Economy of Dries
August 21, 2019 / Spark Magazine
A runway of vibrant grass extends from thick shadow, spring swelling out of winter. In the all-enveloping darkness, not even the surrounding observers are visible. Suddenly, a model lurches onto the artificial lawn, clad in a mixture of dizzying prints and textures: stripes paired with florals, a flowy blouse planted atop equally baggy pants, a fur purse matched with a tweed jacket. The juxtaposition between each garment mirrors the contrasting runway itself. Dries Van Noten, the designer responsible, relishes these contradictions.
The eponymously named 2017 documentary Dries explores the Belgian designer’s self-titled fashion brand. While observing Dries’ creative process, the viewers gain an insight into his rarity. Evidenced through his otherworldly designs, Dries uses tackiness to his advantage. His style emerges by mixing flashy prints and clashing tastes. Many experts may hastily deem these contrasting blends to be in opposition to long-standing rules of fashion. But the documentary explores how a dissonance can traverse from being ugly to being revolutionary, especially when put in context with the current trends surrounding the designs.
Like any other industry, fashion is a business driven by profits. Its capitalistic motivation directly opposes the creativity that makes fashion an art form. In this sense, constantly changing trends is the oxygen to the flame that is the business of fashion. Through Dries’ quiet genius, he uses this tension between the art of fashion and the business of fashion as momentum.
“A lot of inspiration is coming from something you don’t like,” Dries says in the documentary. “Things that you think are really ugly, things that are completely wrong, things that hurt your eye.”
As the film unfolds, the viewer discovers Dries to be a rebel, despite the fact he draws little attention to himself. He often wears dress shirts rolled up to his forearms, a black-strapped wrist- watch is his only accessory. Dries’ hair is a gentle swirl of black and gray, parted simply to one side. He is soft-spoken. Dries himself is a drastic departure from the designs he creates.
But through his fascinating designs, the audience finds an insurgent fighting against the ever-shortening life cycle of trends and the ravenous nature of the fashion industry.
In one scene, the viewer finds Dries discussing the 1990s. He contends the last decade of the 20th century exalted minimalism and monochromatic color schemes, while the film simultaneously shows a parade of browns and grays demonstrative of the decade. Then, like the black and white scrim raising from the Wizard of Oz, the documentary presents a line Dries created in the ‘90s bursting with inspiration from India. Bright pinks, blues and yellows splashed with intricately embroidered sequins practically drip down the runway.
Dries borrows at just the right time. The contrast between the rampant skin-colored drudgery indicative of the ‘90s and the lush hues stemming from India helped shift the conversation from minimalism to lavishness. It escorted an otherwise stagnant industry to an opulent 21st century.
“Fashion is such an empty word,” Dries says during the movie. “The word fashion I don’t like because fashion means something that’s over in six months, that’s what people consider under fashion. I would like to find a word more timeless.”
Dries mollifies a fatigue that stems from steadily shifting trends fundamental to the business of fashion. Currently, Dries’ fresh designs are a welcome escape from the proliferation of revivals and remakes native to the this era of nostalgia. In the same way monochromatism dominated the ‘90s, many trends today borrow directly from past decades. In an article for The New York Times, fashion critic Vanessa Friedman comments on the increase of major brands such as Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Gucci and Versace who relied on looks from the 1980s during the Spring 2018 New York Fashion Week.
“Yet every season a few major... trends appear and demand a reckoning. This time ‘round it was the 1980s, a decade that has been making a comeback of sorts around the aesthetic edges for the last few years,” Vanessa Friedman writes.
The fashion industry isn’t the only creative enterprise leaning on a distinct sense of nostalgia that is so inherent to the late 2010s. Nearly half of all television revivals have aired within the past five years, and there are at least 121 movie remakes and reboots currently in the works. Whether it be a perpetually backward-facing Hollywood or a fashion industry focused on the trends of yesteryear, the mid-to-late 20th century can be characterized as overly concerned with a distinct sense of nostalgia, that which may soon be synonymous with nausea.
Yet, the frustration over hegemonic trends is what ultimately informs Dries’ designs. The documentary drops the viewer into Dries’ creative process as he works on his latest collection. If much of today’s fashion can be explained through a nostalgic lens, Dries’ collection featured in the movie is a tongue-in-cheek gag of such trends. Prints of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic smiles wrap around oversized, mafia-style suits. An Elvis-esque sequined embroidery flashes across the back of floral-patterned button downs. Dries’ sense of time transcends flash-in-the-pan trends, incorporating elements from across fashion history’s entirety. It belittles the capitalistic business of fashion by uniting previously dichotomized eras.
Creativity is the driving force behind the fashion industry. However, the film highlights the continually changing landscape this creativity functions in, primarily dominated by profits. Dries revels in the corporate-like functioning of fashion, underscoring the tension between art and business, creativity and capitalism, originality and imitation. It’s a wonder anyone can stay successful in such a business model, but Dries’ longevity suggests it’s possible. Fashion icon and New York mainstay Iris Apfel recognizes the Belgian designer’s importance. “...[Dries] is a treasure and he has to be treated as such,” Apfel says during the film. “People like Dries keep the flame alive.” •
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