"It was hell," said Dries Van Noten of the birth process for his new collection. So many threads of narrative, so many fabrics and complex treatments, so much more of everything than usual. But it's kind of been that way since Van Noten started working on the retrospective that opens at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris at the beginning of March. He's been digging deeper and deeper into the museum's archives, finding inspiration in the clothing of distant centuries and drawing parallels with his own history, confronting it. And today's show seemed to bring something to a head. The designer's normal impulse to move on had become a need to move on, to find a different way to do things. For starters, no print, no embroidery. Those Van Noten signatures of long-standing were replaced by color—tie-dyed, dip-dyed blues, pinks, yellows, and greens—and a different kind of elaborate embellishment: trailing laces and bondage straps, dyed fox scarves, pearls trimming high, frilled collars…some of the details you'd see in ancient portraits. "Rave and Renaissance" blared the show notes. Van Noten, always happy to create a new hybrid, was blending history and his story.

So he wanted the clothes to feel old. Coats were completely dyed and then acid-washed; striped businessmen's shirts were tie-dyed; a jean jacket was overdyed to an oily sheen; jeans were stripped with acid. And a worn khaki coat could have been vintage military. There was a feel of the itinerant tribes the U.K. calls "travellers" in these seemingly repurposed pieces.

But that was only half the story. The rest was all about the romance, the luxe, the poetry of a Renaissance painting. Bronzino was the reference. Here, there were poet's shirts in floating voile, lacing at the throat; quilted shirts in Palio silks; rich printed velvets; the sweep of a royal blue coat swathed in fox.

And then the audacious coup de grâce, when Van Noten mashed the two together, layer upon layer. The result was ominous and complex, not immediately accessible but well in keeping with the direction he has been moving in lately: riskier, more about pleasing himself—nothing ventured, nothing gained. And the gears meshed in the finale when the models, grimly intense, marched out in separate color-coordinated groups, the blue, the pink, the yellow, and the green. In the sepulchral cavern of the Grand Palais' ground floor, they looked like gangs ready to rumble, West Side Story updated…or returned to the story's original roots in Renaissance Verona.