c.2014 New York Times News Service

c.2014 New York Times News Service

PARIS — The most surprising thing about the new Dries Van Noten exhibition, which runs through Aug. 31 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs here, is twofold: how much Dries Van Noten there is in it, and how much Dries Van Noten there isn’t in it.

Van Noten, 55, has been designing his namesake label since 1986. He has 28 years of collections to draw upon, even more if you count those that preceded the official creation of his line. (Since the show includes a few pieces from his 1981 graduate collection at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, there is good reason to.) And Van Noten is a careful archivist of his work; he estimates that the pieces he sent from his Antwerp, Belgium, headquarters to this show represent only 20 percent of what he has. So the amount available to be drawn upon is staggering.

“First of all, packing the clothes was already quite something,” he said. “Quite often there were people on my creative team who were nearly not born when the clothes were made. To see a guy standing there with a full beard saying, ‘Oh, you know, Dries, I was not born when you made this. ...’”

But what is as notable about the show is how much of it is not by Dries Van Noten. There are garments by fellow designers who have influenced him, including Schiaparelli and Dior, Kansai Yamamoto and Thierry Mugler. There are paintings, sculptures and artworks by Damien Hirst, Michaël Borremans, Yves Klein and Bronzino. The show is not a fashion exhibition, less still a retrospective, and more, in the words of its curator, Pamela Golbin, an exhibition about creativity. Its title is meant to be taken literally: “Dries Van Noten — Inspirations.”

Arranged by loose themes, the show charts the vertiginous twistings of Van Noten’s imagination and the way he absorbs and digests source material that spans centuries and mediums. A section on gold includes pieces from his fall 1997 “Afghanistan” collection, with its gilt-foiled fabrics and motifs, as well as a video of caddis flies spinning larval sheaths out of gold. A room arranged under the rubric “Foppish” juxtaposes a Giovanni Boldini portrait of Count Robert de Montesquiou borrowed from the Musée d’Orsay with an Elizabeth Peyton painting. Nearby is the suit Jean Cocteau wore, and the Cartier épée he carried, to his induction into the Académie Française alongside a small selection of tiny shoes owned by the French bon vivant Alexis, Baron de Redé (“the man,” Van Noten said, “with the most elegant feet in Paris”). But the show is not stuffily highbrow: There are cameo appearances by Pat Cleveland, David Bowie and Divine.

More than half of the 400-plus pieces on display were borrowed from other museums and private collections. The challenge was not only to seduce lenders (many of them leery of the fashion world), but also to get the precise pieces Van Noten had in mind. The unruffled disposition masks the insistent specificity of his vision. He demanded not any Boldini, but the Montesquiou; not any Cecil Beaton costume, but Beaton’s bunny suit from an Easter party of 1937.

“Often he’s described as shy,” said Golbin, the museum’s chief curator of modern and contemporary fashion and textiles. “He’s not shy at all. He’s just very ... in French, you say ‘juste.’ It’s the perfect word. It’s not too much, it’s not too little, it’s just what it should be. I think it comes out in the show. It could be quite a disaster with all the influences, all the objects, but actually it’s finding that perfect balance so that everything finds its place.”

Throughout, embedded like little windows into the past, are videos from runway shows, from the early days to the present. (His fall 2014 collection was presented in Paris on Feb. 26.)

“I was having a rare thought of wishing that I had been at some of those shows,” said Mark Lee, the chief executive of Barneys New York, which was the first U.S. retailer to carry Van Noten’s collections, and is a sponsor of the exhibition. “We see enough shows that we don’t usually lament not being at any, but I would’ve dreamed of being at some of those.”

Yet despite the emphasis on history, his own and the culture’s, Van Noten insisted the show was not about looking back.

“I’m not nostalgic,” he said. “It’s not that I say those were the good old days and people had style. I try to take elements from that and push it into the future, to make clothes to wear now.”

At the opening party, the Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele, who frequently appears in Van Noten’s shows, was pondering the difference between him and his fellow designers.

“He’s not selling something,” was the philosophical distinction she made. “You’re buying something.”

She even recognized some pieces she owns in the show. Was she surprised to see them behind glass in a museum?

“No,” she said. “I think it should have happened earlier.”