Reassuring. That's the word that always leaps to mind at a Dris Van Noten show. For many designers that would be a pejorative term - isn't fashion about the shock of the new sweeping away the old? Maybe, but fashion is more about making people look beautiful. And that's what Dries Van Noten does very well indeed.
Reassuring too is Van Noten's grasp on each season. Somehow, he inevitably alights on one (or more) of the season's key emergent themes, rewrites them with his own distinct hand, and then offers a dozen permutations, masterfully done. That's reassuring to buyers - so reassuring they normally place their orders well in advance of Van Noten's show. For spring 2012, there was a whole slew of them - sports couture, clashing print, peplums, mid-century chic - each and every one a winner, perfectly pitched for their fans (you see exactly why those pre-orders are so very healthy).
The prints were the most immediately evident - they are Van Noten's strength and signature, and have been for years. This time there was an element of tromp l'oeil to them, meshing together foliate and pastoral scenes like a mash-up of eighteenth century panoramic wallpapers. The juxtapositions were arresting, monochrome jarring against colour - when a lush jungle scene sliced at the yoke into a black-and-white wooded copse, for example, the effect was not unlike Judy Garland leaping from sepia-toned Kansas into Technicolor Oz, and just as entrancing. The nightscapes of photographer James Reeve (whose work decorated the frankly mesmeric window-styled invite for Van Noten's show) also appeared, darker than these pastoral scenes: rather than escaping the city, Van Noten brought us from the pastoral back to the urban., and the urbane. These were clothes for women who live and work in the city, not for woodland nymphs. In short, for real women.
Realism is another element of Van Noten's fashion that is reassuring. Those almost-overpowering prints, for example, were cut into slick, neat shapes that never allowed them to get out of control. And the sports couture theme we have seen on every other catwalk was arguably articulated here best - thick embroidery across simple cotton separates, elaborate frills on otherwise straightforward pencil-skirts, and an ode to Cristobal Balenciaga in a flamenco ruffled evening-skirt under a sack-backed jacket. The sporty realism? Van Noten cut the jacket as a perfect Perfecto in crisp white pique, and slung the whole lot over a cotton t-shirt. Reassuringly real.