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Viktor & Rolf SS98
Viktor & Rolf SS98

Viktor & Rolf: The couture laboratory

One half of fashion's dynamic duo reflects on 20-years of iconic design: “we wanted to rebel”

“We have always loved grey as a background. Things pop out so well.” Rolf Snoeren, one half of Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf, is explaining why their first Paris flagship store is covered entirely in grey felt. Even a bouquet of 'flowers' is crafted from the same woolen slate. On reflection, the choice is obvious. Their graduate collection of 1993 was formed of layers upon layers of grey suiting, deconstructed and distorted into extreme bustle skirts. Their first 'Monsieur' collection for men in AW03 saw the almost indistinguishable pair don matching tailoring, among them a charcoal trench with voluminous collar. And, not forgetting the 'NO' collection of womenswear AW08, which saw a detest for fast fashion moulded explicitly into the soft grey wool of coats. Fast-forward to SS14 and a rebellious school uniform of blurred grey check is peppered with studs and a grey marl netball skirt teased into origami pleats (and the menswear a sixth form uniform of gangly dove grey pinstripe). The Paris store marks Viktor & Rolf's 20th anniversary, and grey, it seems, is the quiet, unassuming backdrop to two decades of loud, fearless concepts.

“We wanted to fit back into the grid, but at the same time we wanted to rebel”

The anniversary also welcomed Viktor & Rolf's first Haute Couture presentation since 2000; the AW13 collection presented in a Zen garden, the all-black pieces a rigorous exercise in pattern cutting and innovative silhouette structure. While we remember in awe the collections of humour, theatrics and sartorial futurism – AW05's 'Bedtime Story' complete with pillows, the performance of layering in AW09's 'Russian Doll', and those laser cut tulle explosions of SS10 – underpinning it all, is a mastery of design and purist approach to wearable art.

Dazed Digital: Reflecting on 20 years of design, how important are those early Haute Couture collections to you, and their legacy on Viktor & Rolf now?

Rolf Snoeren: For many people it was the first moment they noticed us. It was very special for us, the Russian Doll presentation [of AW09], because it was obviously so extreme and we had no clue it would have that effect. Those early couture collections meant our international breakthrough.

However, we had already been working for five years before that, and I think those five years were, for us, the most important years – when we had no public recognition. That isolation and finding our own vocabulary was essential to us. And you know, there are always certain poetic motifs in our work that keep coming back. We just came back from Paris to open the store, and we were saying that twenty years after our first collection in 1993 – which was all grey – to have an all grey store is kind of a full circle. 

DD: There feels like a revival in Haute Couture – did this influence your decision to mark the anniversary with your first couture collection for over a decade?

Rolf Snoeren: Well, they said the same when we did couture in 1998. Couture for us, it's really a laboratory: it's total freedom, where we can do whatever we want. Whether it’s dressing one girl, or creating a Zen garden, it's an outlet for our creativity. It’s art for art's sake.

So for the 20th anniversary we felt like moving forward. You know, when we stopped Haute Couture [in 2000], we always knew that we wanted to go back, but at a moment when we could add it next to ready-to-wear. We felt that this year was the perfect moment to go back to Haute Couture so we could divide our wearable message with our more conceptual and poetic message, which until now was mixed all into one show. We feel it's clearer to us.

DD: You are quite the storytellers. What tales have you heard about your pieces from those who wear them?

Rolf Snoeren: I must say, a lot of our pieces, and not only the couture pieces, but a lot during the years have been bought by museums. Which is great, because it means a large audience can see them, and not just a fashion audience. And you know those pieces are taken care of. We don’t always know where they are, so people often come up to us and say, 'Oh I saw the pieces there and there', which is always nice to hear.

We once sold pieces to a museum in Japan, and when we did the retrospective in the Barbican [gallery, London] we asked those pieces to be on display. A girl from the museum came over with the pieces, but we were not allowed to touch them! She was standing in front of the garments with her white gloves, and no one – not even us – were allowed to touch them. Which we thought was fantastic. She was so protective of them, it felt good. She was protective of our babies. We don't really imagine the pieces on women, but when we go to stores and do presentations it's nice to see clients and how they dress themselves. We went to the States to do a mini tour a couple of months ago, and when we were in Chicago we met a woman who collects our white shirts. She always wants a white shirt from every collection because it makes her feel energetic.

DD: Talking of the House of Dolls exhibition at the Barbican, where are those dolls now?

Rolf Snoeren: They're still touring. They just came back from Toronto. When they're not touring they’re in stock, they have their little home, their wooden case. We keep making them, every season we make porcelain dolls. The army of dolls is growing. The dollhouse is still very dear to us; it has become part of our language.

DD: Your presentations and performances are always unexpected. What's been the most bizarre moment for you so far?

Rolf Snoeren: Probably when we had a show with real diamond necklaces, rings and brooches. They were worth millions, and had lots of security. Then we had a power outage, so it was completely dark for ten minutes while everybody was dressing; it was total chaos. But the diamonds all came back, so that was good.

DD: What were the inspirations behind the school uniforms of SS14 womenswear and menswear?

Rolf Snoeren: After the complete freedom of couture we felt that for ready-to-wear, we wanted to fit back into the grid, but at the same time we wanted to rebel. We were thinking about how those in school uniforms rebel against it, they start adding their own little changes. We were really playing with the elements of the uniform.

DD: Are there any collections that you’d like to revisit? Not necessarily to rewrite, but to experience again?

Rolf Snoeren: No, never. I must say for us, when we’ve done it, it's over. The past is the past.

DD: What is the concept behind the Paris flagship store?

Rolf Snoeren: We wanted the store to be a template for future stores. When we talked to the architects, we said we’d like a store that's invisible. As if it wasn't there. The architects came up with the term, 'ghost architecture.' Meaning that they make visible the spaces that are usually not visible. It's a surreal experience.

It is a bit of a reaction to the usual designer store. It had to be invisible. To be in this felt room, it does something with sound. It absorbs all the sound, so it feels very quiet, and it's very tactile. You can touch anything.

DD: Apart from future stores, what is the vision for Viktor & Rolf going forward?

Rolf Snoeren: One specific thing that we would like after perfume, is make up. That would be very nice, and is on the agenda. You know, as a creative person I can imagine many things. What we would like to do is an amazing movie – one that can give us an Oscar.