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Exclusive Interview: Viktor&Rolf

When I first received the announcement about the Dutch duo, Viktor&Rolf’s return to haute couture after a thirteen-year hiatus, I scrunched together my eyebrows wondering, “Has it really been that long?” Considering the visual impact of the theatrical fashion shows they are famed for producing, as we all hope to witness once again this evening, it is understandable that even though over a decade has passed, visions of Viktor&Rolf’s couture productions are still engrained in our minds.

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren met while studying fashion at the Dutch Arnhern Academy of Art and Design. Drawn to each other like moths to flame, they traveled to Paris on a shoestring budget in the hopes of getting a job working for a known designer. In an effort to get noticed, they pieced together a first collection and received an invitation to show at Hyères, the Salon Européen des Jeunes Stylistes at the Festival International de Mode et de Photographie, a festival which spotlights young promising artists in the fields of fashion and photography and has a reputation for launching careers. There, in the South of France, the judges were delighted with the collection’s elements of distortion, reconstruction, and layering and the two young hopefuls were suddenly officially “designers” taking home three prizes. Viktor&Rolf was founded that same year, in 1993. The duo’s next journey was Haute Couture and in 1998, the first collection was born and with it came an utterly extravagant way of designing. Their Haute Couture shows were not solely about the clothes; rather, it was full-on Viktor&Rolf-drenched atmosphere, entirely dedicated to their aura.

The designers are so hands-on with the process of creating a production that they even once took it upon themselves to model their own collection (as was the case in the 2003 Monsieur menswear line, in which the two men presented the collection via a mirrored performance). Now, following perhaps what can be referred to as having launched a Missoni style business model, the designers have expanded their range to include shoes, accessories, eyewear, and fragrance, and have also collaborated with commercial brands like Samsonite.

In 2008, Italian magnate Renzo Rosso, Diesel owner and Chairman of Only The Brave, partnered with them in an effort to drive further expansion, and additional boutiques were opened.

The duo have already been honored with various retrospectives, most notably a 2008 exhibition of The House of Viktor&Rolf at the Barbican Art Gallery, where key pieces from collections spanning from 1992 to 2008 were remade on hand-made porcelain dolls and presented in a large dollhouse. Last month, Toronto’s Luminato Festival presented the Canadian premiere of Viktor&Rolf Dolls with a unique catwalk installation.

In this exclusive interview, speaking for the first time to Middle Eastern media, talks to Viktor&Rolf ahead of this evening’s return to Couture show in Paris.

So, I guess it is a fair statement to say that your pending return to couture has made headlines around the world.

Yes! There was a lot of reaction; people are looking forward to it.

Certainly! And you have given us an excuse to celebrate. Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on Holland’s new King and Queen? Are you royalists? Did you celebrate?

We definitely did, especially because we dressed Princess Mabel. We dressed her for all four occasions. She is married to the second son of the former Queen Beatrix.

Maybe you noticed from the official portrait from the ceremonies, but there was quite the turnout of royals from the Arab countries: Sheikha Mozah from Qatar, Princess Lala from Morocco, as well as others from the UAE, and Oman, Jordan, and Bahrain.

Oh my gosh, Sheikha Mozah! She is so elegant. And what a charisma! You could not miss her. Very stylish. We were very impressed. Also, Princess Lala from Morocco. She’s gorgeous with her red hair. She’s very stylish, too. What we like in particular about these women is that they are very self-assured. They wear their clothes—the clothes don’t wear them.

Speaking of the Middle East, have you been here before? What do you know about it?

Not so much. We have been on holidays. Rolf has been to Oman. We have been to Morocco. I went to Jordan when I was a little kid.

When you design haute couture, your imagination runs wild. When some people design, they think of the end product and the sale. When you are designing, do you think, “One-third of Couture clients are Arab”? Do you research the Arab culture and try and learn its tastes?

I would have to say: a definite no. But not because they are Arab. Couture is first and foremost a laboratory of fashion where we have the wonderful and rare opportunity to explore our deepest desires.

This alone should be the main goal when we are designing couture. That is what makes couture so special for us in our case. The end product is a garment—a beautiful garment. If there is someone who loves this idea and feels that there is an emotion expressed by it, then we would love to have this person as a client. We see it as a means of expression.

…And telling a story. Tell us about your design process.

We work together. We have always worked together in the same office and shared ideas. The starting point is language. We don’t start from a fabric. We don’t start from a color. We don’t start from a literal reference. We start from the more intuitive and emotional way. What do we feel? What do we want to express? Maybe that sounds very abstract.

For example, one time we wanted to focus on 2D silhouettes. We began with quite a conceptual point of view to understand how the clothes fit in the performance.

You have been referred to as “conceptual couturiers”. Do you first choreograph the performance before you create the couture?

Let’s just say that the one cannot live without the other. It’s not so much about a costume—when you think about fashion you think differently than when you think about costume. We are thinking, “How can the clothes have context within the show?” You probably will have seen the show where we dressed Maggie Ryzer and positioned her on a revolving platform and dressed her in nine garments like a Russian Doll in reverse. This is something that you can only do in that way with one model. It’s not a regular catwalk show. Let’s put it that way.

You’re coming back to Couture after 13 years. How do you find the landscape has changed since you left?

Well, there are definitely a lot less designers, which is part of a broader movement. It’s all linked. On the one hand, in fashion, you have the rise of huge chains that offer great products, which celebrate the trendiness of fashion. Then, you have the high-end fashion, which has become even more high-end. Ready-to-wear is moving more and more towards Haute Couture.

Do you plan to stick with Couture for a while?

It is our intention to enter Couture and to continue showing Couture. As a strategy, it makes sense to us because these past seasons, more and more… during ready-to-wear, we often have to express the idea of a show. The ready-to-wear message and the more “Couture”, conceptual message. Now the tracks are diverging and we thought it was best to separate the tracks.

For us, especially from a Couture standpoint, we see it as a means of expression. Focus on the wearability aspect and then focus on the laboratory and poetic message.

If we separate the two messages it is also clearer to our audience. It will also be more dynamic.

I cannot even begin to imagine.

Is there something that you know now about yourselves as individuals that you didn’t know then?

One thing we know is that you have to be very focused and you cannot put too many different messages out there.

And you feel that perhaps in the past you did that?

Well, when we started out, yes, maybe.

You are, nonetheless, involved in various projects and business partnerships in beauty, fragrance, and even designing alongside brands like Samsung.

Fashion is an all-encompassing universe. It is about beauty and perfume, there is also that part.

What about your muses?

Tilda Swinton and Tori Amos, for example. They are both very authentic, original, highly creative, and are totally independent. They are fearless. That is something we appreciate and love in them as well as in other people. That is why we dedicate shows to them.

Viktor&Rolf will present their first Haute Couture show this evening in Paris after a 13-year hiatus. 

Click on the gallery above for to view all the pictures from their first five Couture collections first dating back to 1998.

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