When dutch design duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf announced last year their decision to end their ready-to-wear line and focus instead on haute couture, it didn’t necessarily come as a shock.
In the early years of their careers, which began when they founded the label in 1993 after graduating from the ArtEZ Academy of Art and Design in Arnhem, The Netherlands, they only focused on haute couture, making one-of-a-kind creations and staging performance-like runway shows that from the outset made them stand out in the fashion system.
It was only in 2000 that they started to make ready-to-wear, when both buyers and media welcomed their efforts to offer more commercially viable pieces. It was evident, however, that the two really thrived on the creative freedom and flights of fancy allowed by haute couture, which is less bound to the seasonal demands of department stores and instead relies on a coterie of clients and collectors who are much less beholden to the practical needs of everyday dressing (couture pieces are also purchased by institutions such as museums for their permanent collections).
In spite of a successful collaboration with high-street giant H&M in 2006; the launch of a hit fragrance in partnership with L’Oréal the year before; and a significant investment in the brand by Italian fashion mogul and Diesel founder Renzo Rosso in 2008, Viktor & Rolf has never been a label primed for worldwide domination, but rather a niche player that wasn’t going to compromise its vision to adhere to industry standards that didn’t fit with the founders’ ethos.
It’s no surprise then that their oeuvre has been a fixture at museums around the world. The latest institution to host their works is the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, which this month unveils the exhibition Viktor & Rolf: Fashion Artists. The show’s title says it all: while most designers scoff at the notion of fashion as art, emphasising instead its functionality, Horsting and Snoeren are not mere dressmakers but true originals who value the concept behind a collection and the way they show it, more than the simple practicality of dressing an imaginary client, a conjured-up “Viktor & Rolf woman”.
As Thierry-Maxime Loriot, curator of the exhibition, explains when we meet him along with the designers a few hours before their autumn/winter 2016 haute couture show in Paris last July, “The reason why I wanted to do an exhibition about Viktor & Rolf has nothing to do with fashion. It’s not even a fashion exhibition, because for me what they propose and what they’ve been proposing for decades now is beyond fashion.
“I approached them because for me it was evident that they were the only ones who have this core body of work that’s so fascinating and so interesting, because they work without references. It’s not like some other designers who will be influenced by the ’70s, or by this or by that. For me it’s very strong to have creative people
I wouldn’t say designers because I see more of their work as artists’ work, and it’s very interesting to see how they work. Maybe the only other one who works in this way if I must say is Rei Kawakubo, who works without references. It’s very rare to have this type of body of work, which is a very strong message about how you can be creative, and how you can believe in your ideas, and present something that’s not following trends. Fashion is not only about clothes, it’s also about ideas, and the proposition of Viktor & Rolf is very different from any other designers, and that’s why they’re not even in the fashion world, they’re half artists and they’re half fashion – they express their work through fashion.”
Admitting that indeed they never felt fully part of the fashion system as we know it, the designers say that they relished the process of going back to their archives to select the outfits to show in Melbourne, adding that what was even more exciting when working on this project was the chance of creating new pieces – “objects” is all Horsting would say – made specifically for the show.
When they talk about this creative outlet, it’s clear that for them this part of their job is much more rewarding than making seasonal items just for the sake of satiating novelty-hungry consumers who now expect brands to release collections almost as often as high-street labels do. “We found it very hard to work in an industry where the parameters are very demanding and strict. To focus on couture for us makes total sense, because it’s where we started,” explains Snoeren about their change of direction. “We wanted to focus on couture again because for us it’s the best tool to express ourselves – more so than ready-to-wear. We were thinking, ‘What is our point of difference?’ We are really haute couture guys, and that’s our strength, that’s where we have a different message than everyone else. Better to do that than try to do something that a thousand people are doing.”
Horsting and Snoeren, who are both based in Amsterdam, worked very closely with Loriot on the exhibition, which the curator conceived not as a mere retrospective but as a “a celebration of their work”. “It’s a contemporary installation about their work, not something nostalgic, not chronological,” explains Loriot. “I don’t want it to be an exhibition where you come out of it and then you wonder, ‘Oh are they alive or are they dead?’ For me it was very important that they were involved.”
While the designers and Loriot agree that cultural institutions are becoming more and more aware of the power of fashion – and are using it as a way to attract more museum-goers, especially younger ones, and to help their bottom line – for them the inspiration that an exhibition like this can provide to a young child is invaluable. “For young kids, what is fantastic is that they see that these two young men coming from small towns in The Netherlands without having any access to the fashion industry were really self-made. It’s nice for kids to see other means of expression than painting or sculpture. There’s always this ongoing question whether fashion should be considered art but I think it’s an unnecessary question these days because it’s not even a subject of discussion. Art is what moves you, what interests you. You can see a painting by a famous artist and think it’s not good and you don’t consider it art. So it’s a very personal thing, and I think it’s important that the younger generation know about craftsmanship, creativity, collaborations.”
It’s also the idea of making something so rarefied and inaccessible such as haute couture available to a larger audience. After all, as Snoeren jokes, “It’s easier to see a Picasso in person than a Viktor & Rolf couture dress.” He’s not far off the mark, given that couture shows are still extremely private proceedings that only a smattering of clients and media get the chance to admire, often without fully appreciating the privilege they’re afforded.
While seeing the clothes in a gallery setting is not the same as being part of one of the thoughtful performances that Viktor & Rolf stage every season, getting up close to a couturier’s work and actually observing it instead of just glancing at it through a phone screen – as most fashion-show attendees do nowadays – is a truly enriching experience that no online video or Instagram post can recreate.
Viktor & Rolf: Fashion artists is on show until February 26, 2017.