Nostalgia, Ultra: How Dries Van Noten & Jacquemus See the Past as Now
The present is a tricky space to navigate. It lies between a past that has already been shaped into what it will be and a future full of (or fraught with) potential. Living in the moment of now leads to an uncertainty that is all too familiar when discussing fashion: questions are raised daily about the state of retail, the state of creativity, the state of the fashion industry as a whole. As we collectively seek out change in the right direction, it is interesting that, up to this point, many designers have chosen to look to the past for answers. In a review of Dries Van Noten’s Fall/Winter ‘17 show for the Washington Post, journalist Robin Givhan makes note of the way in which fashion has traditionally interacted with history: “The past, while a source of inspiration, is not something to celebrate. It must be reinvented, subverted or, occasionally, memorialized.’”
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When it comes to making the past relevant in fashion, it is best to handle it delicately, with a mix of appreciation, wistfulness, and an understanding of nostalgia’s limitations. There are moments when the past deserves to be praised, but the responsibility of doing so is weighted. Delivering the original inspiration as-is runs the risk of feeling stale and repetitive, whereas reinterpretation allows for a dialogue between what was and what is to come. Plainly stated, properly honoring the past requires us to answer the question: Why? There were two distinct runway presentations this past year that answered that question well and they were created by two seemingly different designers: masterful veteran Dries Van Noten and fashion wunderkind Simon Porte Jacquemus.
There are over two decades separating the start of their careers: Van Noten began in 1986 and Jacquemus in 2009. The former studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, his first runway collection being an iconic group show in London with fellow contemporaries Ann Demeulemeester and Walter Van Beirendonck; the latter is a self-taught artist whose unofficial education began during his time as a sales associate at the Paris Comme des Garcons store, which happened to be two years after founding his own label. At first glance, the two designers seem to be disparate images, but digging deeper reveals a common thread of honesty and understanding. Their strong grasps and dedicated handlings of their individual histories led to the creation of two standout shows in 2017.
Van Noten’s Fall/Winter ‘17 show and Jacquemus’ Spring/Summer ‘18 show serve as successful examples of utilizing nostalgia in a fashion context. They are two very different bodies of work that offer each designer’s take on this central theme. Defined as a wistful affection for the past, nostalgia effectively lays the groundwork for these two collections. Chaotic times have historically served as a gateway to sumptuous indulgences, particularly in fashion and beauty: consider the New Look or the undeniable influence of the skincare and beauty industries on our current culture. Some designers have responded by creating politically charged pieces within their collections that speak to the chaos, whether directly or indirectly.
Van Noten and Jacquemus take a more subtle approach by developing strong collections each season that seem to exist in contrast of industry news and trends. Their work stands beautifully as full collections, but is brilliant when considering that each individual piece is meant to be worn and loved (as two designers that both head independently-owned labels, neither one is shy about the fact that they create to sell.) They create fashion for fashion’s sake that has a sense of continuity: their respective pasts flirt with our present thoughts of a collective future.
The starting point for Van Noten’s Fall/Winter ’17 collection was a personal achievement: the occasion marked the anniversary of his 100th runway show. While such an occasion may warrant an elaborate display of celebration, Van Noten took it back to the basics. In a 2017 interview with Vogue’s Laird Borrelli-Perrson, Van Noten provided valuable insight on how the show came together: “We’re going to make a good collection—which was based on a lot of things, a lot of fabrics which I created in the past to which we gave new life…the whole show budget went into bringing back all those incredible women who had presented my collections in previous fashion shows.”
Minimal set design allowed for the true star to shine: the clothes. Straightforward blazers crafted in iridescent shades were paired with simple blue jeans and brogues; the prints on his coveted sheath dresses were mixed to perfection. Quilted details and geometric lucite heels provided fresh takes on traditional bomber jackets and pumps. In addition to a phenomenal presentation that served as a list of greatest hits, the Dries Van Noten website was transformed into a silent archive of each of his men’s and women’s shows from 1993 to the present. A visual representation of the prints and colors that defined his career and served as the basis for this collection, without the added layer of sound, made the apparent remixing of prints that much more tantalizing. The archive also served to highlight the aforementioned women who were integral to this centennial: supermodel icons that have been walking in his shows since the mid-90s. Women like Yasmin Warsame, Alek Wek, Kirsten Owens and Trish Goff made Van Noten’s work for Fall/Winter ‘17 come to life and gave a full circle perspective to the collection.
Similarly, Jacquemus created a collection with a special woman in mind: his late mother. The name of his eponymous brand is a reference to his mother’s maiden name and he intends to honor her with each collection, but this particular show was his most literal. Inspired by a picture of his mother in ceramic earrings walking through the port in the summertime, Jacquemus took cues from her easy, sophisticated, southern French style and relayed it into an impressive 48-look collection. Where Dries played with pattern and rich color to convey his message, Jacquemus’ offerings emphasized sensuality—deep V-necks, sarong skirts, barely-there hemlines and sheer fabrics draped across the bodies of models with glowing skin and carelessly-chic hair. There was an excited ease about the collection as it transported viewers to scenes from Jacquemus’ childhood: a sun-drenched beach or breezy market setting. As each model sauntered through the show’s stellar location at the Musée Picasso, it was apparent how the enduring image of our memories leaves an incredible impact.
Taken together, these collections encouraged reflection—on the journey that brought us to where we are now, on what or who laid the foundation for our individual narratives to unfold, and the pieces we want to place on our bodies. Created from their personal experiences, Van Noten and Jacquemus craft clothing that resonate on an emotional and practical level with their devoted customers. The past few fashion seasons have seen nostalgia being used to create novelty: items that feel fresh in the moment because their sentimental value takes us back to an enjoyable time that was more easily understood than our present. Novelty, however, wears off once the memories fade and we are forced to continue facing our current reality.
For these two collections by Van Noten and Jacquemus, reality was the starting point and it was situated around their individual narratives. While many brands targeting a more mature clientele continue to show their clothes on women in their 20s, Van Noten sent supermodels in their 40s down the runway in a show that celebrated his personal achievements and highlighted the expedition we all take from the beginning of something to the now. Jacquemus’ commemoration of his late mother and her personal style also makes the point for how one person’s experience (in this case, the loss of his mother) can be shared by the collective. It is interesting to see how these two designers tackle the same theme from different places: Van Noten is from an era where the clothes speak for themselves while Jacquemus embodies his generation’s ability to harness the sameness of our feelings. In a period of uncertainty, the two designers of successful independent brands—one an icon and the other quickly becoming a household name—remind us that authenticity will forever reign supreme.