Double Act: Viktor & Rolf

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, the Dutch duo behind the Viktor & Rolf brand that exploded onto the fashion scene more than two decades ago in avant-garde style, now work solely as a couture house, enjoying the artistic freedom of making breathtaking, wearable art.
Viktor & Rolf Fashion Show
There is a long, steel-blue coat towards the end of Viktor & Rolf’s Vagabonds haute couture show in Paris in July 2016. It has military badges on the sleeves and woven into it are shreds of fabric covered in fine silver embellishment. The entire collection was made from remnants kept from the designers’ past collections. But this one silver streak was particularly special, a souvenir from Viktor & Rolf’s first collection in 1993, the one that won them the top prize at that year’s Hyères Festival of Fashion and Photography in France, and launched them into the consciousness of the fashion world. Every piece of fabric, every bead, every crystal, every button, and every vintage brooch used as embellishment for the collection has a story to tell, each one contributing to the extraordinary body of work that the designers have created over the years they have worked together. “We liked the idea of looking at the past—not in a nostalgic way, but to make something new out of it,” explains Viktor Horsting on the phone from the Amsterdam studio he shares with Rolf Snoeren. “We just threw everything together and mixed it up, often according to the color we wanted for certain outfits, and whether we wanted an emphasis on metal or colorful plastic or Swarovski crystals. Everything was mixed—all seasons, everything. It was to make it look very organic. It was kind of fun.”

The collection looked obviously handmade—there was a lot of weaving, for instance. “It was all done here in Amsterdam,” he says. “The atelier is upstairs and there were makeshift looms everywhere. Everything was torn or cut in strips, or woven or braided or twisted. We used all different types of techniques to create new fabrics. That level of handcraft is always there, it’s just that you don’t always see it as clearly; but this time the emphasis is really there because it looks very ‘handy-crafty’. That was deliberate.”

If you happen to be in Melbourne in February, there will still be time to catch the end of a four-month exhibition of Viktor & Rolf’s work at the city’s National Gallery of Victoria. It includes more than thirty-five of their haute couture designs, on display alongside some of their extensive collection of replica antique dolls dressed in miniature versions of their clothes, as well as footage of their shows. They have chosen the pieces for the exhibition together with Thierry-Maxime Loriot, the superstar fashion curator behind The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier blockbuster.

It’s easy to see why Viktor & Rolf’s work translates so easily to a museum or gallery space. In 2008 their House of Viktor & Rolf exhibition at London’s Barbican was a huge success, with their eerie construction of a giant doll’s house complete with their collection of immaculately dressed couture dolls—a reference to the “Théâtre de la Mode,” a touring exhibition of haute couture dresses made for scaled-down mannequins in postwar Paris to help revive the French fashion industry. “What we like about exhibitions is the fact that they are not moving; this makes you focus on the garment as a sculpture, which is also the way we think about garments in general,” he explains.

Their HQ is located in Amsterdam’s prestigious Golden Bend district where the city’s wealthiest residents built their stuccoed palaces in the 17th century. Horsting and Snoeren’s atelier is rather palatial: two mansions originally built in the 1660s for the city’s mayor merged into one extraordinary house. Three seasons ago they stopped making ready-to-wear: “I think with ready-to-wear we had the feeling that we had to fit into a certain mold, and we found that very hard, so we got rid of that feeling,” says Horsting.

Horsting and Snoeren have been working together since 1992 when they graduated from the Artez Institute of the Arts in Arnhem. In April1993 they won the Prix de la Presse, Prix du Jury, and Grand Prix de la Ville de Hyères at the famous French festival, with theLittle House and the Prairie’ish collection—distressed-looking, sculptural clothes that appeared as if they had stepped out of a series of Old Master paintings.

In the years that followed they toyed with the fashion industry, creating installations and collections that were more about making a conceptual statement than selling clothes. They made their fragrance debut in October 1996 with a fictional perfume—a self-fulfilling prophecy that was to become reality with the 2005 launch of their first real fragrance, Flowerbomb, which became one of the biggest-selling fragrances of all time.

But it was in January 1998 that Viktor & Rolf showed their first haute couture show at theGalerie Thaddeus Ropac in Paris, and the world stopped to take notice. Looking back, theirAtomic Bomb collection that year was one of the most audacious and thrilling fashion shows ever. At once strange, unsettling, and powerful, it was about using clothes as a medium to make a statement that is artistic, political, cultural, and not just about the usual sex, power, and status. The fabrics were donated by a fairy godmother of a woman at a French company that had an archive of old couture fabrics dating from the 1950s, which she sold to them for very little money. “We put everything we had into that show, and we were helped by so many people. “I do remember from the reactions that we felt that something had happened; it was really the moment when we noticed that people had noticed.”

The duo had set the bar high—not just for themselves but also for other designers to do something more creative with their presentations. They went on to merge their shows with performance, theater and art, such as the 1999 Russian Doll show where they themselves were on the catwalk dressing model Maggie Rizer in nine layers, each one more gargantuan than the last. Then the One Woman Show of 2003 starred actress Tilda Swinton amid a catwalk of lookalikes. (Their partner in show wizardry is the producer Alexandre de Betak, who works with them to make their shows an immersive, emotional experience.) Then there was the dramatic Flowerbomb show for Spring/Summer 2005, where an army ofblack-clad models strode down the runway, heads hidden under sinister black helmets. Halfway through the show the stage rotated to change the mood completely with looks in shades of pink and a seductive voice-over whispering “Flowerbomb.”

Viktor & Rolf have worked with musicians, including Rufus Wainwright and Tori Amos.“In a way, the collection was pinned around Tori Amos,” explains Horsting. “The collection started with the word ‘intimacy’ and then automatically we thought about a live performance during the show, because live music can touch you in a way recorded music cannot.”

At times the designers have been part of the performance, too—most recently for their Fall/ Winter 2015 Wearable Art collection, which saw them unfolding the models’ dresses into a gallery of full-sized, framed paintings. “It was the first collection we presented after stopping the ready-to-wear, so our thinking was to emphasize the fact that we were going back to couture and that couture is almost like wearable art,” says Horsting. “So we thought, ‘OK, what if we make a dress out of a painting?’”

Loyal clients include Princess Mabel of Orange-Nassau, whose wedding dress took Viktor & Rolf more than 600 hours to complete. Her dress, with its long train decorated with bows, is on loan as part of the exhibition in Melbourne. They launched their bridal collection in New York in October 2016, when the Melbourne show opened. If there’s one occasion you might want to make a Viktor & Rolf-style entrance it is surely your wedding day. They like the freedom wedding dresses allow for one-off pieces that don’t have to work in the same way that ready-to-wear does. “We focus on a sculptural type of dress with a slightly surreal element to it—but in a wearable way.”

Ultimately, the secret of Horsting and Snoeren’s ongoing success is their friendship. It’s a constant dialogue, and they never run out of things to say to each other. “Every season you start afresh; there is always the challenge of doing something new and different.” We can’t wait to see what’s next.

Words: Tamsin Blanchard


As seen in SALT February 2017