohing and aahing.  And that’s why Mishra was the unanimous outright winner.  Now these pieces will go into those aforementioned stores in August this year and Indian fashion can claim a pretty historical landmark.  Mishra’s win chimes in with the increasingly globalised state of fashion.  He sobbed a fair bit when it was announced he had won the prize at the finale show.  It brought tears to my eyes too – and for the right reasons.

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Dear blog, I miss you.  I miss the hours of photo editing and moments where I actually get to physically ponder what I’m going to write in WordPress (I lift my head up towards the ceiling, tap my chin a few times and bite my lips several times – that always seems to prompt the next sentence).  If you’re wondering where I’ve gone, it’s all here, here, here and a bit to do with this (there’s a cryptic sentence).

Longtime blog readers will know that it takes a little longer to process “the fashions” that are going on.  Especially whilst I’m in Milan, when the same names dominate headlines and there’s a dirge of copy repetition when it comes to news stories online.  So I turn to TheCorner.com and its partnership with Vogue Italia to find young talents and present them both within the publication and online on the e-commerce site.  It’s always an interesting selection that has increasingly not gone for the obvious “young” names but instead casts the net further afield.

It chimed in with the shock fairy tale story that Rahul Mishra, a fairly unknown designer from India, beat out big names like Joseph Altuzarra and Sibling to scoop the International Woolmark Prize in Milan over the weekend.  Could the LVMH prize, whose thirty finalists have recently been announced, also throw out a surprise or two, with a range of designers from the established like Simone Rocha and Meadham Kirchhoff to young graduates like Miuniku from India and Minju Kim from Korea.

I like the global aspect of fashion being reflected in the fashion capitals, and especially in Milan, where the hegemony of Italian fashion is so strong.  At the very least, you find yourself a few surprises.  The fact that seven out of ten names were completely unknown to me means I got to do some homework.  Learning.  Curiosity.  These are the things that keep interest levels up.

Unknown number one Achtland’s stitched appliqued leather motif caught my eye as soon as I entered the space.  The duo from Berlin, Oliver Luhr and Thomas Bentz founded their label on 2011 and named it after the mythical Queen Achtland.     It’s been a while since a Germany young fashion talent has been bandied about and so their work was a pleasant surprise to see, despite the shades of Dries van Noten in their current S/S 14 collection that’s available to buy.  Bevza reps up Ukraine with an unsurprisingly stark and minimal aesthetic – all clean lines and interesting plays on opacity.  I know I keep saying Kiev is on my destination hit list but now armed with a list of names, I definitely feel a lot more confident about getting the lay of the land when I do make it there  Another unknown quantity is Wadha Al Hajri’s label from Qatar, which began in 2010, inspired by the simplicity of Islamic and Bedouin prints.  Her work feels nuanced and in person, are beautiful pieces.  Designed by Phyllis Taylor, Sika from London makes dresses out of Ghanian printed fabrics.  It read a little too much like straightforward Africana to me but there’s definitely something charming about her work.

Achtland:

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Sika:

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Tome is probably the “biggest” name out of the lot and after a successful show in New York, where Ryan Lobo and  deft hand at fabric combinations and understanding of wardrobe essentials could really be seen, their inclusion in the line-up makes thorough sense.   In fact their standout piece from the S/S 14 collection, the plasticky purple trench has already sold out online.  I love that their pieces catch your eye without shouting too much.  It’s down to their fabric choices and ability to create a subtle bit of drama.

tomeBackstage photographs by Sonny Vandevelde

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Jewellery wise, there’s Valentina Sciumé from Milan, who only started her label of hats and jewellery last year.  Architectural and eye-catching shapes seem to be her  thing and I rather liked the solid ear cuff that she had created for her new collection.  Ryan Storer is one of the few names I’m familiar with only because of his Swarovski ear cuffs, which definitely make my chubby ear lobes look a whole lot better.  He’s still churning out that signature style but his new collection features a sweeping curve of silver and rose-gold anchored by a singular pearl.  Once again, Storer finds a striking way to adorn an ear.  Representing sunglasses, there’s British brand Finlay & Co and their wooden sunnies, beautifully crafted out of hardwoods like rosewood, walnut and ebony.  Their new collection features layers of maplewood, contrasted with coloured staining on the inside of the frames.

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On the shoe front, you have contrasts between the practical and the decorative and with something in-between.  Milan-based Farewell Footwear, who have only been going for two seasons were inspired by the Spanish espadrille but wanted to do it in their way.  For A/W 14-5, the rope sole becomes rubberised.  Their shoes are for everyday daily life and speak to a specific lifestyle.  The flatform lover in me was happy.  On the other end of the scale, you had the Sydney-based, Italian-in-origin Giannico designed by Nicolo Beretta, who plays with surreal elements like giant balls on shoes and has a penchant for Helmut Newton-esque imagery.

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Finally, Lily Kamper is another familiar name, because I remember her work from way back when she was still at the Royal College of Art creating mixed media cityscapes.  That sense of architecture and odd combinations of materials have carried through to her present jewellery line.  The work has definitely been refined with dip-dyed perspex and kitchen surfaces used to create standalone pendants or larger collage pieces on neckpieces.  Guess my prediction about her work transitioning from admirable object to functional design kind of came true!

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