The geek chic, boundary pushing duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, are famous for offering fashion from alternative perspectives and for bringing theatricality to their fashion stage.
They were both born in 1969 in the Netherlands and the lost twins were reunited years later at the Arnhem Academy of Art and design. They quickly established a close bond which to this day is rock solid.
Immediately after college in 1993 they decided to put a line of clothes together and enter the International Fashion and Photography Festival, which is famous for discovering new talent, in ‘Hyères’, the South of France. They quite aptly named the collection ‘Hyères.’ The distorted dresses were reminiscent of 1920’s fashion, with extremely high waist bands and unflattering ballooning on both fronts. They won three prizes at the Salon Europeen des Jeunes Stylistes in Hyères and after having their first taste of International recognition for their brilliance in fashion they decided to stay together and ‘Viktor & Rolf’ was born. They moved to Paris one of the most glamorous and romantic cities on earth, which was a huge change from the Netherlands. But these two never needed to be surrounded by glamour because fashion for them was an escape into their own glamourous world which they created in their studio.
Over the next four years they presented four collections in experimental art spaces. This was a frustrating time for them because although they received some acclaim amongst the fashion elite they were really on the fringe of the fashion worlds inner circle. In 1995 their ‘Gold Collection’ received no attention from the press or buyers which lead them to believe that nobody cared about them or their work. In a reaction to this and the fact that they had no funding in 1996 during Paris Fashion Week they stuck up posters all over the city saying that Victor and Rolf were ‘On Strike’. Most designers would go to extravagant lengths to cover up such issues but these two are balls-out every time. They have no fear of fully expressing themselves. Which it seems has served them well because in the 21st Century it’s okay to say you feel excluded from the ‘In’ crowd and it’s cool to say that you’re broke and finding it impossible to get a pedestal for the art which you’ve slaved over day in, day out. Later the puzzled duo stopped pointing their collective finger and took control. They realized that to receive press attention they would have to be more definite about the message they were trying to convey through their collections.
At the time speaking to Index Magazine, Viktor said, “We believe that couture should be a field for experimentation. It is a laboratory in our absolute dedication to fashion.”
In 1998 the Avant-garde fashion duo presented their first Haute Couture S/S collection by putting on an unauthorized fashion show during Paris Fashion Week which did attract the press. How brave and daring? These guys are famous for their anti-commercial antics and for doing their own thing. They are revolutionary fashion designers. But only designers with their confidence and mastery could pull off what they’ve done.
‘Atomic Bomb’ showcased in A/W 98-99 and was one of their most photographed collections. The name suggests explosives and the collection lived up to it. The shoulders and collars of the outfits were stuffed with padding and balloons creating exaggerated, unflattering, proportions. The outfits were presented a second time with the stuffing removed and although they were certainly deflated that didn’t reflect the viewers feelings for the collection. The deflated garments were over-sized, draping from the models bodies creating beautiful movement and this time svelte silhouettes. Viktor and Rolf said of the collection “The twofold nature of each creation arose from our mood in the last year before the millennium. Was the end of the world nearing, as Nostradamus had predicted, or would the end of 1999 be Prince’s endless party?”
The duo played with lighting for their collection ‘Black Light’ S/S 99. The collection was again presented twice in two different lights. Firstly the collection was showcased in normal light and the garments were visible, then the models strutted down the catwalk in blacklight and only the white elements of the garments were visible.
Their collection Bells played with the mystique and exclusivity of fashion. Every outfit was adorned with small bells and the show room was filled with fog mist so the audience could hear the bells before they could see the models. The models emerged briefly from the mist giving the audience just a glimpse of the clothes, leaving them wanting and wishing for more. They’re expert at tantalising their audience, building intensity in their shows and leaving people emotionally touched. Inaccessibility and exclusivity are what Viktor & Rolf describe as the essential facets of fashion.
The innovative duo showcased their A/W 99-00 collection, ‘Babushka’ through a presentation titled ‘Russian Doll.’ They dressed model, Maggie Rizer, layer-upon-layer showcasing nine different embellished dresses. After each layer was added the pedestal she was standing on would rotate to give the audience a view of the outfit. When the final garment was draped on her she was carrying 70 kilos of textures on her shoulders! They ingeniously replicated the Russian Doll effect in reverse.
Although the duo had been committed to high-fashion since they launched ‘Viktor and Rolf’ in 1993, in A/W 00/01 they launched their first ready-to-wear collection ‘Stars and Stripes’. The name of the collection indicated their intention to dive into the commercial world of fashion and receive recognition on the global scene through their use of symbols that are universally recognised.
Their second ready-to-wear show, ‘Tapdance’ S/S 01 featured themselves and rows of dancers wearing ‘Viktor and Rolf.’ The duo certainly aren’t afraid to get stuck in for the sake of entertainment. The collection was based on showbiz and what better way to show it than through a musical performance.
Their third ready-to-wear show, ‘Black Hole’ A/W 01-02 was a pivotal moment in their career. The theme of the collection was silhouettes and all the models looked like two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Everything was black, they even painted the girls black. I wonder why they didn’t just use black girls, perhaps less dramatic although something I’ll have to ask them when we meet. Speaking at the time they said, “What does become visible are the different textures and patterns of the materials. The seemingly flat appearance thus obtains a certain depth, but a depth without perspective. This collection is a response to a feeling of loss and depression that we felt at the time. We wanted to find ways of making empty shapes visible, taking the black hole as our lead.” This brought them the coverage they worked so hard to receive and brought their fashion from amazing concepts and ideas, right out into the consciousness and wardrobes of the fashion populace. They managed to marry their haut couture and ready-to-wear lines.
From season to season they impressed with new exciting ways of showcasing their collections. For A/W 02-03 they created garments using the colour chroma-key blue. This is the background colour the movie industry uses to project images onto. Models came out wearing chroma-key coloured clothes and they projected footage of nature or cityscapes onto them. In a presentation called ‘Long Live the Immaterial’ which is quite a fascinating concept to come from two material designers. The duo have an appreciation of irony and constantly make reference to the humour of fashion and the frivolous nature of the fashion business. They said the presentation was “Inspired by Yves Klein’s exclamation ‘Long live the immaterial!’ we wanted to show the immaterial as beautiful moving images, bound to disappear.”
In 2003 they launched their menswear label ‘Monsieur.’ And in keeping with their unconventional Viktor and Rolf style, they modelled the collection themselves. The fashion conscious duo said that for years they dreamed of the moment when they could wear their own clothes so who better to model it than themselves! The show was choreographed in such a way that they changed their outfits on stage and the serious duo put on a cracking performance offering not as much as a smile at the audience. At the time they said, “The show made a clear statement about how personal this work is to us. Our work is rooted in our personal life and our position within the fashion world.”
Actress Tilda Swinton is a friend and muse of the duo ever since she attended their Maggie Rizer show in Paris in 1999. Speaking to the Telegraph they said, ‘Tilda is amazing, because very few actors can go from avant-garde to Hollywood like she does, and maybe we see ourselves a bit in the same way. That we are doing something very commercial but we are drawn to something high-concept. The art world.” They designed their ‘One Woman Show’ A/W 03 collection in awe of the Scottish actress. Tilda is a powerful woman and she wrote and performed the soundtrack for the show. The soundtrack explores the importance of staying true to one’s own identity and vision. Tilda and Tilda clones modelled in the ‘One Woman Show’!
In 2003, the Fashion Museum in Paris presented a 10-year retrospective of the designer’s work.
For their A/W 05-06 ‘Bedtime Story’ collection Tori Amos performed singing and playing the piano while models appeared wearing the most sensational garments. The strutted out in dresses that appeared like satin bed covers folded over revealing frilly sheets and matching padded pillow cases.
Shows are not about parading dresses on the catwalk for these two, they are full on theatrical performances. For their S/S 07 ‘Ballroom’ show Rufus Wainwright performed.
They opened their own boutique in 2005 in the Golden Quadrilateral in Milan which closed just three years later in 2008. Also in 2005 they received a contract many designers would kill for, the opportunity to develop their first perfume for L’Oréal. This deal would offer them global advertisement and a lot of money. It will also really help them to expand onto the mass market because living in Amsterdam they are a little out of the fashion loop and as a result they don’t receive a lot of media attention. They produced a female fragrance ‘Flowerbomb’ and in 2006 a men’s perfume ‘Antidote’, both perfumes are a huge success.
In 2006 Viktor and Rolf produced a line for high street chain H&M which again extended their appeal to the masses and ingrained them further into the physic of the people.
Their A/W 07 show played again with the fashion industry and how clothes are presented. The garments are the focal point of their collections and the models often merely hangers. In this show each model wore scaffolding with her own lights and music as if each model were an individual show.
The duo wished to expand their brand further and build a monumental fashion house which will reign in our era and to make this dream possible they entered into a partnership with Renzo Rosso, the owner of Diesel and chairman of Only the Brave. By offering the Italian clothing mogul a controlling stake in their company the duo would be able to develop a wider range of products and open more boutiques.
The duo are never short of controversy and have a love / hate relationship with the press. Although many commentators believe their inspired work is genius beyond satire others still disregard much of their work as folly. Rachel Cooke of The Observer gave a damning critique of their 2008 exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery entitled “The House of Viktor & Rolf,” she said “It’s not only that bad fashion – be it too whimsical, too political, or simply too unwearable… this is precisely the wrong moment, economically speaking, for a gallery to be staging a show so intimately connected to the decade of consumerist excess for which we are about to pay such a price.” The exhibition was a celebration for their 15-year anniversary.
Key garments from 1992-2008 were remade on hand-made miniature porcelain dolls to the exact replica of how they were showcased on models during the shows. Every detail was included in this massive undertaking. The dolls were showcased in a large dolls house in the museum which was open to the public. What an awesome and delicate installation to produce. However various members of the mainstream press were not impressed reducing it to folly and over-indulgence in a time of economic crisis and recession. But art is often meant to pull us out of doom-and-gloom and bring us into a magical place. Another bone various journalists had to pick with the duo was the commercial aspect of the display as bottles of their Flowerbomb and Antidote perfumes were on display at the museum. In defence of the duo I must add that it’s the commercial giant L’Oreal who sponsor their perfumes. This kind of sponsirship is often needed to make it possible for living artists to put on installations of such magnitude. So it’s high-art with a commercial backdrop available to the masses. If there are no old-fashioned art patrons lurking on your doorstep offering you millions to become their Michelangelo then perhaps a little selling-out is acceptable. When an artist is dead 100 years then the value of their creations soar but until then, quite frankly, we have to expect a commercial element, however distasteful, in all popular art.
Their A/W 08 Ready to Wear Paris Show was themed ‘No’. The words “NO, DREAM and WOW” were popping out of the busts of many of the garments in 3 Dimensions.
S/S 08 continued on the theme of ‘No’ and in saying no to fashion week and all its crazy pressures. They opted to make a show using one model and show it on the web during fashion week. This collection was a bit disappointing. It didn’t have much heart and I would have liked more from our heros.
The white faces of the models in the A/W 09 collection, added an interesting dimension to the overall image but the collection itself was perhaps less than inspiring.
Paris Fashion Week S/S 2010 while most designers were cutting back on overindulgent glamour, Viktor & Rolf ignored the screams about the recession and comically twisted the idea of austerity in their collection by removing sections from dresses, putting holes in garments and even cutting frocks in half. They exaggerated and sensationalised the idea of ‘Cutting Edge Couture’. They are famous for taking a small idea and blowing it out of all proportion, so it goes beyond humour and satire and enters the realms of genius master-pieces. Speaking about the collection they said, “With the credit crunch and everybody cutting back, we decided to cut tulle ball gowns.” Róisín Murphy wore a tulle skirt on her top half which looked wacky and could only be pulled off by someone with her charisma. It conveniently hid her pregnant belly while she performed on a pedestal at the back of the catwalk.
Their A/W 10 show, ‘Glamour Factory’, brought what happens behind the scenes right onto the catwalk in a staged fly-on-the-wall manner. A model, Kristen McMenamy, a nineties face, came out wearing layers of coats, weighing three times her body weight! The two designers striped her layer-by-layer and dressed younger models on a rotating stage at the top of the runway. It was reminiscent of the ‘Russian Doll’ show they did in 2000. It was an effective way of showing what’s under the coats and putting the designers and the clothes at the center of the on-lookers attention. The audience got to see how the models are fitted and the art of dressing and wearing clothes properly.
The S/S 2011 collection was very wearable yet theatrical with a bit of bridal thrown in the mix. My favourite piece was a short shirtdress with strips of embroidered blue ribbons and with a wacky four sets of cuffs forming a ladder up the sleeves. For the bride who likes her own space a dress came out spanning the width of the runway. But for the cool Viktor & Rolf fan the most unconventional wedding dress came in the form of a white shirt cropped at the waist with its tail extending into a dramatic train. It was teamed with an understated plain black pants.
Viktor and Rolf custom made Lady Gaga’s giant chain jumpsuit for her music video ‘Telephone featuring Beyonce’. They drew inspiration from their A/W 2010 collection.
They regularly work with internationally known photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.
So are Viktor & Rolf worth it? You make up your own mind but here at icône du jour we believe they are worth every penny. Long live Viktor & Rolf, may they blow our socks off again-and-again way into the future!