"I feel a bit like a spoiled child with all these beautiful things around me," says Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, giving a tour of the spectacular new exhibition chronicling his nearly 30-year career, which opens Saturday at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
He's referring to the wealth of artworks from the Renaissance to the present day on view as part of "Dries Van Noten: Inspirations." The show is a tour of his creative mind, placing his runway collections in context of his many cultural reference points.
In the galleries, works by Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth Peyton and more are shown alongside vintage fashions ranging from Christian Dior's famous 1947 New Look, to a funky 1967 jacket that belonged to Jimi Hendrix. (In the run up to the exhibition, Van Noten found the flowery jacket that inspired one of his men's wear collections for sale on EBay, and was able to score it with the help of a generous donor.)
The romance of dance partners Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire seen in a clip from the 1935 film "Top Hat" was the starting point for the swaying ostrich feather dresses in the fall 2013 collection, and lightscapes by British photographer James Reeves inspired city lights prints in the spring 2012 collection.
Other sources of inspiration include historical textiles from China, India and Mexico, and even a selection of jewelry loaned by New York-based style icon Iris Apfel, which inspired the outsized bangle-bracelet necklaces in Van Noten's spring 2008 collection.
A wall of video screens displays close-up the handicraft that goes into achieving the designer's singular brand of exoticism. (He employs nearly 3,000 workers around Calcutta who do embroidery and beading for his collections.)
And Japanese floral artist and photographer Makoto Azuma's eye-popping backdrop of blooms on the upstairs gallery wall highlights Van Noten's infatuation with painterly florals, which appear in many of his collections.
There is also a section exploring the theme of camouflage, which juxtaposes a wonderful leafy-print work jacket from 1920 that belonged to designer Paul Poiret, with Van Noten's verdant fern-print dresses from 2012.
Van Noten is particularly proud of the last gallery where a Renaissance portrait by Bronzino (never before loaned out from the Louvre) is shown next to an abstract 1986 painting by Gerard Richter. "I wanted these two next to each other," he says. "I think the Richter almost looks like it could be the back of the Bronzino painting."
Indeed, that is part of Van Noten's genius -- being able to appreciate all the angles. Consider this: For the spring 2014 collection in stores now, he commissioned a tulip fabric based on an 1889 embroidered satin textile from the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. When it was completed, he liked the reverse of the fabric as much as the front, and decided to use it, hanging threads and all, on a sleeveless coat.
It was beauty from the inside out, and one of the collection's most memorable pieces. And thanks to this exhibition, we can see all the effort that went into creating it.
The first retailer to bring Dries Van Noten to the United States in 1986, Barneys New York, is a sponsor of the exhibition and will sell the lavish catalog in its stores.
"Dries Van Noten: Inspirations," through Aug. 31 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.