Dries Van Noten and Christian Lacroix

Kudos to all you Dries-loving retailers out there: You know how to keep a secret (at least when there’s an NDA involved).

Every retailer that carries the Dries Van Noten collection made its spring buy before the show. They got the full story of the designer’s stealthy Christian Lacroix subterfuge in the showroom and, like the faithful partners they are, left it there.

As for journalists, Van Noten offered no such insider intel. He even decided against the traditional post-show meet-and-greet, instead inviting us to his Paris headquarters on Thursday to chat with him and Lacroix. The two men held court like old friends, conversing easily, even though at the start of the project, they’d barely known each other.

First point of conversation: the why and the how. “I never understood how you got my e-mail,” Lacroix queried. “Through a person. If you want to get something, you get it,” came Van Noten’s deadpan reply.

Such spirited repartee reflected the joyfulness of the collection — a joy Van Noten determined to capture well before he pressed “send” on his e-mail to Lacroix. “Fashion for me has to be a reflection of what’s happening in the world,” he said. “The world for the moment is not a very beautiful place. I didn’t want to make a grim, sad collection so we started to talk about escapism. Escapism can be like an ostrich putting your head in the soil. It can be also be an entity to make you stronger.”

He started looking at various references, “new romantic, post-punk, historical costumes, Adam Ant with the white mask, all those things. So you look to the Eighties, Nineties couture. Bad things were happening to the world, and Christian was there with meters of ruffles and toreadors. So we said maybe that would be a good thing.” So good that in preparing his mood boards, he saw a preponderance of Lacroix and the idea took hold: Contact the guy.

Lacroix was deeply touched by Van Noten’s interest. “Without knowing each other personally, I know his work very well and I was very curious,” he said. “I already admired his freedom.”

Yet flattered and intrigued though he was, Lacroix didn’t say yes immediately. Now it was his turn to reach out — to his astrologist. “She said, ‘Oh it’s wonderful conjunctions for you. It’s something limitless, also, enlightening!’” he recounted, relishing the memory. Given that astral seal of approval, Lacroix accepted Van Noten’s offer, though he said he would likely have accepted, “I think even without the planets.”

We’ll never know. We do know that magic was made. But first, the designers had to get together. They met at the Champs-Élysées offices of Puig, which purchased Van Noten’s business last year, shortly after one of the “gilets jaunes” protests. All of the windows had been smashed.

“It was really kind of a war zone when we had to talk about ruffles and beauty and colors and fabrics,” Van Noten said. Yet it didn’t feel at all inappropriate to him, rather, the contrary. “It was a context. I didn’t feel ridiculous, like, ‘Oh look at us sitting here now, just after all those horrible things happened and we talk now about beauty.’ No. For me it made perfect sense. It convinced me even more [of the importance], the joy of creating, to have fun and enjoy beauty, fashion, all those things, even to enjoy luxury. Because for the moment, everything has to have a reason, everything has to be political. We’ve lost a little bit the joy.”

The meeting proved divine and the project, a go. “I was sure we’d have some territories in common and an alchemy, a chemistry together,” noted Lacroix.

Certainly Lacroix and Van Noten love color and ornamentation, even if they’ve have steered that shared affinity down very different paths: Lacroix, one of exuberant, historically informed fantasy, and Van Noten, of sophisticated reality. Given the designers’ mutual respect and enthusiasm, the two roads were destined to converge at a place of creative wonder. But what if they just didn’t get along? Did they consider the possibility of short-term workplace disaster?

Short answer, no, although Lacroix admits to some trepidation. “Sometimes I had in mind, I didn’t want to be responsible or the cause of a catastrophe in his career, I swear,” he said. “I felt very, very [honored]. I said, it’s very kind; It’s a good idea, but am I able [to contribute]? But yes, there was such a sense of the balance… And we avoided the catastrophe.” As for being the studio newcomer (Lacroix worked both in Antwerp and digitally), he said the design team welcomed him with open arms and minds.

Van Noten maintained never to have doubted his own brilliant idea, as Lacroix pushed him and his team out of their communal comfort zone. Though young, some on his design staff came from larger, more regimented fashion houses. “Even with all the freedom I have, we became kind of conditioned,” Van Noten said, noting that they sometimes start the design process by running down a check list: “relevance, price, commerciality, product, all those things which have become so important.” In Lacroix’s presence, all of that went out the window. “We forgot all the words,” Van Noten offered. “‘Is it relevant? Is it modern? Is it cool?’  All those things didn’t matter anymore.”

What did matter was starting from a base of white tank top and jeans (often the jeans didn’t make the runway cut) and asking monumental creative questions: “’Should we do polka dots?’ ‘Yes, let’s do polka dots.’ ‘Shall we do polka dot ruffles?’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Fifty meters of ruffles in a skirt?’ Normally we’d say you can’t do this, it’s not cool, it’s not modern, it’s not for this time…Here, we started to put layers on…Having the creative freedom, thanks to him. Maybe it’s a different beauty but why not?”

Together the two designers created a breathtaking show, a tour de force of which its creators should be proud and which, for anyone who loves fashion, is one to revel in. But in working with Lacroix, Van Noten found himself grappling with questions of significance for the larger industry. First, he didn’t want to call their work together a collaboration because of the hyper-commercial connotation that word now carries, “about pushing merch,” he said.

Second, he started questioning the concept of sharply defined brand identity as one of fashion’s holiest grails. I think it’s a thing,” he said. “You have to behave towards expectations from buyers and press. But sometimes a creative person wants to step outside his territory. After more that 30 years creating fashion, I need the creative stimulants to be able to go wherever I want to go.”

Lacroix provided the elixir. Said Van Noten, “It was liberating when Christian was around.”

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