.artist talk: Viktor & Rolf
* between art + fashion
written Monica De Vidi
“Is your work fashion or art?”, this is a question that Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Roelf Snoeren had to answer quite often during the twenty-five years of their fashion house, a period during which they created clothes characterized by an impressive sculptural appearance; clothes that they presented with runway shows similar to art performances, causing critics and the wider public to discuss the definition of fashion.
Despite the international attention, indeed reinforced by viral initiatives such as the Fashion Statements collection, the duo is still based in an atelier in a seventeenth century house in Amsterdam, that represents the place from where Viktor and Rolf brought a breath of creativity and newness to the Netherlands, a country that is not known for avant-garde in fashion, but that was more famous for its traditional wooden clogs and lace costumes. As a tribute and a recognition about how fundamental the duo is the national cultural heritage, as well as worldwide, a retrospective exhibition has been hosted at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, from May, the 27th to September, the 30th 2018.
In January 2019, Viktor and Rolf took part in the Paris Couture Week, where they unveiled seventeen looks belonging to the Fashion Statements collection, a collection that confirmed their genuine freedom within a fierce business, their desire to express ideas taken from the daily life, from the Internet and the social media, translated to haute couture’s language: “Sorry I'm late”, “I didn't want to come”, “Go to hell”, or “Give a damn”. Yet, “Freedom” and “I want a better world” are also part of slogan canon, and appeal to the global audience. That audience was enabled to take part in the couture show thanks to a simple Instagram account, where people could virtually share the feelings triggered by the voluminous, enormous and colorful gowns constructed with tulle and embellished with the designers’ sophisticated and precious details.
On the occasion
of this event, we
had the chance to
interview Viktor & Rolf
and to discuss the
When did you start to define yourself as “fashion artists”? Are critics the ones insisting on finding a definition for your creativity or do you feel the necessity to express your identity with “traditional” categories?
We have always had close ties with the museum world: we started in the art world before focusing on fashion, but we have never identified as artists, we prefer “fashion artists”, because it addresses a question that is often asked: is your work fashion or art?
From the start, you’ve been featured in spaces dedicated to art, such as museums and galleries. What kind of public do you want to reach through these gestures? How do you want people to see your work and why is it important to stem the exclusivity of fashion shows?
The art world embraced us before the fashion world did. That was not our choice, it just so happened. We felt quite at home there and we had many shows in the art context before focusing on fashion. We still like to do both because they both offer unique possibilities. A fashion show is for a small group of people and it happens at one specific moment in time, never to be repeated. A good catwalk show can have an energy that is unlike anything else. A museum or gallery show is more democratic: it can reach a wider audience than the catwalk, and an exhibition offers different circumstances to focus on different aspects of the work.
You both come from an education in fashion, but at the same time you constantly look at the art world for inspiration. What drives you? How important is the commercial side of your activity?
We express ourselves through fashion. This is what drives us: to create. Our ambition has always been artistic, and we still see commerciality as a byproduct thereof. Flowerbomb, our first perfume was created with the same approach as our most extreme couture. It’s a difficult balance to strike, between commerciality and artistry. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t.
You have demonstrated that you are able to cross boundaries between different media and techniques, what’s the role of experimentation in your activities?
We like to experiment. For us, couture is our laboratory for creative experimentation. The aim is to try to express something new.
Based on a former exhibition in Melbourne at the National Gallery of Victoria, curated by Thierry- Maxime Loriot, the exhibition “Viktor & Rolf: Fashion Artists 25 Years” digs into duo ́s traditional themes. The show features one or more pieces from old and new collections, stage costumes for ballet and theatre and artisanal porcelain dolls wearing down-sized versions of the dresses of each collection, produced with the papier-mâché technique since 2006 by a Belgian manufacturer. Everything is showcased alongside a wallpaper, a unifying element made for this event and digitally realized from hundreds of original sketches by the designers.
On display there’s one of the symbols of Viktor and Rolf ́s constant connection with the artistic universe, an extract from Wearable Art (AW 2015/2016). When originally presented, the designers themselves appeared on stage to remove the “clothes/paintings” from the walls and to put them on the models, and then back from the models to the walls. There’s also the installation Russian Doll (AW 1999), a catwalk with moving mannequins, each of them wearing one of the “arquitectural” layers of the composition made with various fabrics and with different techniques, which remind us that wearability is not the main concern for Viktor and Rolf, because clothes and fabrics are only objects in their conceptual process. The same theme was investigated in Red Carpet collection (AS 2014/2015), literally realized with carpet fabrics, or in Bombon collection (SS 2014), where garments were pushed to create a surreal effect, a second skin, suggesting even the idea of wearable nudity. The research of the duo on materials, their limits and possibilities is well represented in the retrospective, for instance with the mono-material of Surreal (SS 2018), where satin is the only protagonist, or with the unique piece of Shirt Symphony (SS 2011), or furthermore with the studies about the effects of lights and colors on textiles inWhite (AW 2001/2002). But the pair’s range of materials goes beyond textiles. They bravely use different media as in Van Gogh Girls (SS 2015) that combines abstract volumes with organic elements, including three-dimensional flowers. Emblematic in the exhibition is a sample from the NO collection (AW 1996/1997), a self-portrait of a moment of rebellion of the designers against fashion ́s fast pace and its consumption logic, a protest represented also by the picture of the model walking around Paris from the On Strikecollection (AW 1996/1997).
Divided in chapters and developed in a coherent path, the exhibition reflects the evolution of your work and proofs that you feel free to belong to both, the disciplines of art and fashion. Would you define this connection as the secret of your success? Have you ever thought about addressing yourself to one of them only?
There is no real secret to our success. We believe that staying true to ourselves is the key to our success. We try not to feel inhibited by categorization or external factors when we create. We try to feel free.
Looking at the exhibition, the temporal dimension seems key to understanding your art. Your art is made last. Would you donate, in the future, your creations to museums, where memories are preserved? Where do you see your own work in the next twenty-five years?
That is an accurate observation. The dolls as well as the tapestries are an example of our fascination with time and our desire to somehow cherish and safeguard that what is fleeting. Our work is present in numerous museum collections worldwide, such as the Met, the Kyoto Costume Institute and the Palais Galliera in Paris.