"To us, fashion represents more than just cloth and form: it is an aura, an escape from reality," write Viktor & Rolf, the fascinating, enigmatic design duo who are busy preparing for an upcoming retrospective of their work by blogging for The New York Times. (From June 18 through September 21, London's Barbican Art Gallery will be covering their 15 years in the fashion business.)
"Coming from suburbia in a country where fashion doesn’t really exist (i.e., Holland), fashion for us was like a glossy fairytale world made real. Through our work, we still seek that emotion, over and over again. We turn the phenomenon of fashion into its own subject matter. We have expressed and reflected on just that position in various ways through various media, in an art context but also within the context of fashion itself." Unlike many designers who stage stagey fashion shows purely for wham-bam-thankyou-ma'am theatricality, Viktor & Rolf runway shows - while undeniably over-the-top - always have an underlying intelligence and coherence which address questions dominating the zeitgeist...but in way that is thought-provoking and fun.
From their witty, black hole-inspired take on fashion's obsession with all-black down to the soot covering both models & the designers (Fall 2001), to the fairy tales we tell ourselves (an antler "tiara" clad walk in the woods during Fall 2004), to the way everyone seems to be asleep (models in their bedclothes and bedding...literally...in Fall 2005), V&R are nothing-but-business with their ahead-of-the-trend silhouettes and cuts, but keep tongue firmly in cheek with the presentation. Marc Jacobs may have reaped a press bonanza for his Spring 2008 show which was staged in reverse, but V&R were there first...by a few years. Not only did their Spring 2006 show start with the designer bow, the traditional end to a show, but the runway was also on the ceiling, further underscoring the theme of life feeling out-of-sorts and upside-down. Even the key outfits were constructed to be worn off-kilter, as if the models had inadvertently stuck their arms, legs, and heads through the incorrect openings.
While their collections may have become less wildly experimental, they are still in business after 15 years (a laudable feat in these tough economic times), continuing to blend commentary, showmanship, and cool clothes.
In honor of the Barbican Viktor & Rolf retrospective, here is our mini homage to major talent:
"We were inspired by black holes, which absorb all light and energy," a dead-serious, soot-covered Rolf Snoeren told Style.com about their witty, science-derived take on fashion's obsession with all-black. "We wanted to transform negative feelings into something positive and creative."
Spring 2002 All White/the Clothes as the "Message"
"For us, the medium is the message," explained Rolf, quoting the famous Marshall McLuhan insight about the media: that rather than the message of the media, it's the form that it takes that should be studied (or, in this case, don't waste time "interpreting" the clothes...just enjoy them). "The collection is about love and goodness and being positive."
Fall 2004 & Spring 2005 The Power of Imagination, Beauty & Transformation
Fall's somber-hued antler-clad walk in the woods was followed by Spring's dark-to-light journey, as the procession of dark clothes topped off by shiny black face-obscuring motorcycle helmets suddenly switched midway. A woman's voice breathed "Flowerbomb, Flowerbomb, Flowerbomb," and in an instant, everything became frothy, festive, beribboned, and unabashedly pink. "We believe in the power of transforming anything into beauty," Viktor Horsting noted, "and we all need an extra dose of that these days." (Yes, it was also a clever, splashy way to launch their new fragrance of the same name, but done this seamlessly and creatively, it's as much fun - and as skillful - as P.T. Barnum at his crowd-pleasing best.)
Fall 2005 Sleepwalking Through Life
"I sleep walked, my heart waketh," sang Tori Amos, playing her original composition set to the Song of Solomon (yes, from the bible), her piano circled by models made-over as sleepwalkers. "Everyone's asleep," is such a familiar refrain these days, that V&R obliged with chic bedclothes-derived threads for the modern somnambulist: shirts fashioned from eyelet and lace-trimmed sheets, duvet coats with dramatic pillow collars, quilts made into suits, and sensuous silk sheets re-tooled into goddess (of the boudoir) evening dresses.
Spring 2006 Does life feel ass-backward?
"Fashion is running out of time," commented Rolf about this collection of off-kilter clothing, set to Upside-Down You're Turning Me (Diana Ross), with the runway located on the ceiling and the show staged in reverse. "We are going too fast. Originality and patience are the only way to go forward."
Fall 2006 Look-but-don't-Touch Sexuality
Thanks to the pervasive influence of Internet porn, sex has become more transactional than ever. The peepshow on the computer beckons, but other than ponying up a credit card, this sexual interlude is a solo, one-way activity. The strictness of the clothes combined with veils that looked more like hockey face guards (designed not to attract but protect and repel) seemed to mirror the fact that in the impersonal online setting, a face (ie. the person) doesn't matter - only the individual, fetishized parts...much like the disembodied formal shirt-cuff danglingly forlornly at the end of the wrist.
Fall 2007 Your Life, the Movie
The insightful, prescient 1998 book Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality describes the impact of being such a media-saturated, media-savvy society: we're all living our lives as if they are movies. Which means being a properly-lit star at all times. V&R cheekily solved this problem by sending clothes down the runway which came with a lighting-rig attached. Some failed to get the joke, such as the generally uninformed but overly-opinionated style.com commentator Nicole Phelps, who oddly praised the Spring 2008 collection for being "A welcome change after last season, when they made their models wear those ill-conceived lighting and speaker rigs of steel." (Which brings to mind the annoying, eyeroll-inducing remark uttered by a typical fashion neophyte after an extravagant runway show: "but who would WEAR that?!")
Fall 2008 Just Say No to Fast Fashion
"We love fashion, but it's going so fast," remarked the duo. "We wanted to say 'No' this season." And so they did, literally, with the word molded into wool coats, and even painted onto the models' faces. However, this lighthearted commentary touches on the very serious impact of too-fast fashion: a vicious, downward-spiraling cycle of winter coats for sale during the steamy summer months, and flimsy chiffon frocks and summer gear marked down as part of an "end-of-season" sale during February...which leaves retailers in increasingly desperate financial straights, consumers confused, and continues to depress prices, bolstering the nasty, inhumane sweatshop industry.
For more on The House of Viktor & Rolf retrospective, go to Barbican.org.uk.
- Lesley Scott
(all runway photos & backstage quotes: style.com)
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