The first clue to the essence of a collection is often the invitation to the show, especially in the case of a thoughtful, detail-obsessed designer like Dries Van Noten. Today's was a stiff card, one side matte white with time and place embossed tone-on-tone, the other side a deep, glossy anonymous black. A blank slate, in other words. Or an inducement to contemplative serenity.
Run with that particular ball and you end up in a show with models gliding at a stately pace through a gilded salon in the Hôtel de Ville (which has to be the most beautiful town hall in the world). And this was all set to a hypnotically attenuated mix of Bon Iver's "Woods." Dries has a habit of pulling off such special effects, where an enormous amount of research yields a result that appears gracefully effortless. Here, for example, the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London had been plumbed for Japanese, Chinese, and Korean iconography. Kimonos and dragon robes were laid flat, photographed, and digitally printed onto silk, crepe, and matelassé in chopped ways that abstracted the intrinsically costumey and turned it into something accessible. That was especially the case when the prints were cut into coats, jackets, and pants that borrowed the linear precision of menswear. A white pantsuit infected by a flurry of kimono silk color was one of the strongest looks in the show.
In its glory days, Antwerp was a crossroads of the world, a place where the exotica of far-off lands collided with the European familiar, and, like the good old hometown boy that he is, Dries has always had a knack for capturing that collision. Today, for instance, he weighed the fragility of kimono silks with the roughness of military khaki or the sturdiness of gray flannel. The master touch was a filigree of gold embroidery: Storks took flight across a belted military blazer; a phoenix coiled down the sleeve of another jacket. There were golden dragons elsewhere. These were clothes to spark dreams. But a man-tailored topcoat in burnt-orange alpaca wasn't far behind. Maybe not contemplative, but definitely serene.