There's always a sense of otherness in Dries Van Noten's work. It's rarely about another time, as Van Noten's clothes are rooted in the here-and-now (or, in the case of fashion's stilted life-cycle, the here-and-about-to-be), but it's often about transporting us away. For Autumn/Winter 2012 there was actually a little of both, that transportation taking us east, to Qing dynasty China to be precise.
Precise is maybe the wrong term, for these garments were miles away from flat facsimiles of Imperial China. Van Noten synthesised the different elements, combining print and embroidery, lavish fur and intricate texture, but avoided costume. The shapes throughout were simple - in the clean, uncomplicated to wear sense rather than lacking work, for these were supremely elegant clothes whose simplicity belied extreme effort. Van Noten folded print across pleated skirts and chopstick-slender suit jackets, sometimes abstracting them by placing a flat plane of elaborate oriental pattern at an angle to cut through the precise tailoring, other times engineering the print flawlessly to the body. One jacket had sleeves scrolled with Japanese-style woodcuts like painstaking tattoos, the closer turned to reveal a back banded in black, white a jade green like an ancient samurai warrior.
Van Noten's vision of Asia was somewhat distorted: in his mind, China and Japan blurred into one, figures from Japanese art jostling against robe embroideries in brilliant red, orange and Imperial Yellow, or the gold bullion crane embroideries that wound their way across otherwise utilitarian flak jackets. Maybe these were a nod to China's Mao past - if so, they were a bit glib, but as modern sports-luxe they looked fantastic.
It wasn't the actuality of the Far East Van Noten was seeking to capture, its high culture, ancient traditions and formalities, but more the essence of rich texture and vivid colour. Call it Chinese Whispers, if you must - and as with any game, the whispers became distorted as they passed down the line, until we ended up with Dries' translation of all that Chinese pomp and circumstance. That is, colourful, exuberant and eminently wearable clothes that women everywhere will hanker after.