One of grunge's most indelible images is Kurt Cobain in a floral dress thrashing paroxysmally at his guitar. On the surface, it's incongruous that such a vision should insinuate itself into the exquisite collection Dries Van Noten showed today, but Cobain's specter actually served as a useful reminder that Van Noten has become a designer from whom you can expect the unexpected association. He is a past master of nothing ever being quite what it seems, and his new collection easily ranked right up there with his other master-pieces. It was definitely Van Noten's most seductive investigation of the masculine/feminine dynamic that is at the heart of his aesthetic. Here, that dynamic was completely integrated with his other design concerns: his facility with prints and his fascination with the cloth and cut of haute couture.
There was a clear through-line to the men's collection Van Noten showed in June, where quintessentially male camo was reconfigured in quintessentially female lace and shantung. Here, he took plaid, another pattern whose association is mostly masculine, and reworked it in taffeta, organza, mousseline, and lamé. The first outfit laid out the game plan: plaid work shirt (organza), man's singlet (crepe), organza-backed skirt liberally crusted with flowers, and checker-print stilettos (though Van Noten nixed any literal inspirations, he did acknowledge that the shoes were a little bit Courtney Love). Paul Hanlon supplied an artful center-part with a couple of inches of grungy regrowth; Peter Philips created an opposite look with the perfectly made-up lips of a lady who lunches (the subtle but significant contributions of these collaborators are sadly all too easy to overlook in the ten or so pell-mell minutes of a fashion show). There you had it: grunge couture.
It was simplest, coolest in an oversize gray sweater (cashmere), layered with a plaid shirt (organza, again) hanging loose over floral-print pants (mousseline) over shorts (couldn't see). It was more complex when couture-friendly silhouettes, like emphasized hips on jackets, sack backs, peplums, or smock sleeves, were stirred into the mix with clashing plaids or faded florals, the latter absorbed from the dresses of the women in the Lucian Freud retrospective that Van Noten had seen and loved in London. One floral slipdress turned to reveal a plaid back, which felt like a straightforward distillation of the boy/girl thing. And those flowers were important too, because they were all screen-printed. Dries turned his back on the digital world, for this season at least, in favor of the pure craft of the human hand.
Underpinning the whole thing was a soundtrack that transmogrified girl songs (Amy's "Back to Black," Kylie's "Can't Get You Out of My Head," Karen's "Superstar") into guitar-driven male groan, underscoring the idea that if nothing is what it seems, it's equally true that nothing need be what it seems. Increasingly confident in his idiosyncrasies, Dries is going further Out There with the passage of time.