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From the outside in

They lampooned the fashion world, but now Viktor & Rolf envision mainstream success.

October 21, 2003|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Paris — Paris

Dutch duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren could be two of the cleverest designers on the fashion planet.

In the 10 years since they met at art school, they have followed a deliberate path, at first creating a sensation by offering high-minded but mostly unwearable collections that commented on the fashion establishment. One of their first fashion presentations, "Miniature Doll" in 1996, portrayed a fashion empire in miniature, including tiny dioramas of a design showroom, a runway and a boutique. Barbie-sized dolls wore the clothing. They even made a fake Viktor & Rolf perfume; it came in a bottle that did not open.

But by poking fun at the system, they captivated it, and climbed to the top. In a time when so many contemporary designers are working to revive fusty brands like Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, it's no small feat to have started a Paris fashion house of their own. With their most commercial collection yet, presented to great fanfare on the runway here earlier this month, and a retrospective exhibition at the Musee de la Mode et du Textile, they are poised to convert their outsider status to mainstream, retail success. Backed by L'Oreal, a real Viktor & Rolf perfume will be launched next year. And now the designers can finally loosen up and admit that what they really want is to make it in Hollywood.

"We're definitely interested in having our clothes on the red carpet ... on the right person," Horsting said last week at the museum. "Our spring collection was aimed at that public. We thought all the evening wear that you see out there was very cliche, so we tried to make it modern." Their vision included a gown that was half skirt, half trousers.

When they were first starting out, their shows took place in art galleries, and their clothes were not produced but instead bought by museum curators around the world. But that wasn't the future as envisioned by Horsting, 34, or Snoeren, 33, who rattled off "ambition" as the quality that first drew them together at the Arnhem Academy art school in the Netherlands. They want to be stars.

And so, visitors to the exhibit are greeted by lifelike wax figurines of the two designers, who could easily be twins. "We wanted it to be a bit like Disneyland, with Mickey and Goofy there to welcome you to our world," said Horsting (who has a longer face, their publicist offers).

The soft-spoken designers helped the museum's director of programming, Olivier Saillard, create the Viktor & Rolf universe in a dark, murky gallery with a cosmic soundtrack playing in the background.

It may seem odd to have a retrospective after a mere 10 years, but Saillard said "they are a mirror of the fashion system, who represent a new way of having shows and a new way of making clothes." He believes they were responsible for ending the fashion elite's 1990s obsession with Japanese-style minimalism, personified by such lines as Commes des Garcons.

The show, which runs through Jan. 25, is organized chronologically. Runway footage is paired with the actual clothes in glass cases. Fashion in a museum "is a little like taking the life out of the clothes," said Horsting. "So we wanted to treat the exhibit like a zoo. In here are the animals," he said, pointing to the cases. "And here, onscreen, is the jungle where they come from, or the proper context of the fashion show."

Their first collections were illustrations of ideas rather than any real attempt at selling, said Snoeren, who wears the same kind of nerdy black glasses as his design partner. "They were experiments, answers to questions about who we are and how we fit into the fashion business."

The 1995 "Supermodel" collection was dedicated to superficiality; dresses looked like candy wrappers. "We were very irritated by collections seeming to revolve around everything surrounding fashion, like the models, and the accessories, when we thought it should be about clothes," said Snoeren. "So we started with the idea of bonbon packages, or gold foil, and treated the clothes purely as decorative elements for the models." As part of the installation, there was a tape playing in the background, featuring schoolchildren chanting the names of famous models, "Naomi, Eva, Cindy," etc.

The designers, who live in Amsterdam, could well have been dismissed as fashion pranksters without any real substance. But their workmanship and tailoring skills prove otherwise.

Their first Paris collection, presented in 1998, celebrated the art of haute couture. On one glorious gray satin gown with a dramatic high collar and asymmetrical closing, they left the embroidery hoop fastened to the front, the work half-finished.

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