With a summer exhibition celebrating 25 years of Viktor & Rolf, the duo reflects on finding their own path within the fashion system.
“We’ve always loved seeing our fashion in a museum. It’s a good way to become democratic,” start Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren. For 25 years, the Dutch designer artists have created works that are sculptural and surreal, and which offer people a space to contemplate the familiar with unfamiliar eyes. Conceptual, the collections are inspired by the industry, or “system,” as the designers refer to it. At times they have manifest to serve as a material response to their rebellion. And yet the proposed commentary never comes across as judgmental, simply a vocabulary unto its own.
Originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
The launch of the Viktor & Rolf: Fashion Artists 25 Years exhibition at the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam follows its debut in Melbourne at the National Gallery of Victoria. The designers – whose tones of voice never fluctuate beyond a soothing monotone – express with controlled enthusiasm delight at having their work on display in their home country, within arm’s reach of friends and family. Those who speak the Viktor & Rolf language are people interested in art and design, and in the Netherlands, the net is thrown wide. After all, this is the country that gave birth to Rembrandt, Vermeer, Bosch, Van Gogh, Mondrian, and Appel. “Not just fashionistas,” quips Snoeren. One such client is Dutch Princess Mabel of Orange-Nassau. For her wedding to Prince Friso, the duo created a dress with 264 bows. The princess gave the honor of opening the exhibition and loaned her gown for the occasion. “It was great to walk through it with her,” says Horsting, his voice softening at the memory of what was surely a bittersweet moment. The royal love story ended when the prince passed away following a ski accident in 2013.
Curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot, the exhibition displays early and new works, stage costumes like the bubblegum pink baby doll dress with ruff collar worn by Madonna at Miami Art Basel, and some 60 couture pieces. There are also 25 handmade porcelain dolls on display. Each is dressed in some of the brand’s most iconic couture designs cut to scale and even feature hair and makeup that perfectly mimic the former runway look. Visitors are spoilt for choice to point out a standout work. There are the duvet coats and boudoir sheet evening dresses from Bedtime Stories (FW15 ready-to-wear), the Dutch folk costumes from The Fashion Show (FW07 ready-to-wear) originally showcased splayed open with clumsy steel rigs, and the Red Carpet Dressing (FW14 Couture) looks that featured dresses made of red carpet.
One of the pleasures of seeing a Viktor & Rolf show is to observe how the anticipation builds with precision and repetition – a crescendo of notes that are perfectly dissimilar. Sometimes, the designers star in their show, as was the case when they dressed model Maggie Rizer with nine layers of fabric, live. Regardless, from the lot of pulled pieces, unfurls a team spirit, and one can’t help but cheer. “When we walk through the exhibition and see the highlights, we see unity,” the designers nod. “Even in the very first film we did – in Hyères in 1993 – all the elements were already there; maybe a little vague, but they were there,” they comment, referring to their hat trick win at the lauded international festival for fashion and photography.
All the stories and their parts are crafted from their atelier in Amsterdam, a 17th century house once belonging to the city’s mayor – two portraits of him and his wife still hang on the walls. A team of eight to 15 petites mains creates everything in-house. “The talent is hard to find,” they comment. “Not only to find people who can work with their hands but those who love to do it.” It’s a fair statement. Some of the couture pieces – like the red carpet dresses – can take up to 300 hours to execute. Sitting inside their atelier, they look out onto the English courtyard garden. There are hardly any hedges, but there is a tree, a little pond, and some birds fluttering about. “There’s a crane who comes and sits in the middle of the pond like a king and eats all the frogs,” they remark.
Having met while studying at the Arnhem Academy of Art and Design, Horsting and Snoeren started working together right after graduation. “It’s almost like a gift from God, that you have found something that you can share,” says Horsting of their lasting partnership. “Our work is a celebration of our friendship. We are business partners, but it’s a creative marriage.”
In 2015 the strain of the system, with its hamster wheel of endless deadlines, threatened the duo’s scrupulous work ethic. They speak of the realization that “there is more to life than work” and the need to enforce boundaries. It was announced that the ready-to-wear line, launched in 2003, would close. “I was kind of forced to because it made me unhappy,” remarks Horsting. “We both felt like our talent was not making the nicest trendy clothes, at the most affordable prices.” The designers stress that their private life is very far removed. “We’re fascinated by hype, but at the same time we don’t understand it. The parties, the whole social aspect, we don’t really do that.” They both love to read. On the desk lies a worn copy of Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. Horsting meditates and travels – this summer he will visit the Amazon – while Snoeren prefers to go to the gym and stay close to home.
Apart from the exhibition launch, the biannual couture shows are major affairs for the duo, who describe themselves as introverts. “As much as we like editorials, a collection ends when the show ends. For us, the clothes are just a performance, the show is the real work,” they stress. When they want to look back on their work, they prefer to do it via a show video. “We can be quite hardcore conceptualists and a lot of times we see the end result when we start,” they state. Horsting expresses that after a show he can experience a dip in moral. “I feel irritable. I need to be quiet. A show takes a lot of energy and there is a great deal of people around you. Afterward, we need to recharge our batteries.”
Is the downtime used to strategize the next 25 years? “We started so young,” they contemplate. “We were always thinking about the next five years and what we wanted to achieve; at a certain moment it became overwhelming.” Horsting started yoga teacher training as a means to canalize it all. “It made me realize that I didn’t want to think about the next 25 years. It makes me unhappy. We want to be grateful for now. We hope it will last.”
Viktor & Rolf: Fashion Artists 25 Years is on at the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam until September 30
Images: Wayne Taylor Installation View of Viktor & Rolf; Fashion Artists at the National Gallery of Victoria