words Lucy Stehlik
“What’s a geek?” asks Rolf Snoeren, crossing his legs defensively. “It’s like a nerd,” says Viktor Horsting, sounding slightly peeved. “Oh,” responds Rolf. Dutch fashion designers Viktor & Rolf are miffed at a recent Time magazine article that announced: “The skinny, bespectacled, look-alike design team radiates more geek than glamour.” But they shouldn’t let it get to them.
They are two of the hottest names on the fashion circuit and they are changing the way people experience clothes. And it’s partly their po-faced, well-read Dutchness that has made not just the fickle fashion world but even art critics take them seriously.
For the last ten years, Viktor & Rolf have been making exquisite clothes. For young designers (they are both 35), they are masterful cutters and drapers, expert at observing and subverting the conventions of couture tailoring to produce new silhouettes.
But their shows are their trump card. 2002’s Blue Screen, in which images were projected onto bright blue garments, transforming the models into walking special effects screens, prompted New York Times Magazine to announce: “Viktor & Rolf are artists and fashion is their medium.”
Viktor & Rolf tend to abandon the average catwalk, models and music formula in favour of surreal theatrical performances. A Viktor & Rolf show is fantasy writ large on a stage where clothes are “actors”, models are props and two geeks from Holland’s outer suburbs are self-styled auteurs of the Brechtian variety.
In 2000, they learnt to tap dance so they could take centre stage in their own show’s finale. For their Babushka show in 2002 they decked out a supermodel in ten outfits, one on top of the other, placed her on a revolving plinth and undressed her layer by layer. Last year, they commissioned Tori Amos to sing a 15-minute version of Songs Of Solomon for a show that featured gigantic pillows instead of collars. Viktor & Rolf make the catwalk theatricality of Alexander McQueen or John Galliano seem formulaic.
They have also curated exhibitions (most recently, Colors, at the Mori Art Museum, in which they were given access to the Kyoto Costume Institute’s priceless clothing archives), been the subjects of two monographs and various retrospectives (in 2000 at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands and in 2005 at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris). So are Viktor & Rolf fashion designers or artists?
We are seated on white Eames chairs at a long table in Viktor & Rolf’s handsome boardroom. Refurbished by the same architect who created their upside-down Milan store, the comparatively strait-laced Amsterdam studio creates the same feeling of being in a Parisian salon, with some quirky touches: like a large seemingly innocuous map, which is revealed upon closer inspection to be a rather profane chart of the human psyche.
The place is reverentially hushed, bar the occasional muffled yap or tinkle of a mobile from somewhere upstairs. Horsting and Snoeren are practically identical, accentuated by matching outfits – a trait, as has been widely commented, that they share with the artists Gilbert and George. They are also quite hard work.
Rolf examines his thin fingers in silence while the question hangs in the air. The interview will be punctuated by silences, some of them uncomfortable, many of them unbearable, and this one falls into the latter category.
Eventually Viktor, the more smiley (relatively) of the two, offers me an encouraging smile. Slowly, as if reading from a neutered press release, he says, “The acceptance of the art world, that was not something we actively pursued. A lot of that …” A long pause follows, this time merely uncomfortable. “…happened. We felt contented with that for a long time. It’s important for us to have more platforms to express ourselves. We still do a lot of exhibitions. We still curate. But fashion is always the centre.”
Fashion has been at the centre of Horsting and Snoeren’s lives since they hit puberty. Viktor tells me how, long before the pair had ever met, they both used to wait for the annual screening of the only fashion-related programme shown on Dutch television. The dearth of glamour, he explains, made them crave it all the more. “For people here, fashion was a hobby, not a job. We struggled with that.”
Rolf, who becomes incrementally chattier as the interview wears on, elaborates. “It was really difficult just to think of how to be a fashion designer in Holland. There’s no fashion industry here. There’s not really a fashion media, which speaks to an international audience. So there really is a lack of context – and that was even more the case when we were studying, with this ambition of becoming big fashion designers.”
Horsting and Snoeren met while studying fashion at the Academy of the Arts in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Bonded by a shared desire for fame of the household name variety, they graduated with distinction in 1992. The following year they won the prestigious Hyeres talent contest, after which they quit the Netherlands for fashion’s capital city, Paris.
Horsting’s father, they tell me, drove them there with their pots and pans piled up on the back seat like Dutch Beverly Hillbillies. “We just thought, oh let’s go to Paris and be fashion designers!” recalls Horsting. “It was all so open back then, which was scary, but also invigorating.”
They spent the early Nineties holed up in a Parisian bedsit, serving apprenticeships under Martin Margiela and Jean Collona by day; by night, producing clothes on a shoestring for a largely oblivious public.
One year they made sumptuous ballgowns out of old shirts, the next, piqued by fashion’s snobbery, they made nothing and flyposted the streets of Paris with a photocopied magazine that announced on its cover, “Viktor & Rolf on strike!”
But while the fashion world, let alone the general public, hadn’t heard of them, galleries were buying into their DIY aesthetic. In 1997, before any but fashion cognoscenti knew who they were, Richard Martin, then curator of the MoMA’s Costume Institute declared: “The hybrid of art and fashion that Viktor & Rolf so uniquely make cannot be measured against art or fashion alone.”
In the same year, Amsterdam’s Torch Gallery showed a series of Viktor & Rolf installations, based on the wartime tradition in which fashion houses produced miniature travelling versions of their collections – a somewhat glib reference to their own budgetary restrictions. The exhibition, entitled “Launch”, would become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for the pair.
“The installations depicted our ambition,” says Horsting. (The word “ambition” crops up more than 30 times in the hour-long interview.) Snoeren continues in his nasal monotone, “We said to ourselves, ‘Things are not going the way we want them to, so let’s visualise for ourselves how we want it – and then produce that in miniature.’ So we had the little catwalk, the little shop, we made a fake perfume. It was almost like a projection of our ambition.”
Following an appearance at New York’s PS1 and several approving reviews from art forums and underground fashion “zines”, they made the bullish decision to present couture, the highest form of fashion (wherein established designers produce exclusive one-off pieces and, occasionally, sell them at extortionate prices to preferred clients).
“We had spent five years in Paris working very much to ourselves,” explains Snoeren. “We always made collections and we presented somehow, but more in galleries and museums. But we felt ourselves getting too removed from fashion, so we said, let’s place ourselves in the middle of fashion and start at the top, and we decided to present couture.”
Unsanctioned by any governing body, the duo stormed Paris fashion week in 1998, putting on an off-schedule, underground show when they knew the press would be around. Their show referenced the apocalyptic, turn-of-the-millennium zeitgeist, with irreverent, ridiculous “atom-bomb silhouettes” made with overstuffed tops and slim tails. A mushroom cloud dress made Time magazine’s Picture of the Week and grabbed the fashion world’s attention.
In the years that followed, Viktor & Rolf became famous for making clothes that no one bought and no one could wear. But they soon realised the limits of this approach and, in 2000, launched their first ready-to-wear collection, which appropriated America’s stars and stripes to underline the show’s commercial motivation.
The success of the show confirmed that couture was not the only route to acclaim. Today, the designers have diversified the Viktor & Rolf brand to include every logical extension: menswear, eyewear, footwear, accessories and now a fragrance, Flowerbomb (which Viktor eagerly presents to me for sampling, only for me to pronounce it “lovely, very delicate”, before he tells me the lid is still on).
But their shows continue to grab the headlines. Are the shows still what they want to be known for? Rolf responds, getting slightly bug-eyed, “No! We just do both now. We make clothes that people want to wear – and then we make special pieces that we call couture.”
“But from a business point of view,” says Viktor, “We show a dress and it makes the cover of Time and that’s great, but that’s the end of it. Ultimately, we want to grow and progress, and that’s why it’s really important to do ready-to-wear – to get a more immediate dialogue with the audience.”
But Rolf wants to be absolutely clear: “For us still it’s the shows, the performance, that’s the real work that we make.”
With the brand evolving and diversifying, can they still pin down the essence of their product? Eventually, Viktor speaks, “Well, conceptual glamour comes to mind.” A long pause (unbearable). Somewhere, a dog yaps asthmatically, breaking this final awkward silence. “But escape from reality is also a phrase we keep using.”