The Immeasurable Influence And Boundless Curiosity of Viktor & Rolf
Viktor & Rolf’s Fall 1999 Haute Couture show took place in near darkness. A single spotlight trained on supermodel Maggie Rizer as she stood, affectless and immobile, dressed in a simple burlap shift dress and flats atop a small rotating platform. After each rotation, Viktor & Rolf designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren scurried out and added another layer to Rizer: an impossibly sparkly bell-sleeved jacket, a voluminous patterned 1970s-inspired dress, a roll-neck brocade coat. Sometimes entirely new garments were added, other times a new sleeve was affixed, transforming an existing layer. Rizer’s shoulders hiked up near her ears as her body was swallowed by the proportions of the final look: a massive tweed tent with an enormous three-dimensional rose affixed to one side. This show, a play on the Russian nesting doll, encapsulates Viktor & Rolf’s wry humor, their ability to invent and surprise and the very breadth of their imaginations, which appear, even eighteen years later, utterly staggering.
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The “Russian Doll” show was not Horsting and Snoeren’s first avant-garde presentation that pushed the limits of what the fashion industry could be, and would not be the duo’s last. Horsting and Snoeren, both Dutch, met while studying at the Arnhem Academy of Art and Design in The Netherlands. The pair—who, with their slim faces, dark hair and penchant for dressing identically, look, at first glance, like brothers—formed Viktor & Rolf after graduating school and moving to Paris in 1992. Their first collection, which featured voluminous ball gowns constructed from layers and handfuls of men’s shirts, won the grand prize at the 1993 Salon Européen des Jeunes Stylists, despite its stark departure from the contemporary penchant for Antwerp’s particular brand of deconstruction. Viktor & Rolf quickly established a proclivity for advancing against the tides of the industry while broadening the definition of what avant-garde and haute couture could be.
“It's true that for the first five years we were more presenting ourselves in an art-related context than in a fashion context. Fashion is a very strictly regulated environment and we had no clue how to function in the fashion world, so it took some time before we were prepared to work in fashion,” Horsting explained in an interview with The Talks. While Viktor & Rolf’s early shows garnered press attention and critical acclaim, the industry at large had little idea what to do with the two Dutch wunderkinds. In 1994, Viktor & Rolf suspended their collection from the ceilings of their designated show space. In 1996, they crafted a limited-run perfume in bottles that would never open, which speedily sold out at famed Parisian boutique Colette. The duo never stopped toying with the liminality of the border between art and fashion, even when they started veering into more commercial pursuits, like Ready-to-Wear and fragrance. In the hands of Viktor & Rolf, even Ready –to-Wear received a twist of the avant-garde: Lily Cole famously opened the brand’s Fall 2005 Ready-to-Wear show neatly tucked into bed, her red hair splayed across a white pillow, while Tori Amos played the piano behind her.
If one were to identify a signature for the enigmatic brand, it might be their experimental use of three-dimensional forms, which has continued to garner them new devotees in the era of social media. Their widely shared and fawned-over Spring 2017 Haute Couture collection featured models in black boots with pure white dresses that were expertly folded like origami, and adorned with Cubist shapes and Picasso-like faces that obscured the line between garment and sculpture. It was a neat trick, one that recalled their Fall 2008 Ready-to-Wear show, where words like “NO” and “DREAM” cartoonishly leapt out of tweedy coats like something out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Beyond the realm of fashion, the brand is also famous for exploring bold new forms of representation in museum retrospectives and art exhibitions. A 2008 exhibition at London’s Barbican Gallery that functioned as a 15-year retrospective of Viktor & Rolf featured a giant dollhouse, populated by miniaturized models wearing looks from each past season. The brand has had designs featured in museum showcases everywhere, from Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which displayed a ballgown from their famous 2010 “Credit Crunch Couture” show, where Dior-style 1950s ballgowns were severed, mid-tulle, as though with a chainsaw. When asked about the difference between showing their work in the context of a museum rather than, say, during fashion week, the designers have explained they like the democratic aspects of showing in a museum, where their work can be exposed to thousands of people, rather than just the milieu of the fashion industry. As Snoeren explained to The Talks, “Although now we have a very commercial part to the company it is still a nice counterpart for us to participate in exhibitions.” Horsting added, “For us it has never been an either/or situation. Very often people don't seem to understand that you can be artistic and commercial or conceptual and commercial at the same time. For us it has always been something that we both wanted. We want to do it all, we want to have it all. Why not?”
For all intents and purposes, Horsting and Snoeren have succeeded in having it all. Viktor & Rolf’s longevity is something unusual and enviable in fashion. “We control everything,” Horsting has said, “Everything. Not just exhibitions, also collections, perfumes, everything. Of course we work with a team, but we're very involved in everything we do.” Horsting and Snoeren have remained at the helm of their brand for 25 years now, steering it as they see fit. They have veered through bridal and Ready-to-Wear (2015’s Ready-to-Wear show was the brand’s last). At a 2015 event celebrating a decade of their insanely successful (and openable) perfume Flowerbomb, an interviewer asked Horsting and Snoeren to describe the brand in three words. Horsting smiled coyly and asked if he could have six (of course he could). “Provocative couture,” he answered. “Unexpected elegance. Conceptual glamour. These are the creative pillars that define the avant-garde house of Viktor & Rolf.”