Not since the days of Louis Vuitton x Supreme has fashion gone so completely bonkers for a collaboration until the surprise of Dries Van Noten and Christian Lacroix. On Wednesday, after months of secretly scheming, the pair revealed that they'd teamed up on Van Noten's spring/summer 2020 show, and it's not an overstatement to say that fellow designers were losing it: Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang, and Simon Porte Jacquemus came together in the comments section of the critic Tim Blanks's Instagram, where Jacobs described the runway video he posted as "absolutely amazing," "so beautiful," and "breathtaking." As for the critics, well, they unleashed a type of unbridled enthusiasm rarely, if ever, seen in fashion reviews; it was "The Collaboration to End All Collaborations," according to the New York Times's headline.
So, what exactly was so special about it? The fact that so many designers put rivalry aside for praise might give you a hint. Since he arrived in Paris, having established himself as a member of the storied Antwerp Six, Van Noten has carved a niche for himself in cerebral, sophisticated elegance—or, as Lacroix put it to the Times, "his ability to express maximalism with minimalism." With politics and existential dread on his mind while planning for this season, though, Van Noten cast a wider net. He landed on the fantastical delights that established Lacroix as masterful couturier in the '80s, leading LVMH to turn his eponymous label into the first-ever major brand that the luxury conglomerate launched from scratch (not to mention one that earned a place in the pop culture psyche thanks to Absolutely Fabulous).
Naturally, Van Noten proceeded to add a few looks by Lacroix to his mood board. Then, he had an epiphany of the sort that's all too rare in the industry: "Why not email him?," Van Noten recalled. "Homage is often just another word for ripping off other people's ideas."
For years now, collaborations have been absolutely everywhere in fashion, to the point that we've even seen Vaquera partner with The Handmaid's Tale, and Vetements partner with Juicy Couture. This, on the other hand, was actual couture—a rarity that can only come from partnering two legends who, between the pair of them, have around half a century's worth of experience in crafting and defining elegance. "It was not a competition of egos," Lacroix said.
Nor was there any resentment between the pair: Lacroix accepted Van Noten's invitation to return to the industry, which he left behind in 2009, even though Van Noten originally launched his career by refuting all that was key to Lacroix’s success: opulence, exuberance, and camp. In the two decades that followed, Van Noten flourished—and Lacroix met his downfall. When LVMH founded his namesake brand in 1987, it planned to follow the model of Chanel—starting with haute couture, before moving into realms like fragrance and ready-to-wear. Lacroix’s reputation and popularity skyrocketed, but profits didn’t, so LVMH cast off the Lacroix name to a Florida-based group known for its duty-free stores in 2005. With just 12 employees left after layoffs, Lacroix filed for bankruptcy. (He still doesn’t own the rights to his own name—hence why his new Instagram account’s handle is @fkachristianlacroix.)
Comprised of 68 looks, the collection they rolled out on Wednesday was filled with jolts of color, and eclectic combinations of patterns and materials like zebra print, sequins, ribbons, brocade, trompe l'oeil fur, and jacquards that, against all odds, managed to work. Some flourishes, like giant feathers that topped several models heads, were obvious. But across the board, the devil was in the details—like sequins stitched into embroidery too intricate to appreciate from the front row. That was true of the beauty, too: Upon closer inspection, the swaths of pink and blue accenting models' hair weren't made of paint or dye, but carefully placed pieces of ostrich feathers. Somehow, neither the heather grey sweatshirt that was paired with silky evening gloves, nor the traditional couture bride who closed the show, felt out of place. Lacroix's 18th-century references and Van Noten's modern-day, wearable sophistication became one and the same.
It doesn't happen often, but industry heavyweights have occasionally partnered before. Last year, Burberry teamed up with Vivienne Westwood, and John Galliano spent a few seasons at Oscar de la Renta after he was fired from Dior. Gucci and Comme des Garçons have also recently partnered, but only on a whopping total of two tote bags. If they've realized the internet-breaking potential of combining Alessandro Michele's 100-plus ornate looks per collection with Rei Kawakubo's artistry and surrealism, well, they don't seem to be planning to take advantage of it any time soon.
Van Noten and Lacroix's collaboration begs the question: Why not? After all, their show came in the midst of a season defined by sustainability; seemingly everyone is announcing their plans to go "carbon-neutral", which mostly means purchasing carbon offsets in lieu of totally reforming older wasteful ways. There's a different kind of potential in Lacroix and Van Noten's partnership, then, too: It's a way that sustainability-minded designers can combine resources—and make the best of both worlds.