For its spring/summer 2019 men’s collection, however, Van Noten’s studio dialled up this pattern and colour by means of a visit to the late Danish designer Verner Panton’s archive at the Vitra Design Museum. The result is an uncharacteristically playful and “pop” collection. Robust uniform cotton, light linen and technical high-gloss nylon were emblazoned with some of Panton’s most powerful prints – reverberating squares, waves and cubes – executed in shades of emerald, navy, orange, yellow, mocha and khaki. The originals – developed for interior use – date from the 1960s and 1970s, but Van Noten’s team re-scaled some to fit their new application, subtly altering their colours to suit a more contemporary palette. “We were very well-checked by the Panton family and were respectful of the heritage of Panton,” says Van Noten. “But at the same time they allowed us to suggest colour variations and re-scale some of the prints.”
Van Noten’s earliest encounter with a Panton design came when he purchased two Panton chairs for his dining table in the 1980s. Dating from the 1960s, the dramatically cantilevered plastic chair is one of the enduring symbols of that decade – slithery, sensual and psychedelic. Its potency has waned courtesy of its ubiquity, but Panton is still regarded as an integral figure of that era. “When I think about 1960s pop style, I always think of Verner Panton,” says Van Noten.
Panton, who was born in 1926, studied architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and was mentored by Poul Henningsen and Arne Jacobsen. Nevertheless, he departed from their tradition of minimalist design that relied on natural materials and the Danish system of skilled cabinet makers. Instead, Panton explored new manufacturing technologies and synthetic materials, creating a fresh set of ideals that was attractive to a burgeoning consumer market, within which design was a lifestyle signifier. It seems fitting, then, that his designs should find a new application in an age where digital technology has reinvented how textiles are designed and produced.
Re-editions are part and parcel of the contemporary design industry. What makes the collaboration between the estate of Verner Panton and Van Noten interesting is the approach that the latter has taken to the archival material. Rather than recreating the fabrics as they were, Van Noten took photographs of the original textiles and recreated these as digital prints. As such, the research methodology is made apparent in the finished garment, where one can spot the textures of the original substrate on which the Panton designs were printed.
The design industry stands to learn from this particular collaboration. It doesn’t simply rely on re-releasing the original material to new fanfare, but instead invites it in for a dialogue that renders it contemporary rather than nostalgic.
Johanna Agerman Ross How did the work of Verner Panton first enter your collection research?
Dries Van Noten When we decided that we were going to create a spring/summer collection based on colour, we looked first to modern artists, such as Josef Albers, but very quickly we landed on Verner Panton. What’s interesting to me about Panton is not only his design for furniture and fabric, but also the positive mood he brought into his work. That felt important to capture.
Johanna What was it about that mood that you were keen to bring to the collection and why is that optimism important to you?
Dries Everyone knows the world we live in right now, so I said to my team that I wanted to make a very optimistic collection for the next season. I didn’t want to create something that was aggressive or sad, and looking to the optimism of the 1960s felt important as its ideals were so beautiful. Even if they were sometimes very naive, that naivety is something we can use again today. We now know so much and are so connected through the Internet of Things, but we can really learn from people’s thinking from that time. The theory of living with colour and the positive impact it can have on us, for example. You know, Panton proposed a collection of sunglasses where the lenses were all the colours of the rainbow, such that the colour of the lenses would change your mood. I just love that approach to design. As someone who is mad about colour, Panton’s theories speak to me.
Johanna The research process seems important to you, as your recent Dries Van Noten: Inspirations exhibition at MAD Paris revealed. Every season you go down a different rabbit hole in search of new ideas. Why is that so vital to you?
Dries Every season we explore artists and theories ranging across time and place. For every collection we start with a defined idea or area of interest, although sometimes we don’t even talk about it later on – it just served as a starting point. With something like this collection, it was different as we had a certain access and it’s interesting to dive into somebody’s work in a more serious way. You learn a lot by looking at things and you start to appreciate what they were trying to do a lot more. Personal stories are revealed that you might not have known before. For this project, for example, I learned that the ‘Hand’ and ‘Eye’ prints that we decided to use have a personal connection to Panton himself. The hand is his hand and the eye is his wife Marianne’s. I liked the idea that both these people, who had been so integral to making this collection happen, were present in the finished garments.
Johanna And how do you ensure that all that research becomes a sellable product in the end?
Dries Well, in the case of this collection, we started by exploring the possibilities of the raw material, because those fabrics were created in the 1960s, and were meant to be used for upholstery and curtains. They were not created to be worn in 2019 as part of a collection of menswear. So first we had to see if we could make clothes from those prints and make them wearable and desirable. The worst would be if it looked like we had found a curtain in the flea market and made pants from it.
Johanna How could you ensure it would work before going down a costly production path?
Dries The Verner Panton archive is held by the Vitra Design Museum and its curators were very open to us working there. They also allowed us to do tests as we went along. Photoshop can perform small miracles, so we used images of models in last season’s garments and then photoshopped the Panton patterns on top of them, ultimately creating a render of what the collection was going to look like before we committed to specific designs. From that process came this idea of photographing the Panton documents and using those images as the basis for the digital fabric prints. So if a pattern was originally printed on heavy linen, and we reproduced the pattern on poplin, it still had the heavy structure of the linen within the printed pattern. For me, this is more respectful. We took photographs of the original documents and then used those for the designs, rather than recreating a new design made to look like the old one.
Johanna But you also altered some of the designs to fit your needs. How did that come about?
Dries What was important with the collaboration was to make all the fabrics our own and add our own creativity to the project. So while being respectful of everything that was done by Panton, we also allowed ourselves to rescale motifs and change colourways. As mentioned, the fabrics were originally designed as upholstery fabrics or as curtains, and they wouldn’t necessarily work as designs for swimming trunks. For those specifically, we needed a smaller scale of the same design. So we contacted Marianne Panton, Panton’s widow, and their daughter Carin, to talk about it, and they agreed that we could re-scale some prints, as well as create new colourways. They were fine with it as long as it was in keeping with the initial colour effect and matched the intensity of Panton’s designs. The majority of the prints that we have used are the original colours and scale, and only a few were made smaller for garments, with one pattern made larger to make it more abstract. We also made some colourways that we consider to be more “acceptable” to today’s consumer, like beige-brown and navy.
Johanna Looking at the work of Panton, something plastic and almost acidic comes to mind, but I associate your work more with something organic and natural. In some ways, there is a clash. Was that tricky to get past?
Dries This is something I do very often. I work from things that are not really expected of me, and I like to play with things that don’t fit so well in my world – to try to make my own version of it, while also including the vision of the source of inspiration. I think it’s important to move the story on, so to speak. It was interesting to work on a project like this where we have a very plastic story, which we translated by over-dying nylon and using saturated colours, and [reflecting] the shimmering and shine of plastic in bright blue, burgundy red, apple green and shiny black. This was the way in which we created the plastic feel and atmosphere of the collection, without being too literal.
Johanna Do you think this will open up a new audience to appreciate Panton’s work, or do you expect that your customers will already know him?
Dries In order not to presume anything, we have added a label in every garment where we clearly explain who Panton was and what people are looking at. We have also planned a lot of pop-ups and presentations where we will show the clothes against a backdrop of big, blow-up photographs of the interiors that Panton created, making it feel like the clothes are “coming home” if you can describe it that way. We also commissioned photographs [accompanying this interview], where the models are wearing the collection in front of panels showing Panton’s work – again, it’s this idea of connecting the finished product to its origins.
Johanna You have said previously that you don’t like nostalgia or being nostalgic in your work, but how do you approach a collection inspired by a design and ethos engrained in the 1960s without being nostalgic?
Dries We used Panton’s prints, but the shapes and cuts of the clothes and the atmosphere we created were not inspired by the 1960s. We were very careful to make sure that the clothes are wearable for a man of today. Another aspect of this is the technique we used. All the designs that Panton created were screenprinted, but as we reproduced photographs of the original work, we decided to print our fabrics digitally, bar one exception which we screen-printed. It felt more natural to print digitally, as our starting point for recreating the pattern was a digital photograph. So from that point of view, I don’t think it’s very nostalgic.
Johanna This kind of collaboration seems to be prevalent right now. I’m thinking, for example, of Prada’s collaboration with designers and architects for recent collections. Do you think that there’s an increased interest in this kind of crossover?
Dries I think you have to be careful not to exaggerate these events. For me, there always has to be a healthy crossover, but I don’t like when these things become repetitive, like “I am starting a new collection so who will be my next victim that I can approach for a collaboration?” That is not the way we work. This started because of the colour theme and the way we reached Panton felt like a natural progression. Next season we will do things in a completely different way, so I don’t think it should be too overstated as a trend.
Johanna That seasonal aspect of fashion stands in opposition to architecture or furniture design, which tend to produce longer-lasting products. How do you avoid a collection like this being fleeting and temporary?
Dries The attractiveness of Panton is that his designs have already lasted for 50 years. They stay fresh and still make sense, and there is still a modernity to them. His work had a powerful concept. By adapting and using some of that thinking, I hope we will give [our seasonal] collection a similar longevity. The intention is not that it will last for just a season.