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The Other Side of Olivier Theyskens

The maverick design genius grants a rare interview to Dazed as he releases his first retrospective monograph, ‘The Other Side of The Picture’

As a swansong, it took some beating. For Olivier Theyskens’ last collection for Nina Ricci F/W 09, he sent out a collection that epitomized his dramatic, poetic sensibility to the hilt. Adorned with helmet hard hats and balanced on impossible platforms with claw-shaped heels, the models glided out like dark princesses, equal parts shadowy Victoriana and space-age futurism. Immaculate tailoring in shades of asphalt and charcoal gave way to a breathtaking finale of iridescent evening dresses with curvilinear hems that spiralled all the way up the bodice. 

And like that he was gone.  Another victim of the revolving door policy that has plagued many of the august fashion houses of Paris.

Prior to this, Theyskens had experienced a heady rise, unmatched by few.  A childhood in Belgium spent sketching imaginary dresses led to training at the prestigious La Cambre in Brussels which he left early, declaring he “hated it.” At the age of 20, he photographed his first collection and sent out images to famed photographer Inez Van Lamsveerde who was working with Madonna at the time. Smitten by his designs, Madonna wore his black satin frock coat to the 1998 Golden Globes causing a sensation for the then unknown designer. With his dark mane of hair and Byronic beauty, Theyskens went on to become a darling of the fashion world, and after a few seasons showing morbidly powerful collections under his own name, was promptly appointed artistic director at Rochas in 2003.

Romina Lanaro at Rochas A/W 2006-7

At Rochas, he made a swerve from the dark side to embrace a classic ideal of femininity. This translated to dresses inspired by the memory of Monet’s water lilies or high-necked gowns decorated with rivulets of chiffon. Such an uncompromisingly romantic vision was swooned over by women like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman; but inevitably the “demi-couture” came with prices to match. Despite the accolades (which culminated in the 2006 CFDA for best International Designer) Rochas’ owner, the pharmaceutical giant Procter & Gamble saw this as a losing venture and promptly sold off the label.

Seemingly unperturbed, he made a seamless transition to another noble French fashion house that had existed on the strength of an iconic perfume, Nina Ricci. He may have showed his first collection for Ricci in the ethereal surroundings of the Tuileries, against an evanescent sky, but this time he attempted to temper his effortless flights of whimsy with a more grounded aesthetic, showing day and sportswear looks for the first time. The praise and acclaim grew over the 3 short seasons but his vision of the Nina Ricci girl was not shared by its owners, eventually leading to him being replaced by Peter Copping.

Perhaps seeing the break as an opportunity, Theyskens has made time to look back on his body of work with the release of his retrospective, ‘The Other Side Of The Picture’ released through Assouline. A 10- year collaboration with his friend, art photographer, Julien Claessens, the book shows his elegant and precisely realized sensibility evolving over the years in intimate photographs that goes against the grain of standard fashion photography. Dazed Digital was granted a rare audience with Theyskens and Claessens in Theyskens’ Paris studio. Serene and prone to bouts of laughter, Theyskens puts paid to any notions of himself as fashion’s dark prince. Amid apparent rumours of having found a backer for a new label in the form of Tory Burch’s ex husband, Christopher Burch, what Theyskens will do next remains a guarded secret for now. Whatever it will be, expect the fashion world to be watching.

Olga Sherer at Nina Ricci S/S 2008

Dazed Digital: How did the book with Assouline come about?
Olivier Theyskens: Julien and I were together at La Cambre. He was in photography and I was in fashion. When I started working he came as a friend to do pictures. He started to have quite a lot of materials. He started to think it could be a project. The project became more balanced and interesting over the years.

DD: How do you feel when you look back at the book now, at the last 10 years?
Olivier Theyskens: It’s interesting for me because I know that Julien is not a fashion photographer. His work is very personal to me. It doesn’t look like photo reportage or fashion pictures. I know Julien as an artist photographer and I see the link between his work and this. I can see his sensibility and what attracts him to taking these pictures which personally I really like a lot.
Julien Claessens: Normally I take portraits. Sometimes architecture.  It was amusing for me, an experiment. I like fashion. Olivier never really spoke to me. I can see something that is really near to the approach of Olivier.  I don’t know the code of fashion but I understand emotionally what to do with that.
Olivier Theyskens: At the beginning he was just coming and not taking pictures. Just coming as my friend and going to the show. When he first asked me if he could take photos, I said yes but from the backstage. Not at the front where it is super-crowded. But he found the material he wanted in the mess of the backstage. Julien is transparent in the backstage. If there is someone I would love to disturb me backstage it would have been Julien!
This book is more than a collaboration. Julien and I have had a parallel evolution. It’s life. It’s a relation that we have that we started together. It’s precious when you have these people who know you. Julien is one of the only people that was there at the beginning and is here now.

Irina Kulikova at Nina Ricci S/S 2008

DD: For a young designer from Belgium, you started showing on the Paris catwalks quite early…
Olivier Theyskens: I did not expect to do a show in Paris that early. Before I had done a collection that was not shown on the Paris catwalk. But it got a very positive response from the press and there was something happening so some of my professional friends told me that I should do a show.  That’s why with my friends it was not the time where we would think so quickly to do a show and get that attention. It was funny because there was something disproportionate between my existence and the attention I was getting at the time. You can see it on the first page of the book – my interior is very quiet and I’m alone working and it’s my little world and then we would go to Paris and it would be a big mess and all this craziness. Of course I was protected in Brussels. In the first photo from the book, I was preparing for S/S 99. I had one seamstress who was coming on weekends and the rest I was doing on my own. At the time I was 20. I was already out of school. 
The collection I made from sheets my grandmother had been collecting over time. They were from the flea markets in Normandy where she was from.  What I loved was the idea that you stripped the sheets off the bed and made dresses out of them.

Kim Noorda at Rochas A/W 2004-5

DD: How did you feel about being labelled as a Gothic designer in the early years?
Olivier Theyskens: I learnt you cannot do anything about what the press say. For me when I started I could not even explain what was Gothic. What I learnt from being with a brother who was very oriented to artistry and old history, I thought Gothic was very colourful churches!  But I understood very quickly. But I was not a specialist at all. In Brussels you have more like street, old reminiscences of punk. But I like the idea of something being fragile and broken.

DD: What did you think of the hype that grew so quickly?
Olivier Theyskens: I was very quiet. I was just doing what I was feeling to do. I had a Parisian friend who was helping me with the collection. She was watching TV and saw Madonna and screamed, “It’s Madonna wearing your dress!” (laughs) and I just continued working. I wasn’t really listening to her music. Of course I loved her person and I had a big crush on her when I was a kid but she was very different when she appeared at that moment (‘Ray of Light’) and everybody loved it.

Lily Donaldson at Nina Ricci S/S 2009

DD: What was your starting point for each collection?
Olivier Theyskens: It depends. I like to change my process from collection to collection. But you also have a practical way to work because everything goes by very quick and you have a few people around you. You cannot just work as an artist, you also have to use a practical process and then you have to keep your creativity and integrity through that process.

DD: And you don’t have a muse in particular?
Olivier Theyskens: I don’t think about someone in particular. I always figured femininity in my own mind. Already as a kid, I already had that idea – the feeling of femininity, of womanhood. It’s not an exercise for me, it’s something that comes naturally. But I don’t have a muse. People think as a designer, you only do clothes for goddesses. But I have a very realistic thing in mind. I love bodies and proportions so I like to look to the people and get the feeling of the different bodies. As for the women around me sometimes it helps me think about what I don’t want to do! (laughs) I’m not looking to surround myself only with girls who are really fashionable. I don’t need to see girls every day to keep them in mind.

DD: What is your idea of elegance in a woman?
Olivier Theyskens: My feeling is I like grace. I think grace is a gift. It’s not something that’s learnt, a lot of time it is someone who is naturally gracious. I remember one of my aunts, I used to feel she was very elegant.

Romina Lanaro at Nina Ricci A/W 2007-8

DD: How did you find the transition from your label to Rochas and Nina Ricci?
Olivier Theyskens: It has always been very natural. As far as I can remember, I always felt I could work for the spirit of something else. I always loved French fashion and the standing of French fashion.  I always thought I would love to do that experience once.

DD: Nina Ricci and Rochas are famed fashion houses but they were dormant when you took over them, more well known for their perfumes.
Olivier Theyskens: Yes and that goes well with my mind because I’m excited by more than designing but by something that you have got to build. It’s nice to come to a place where there is almost nothing. It doesn’t make the game more easy, but it’s very interesting for me, I am very entrepreneurial. It stimulates me and also I feel very useful for it. It’s exciting because you start on a white page.

Karen Elson at Olivier Theyskens S/S 2001

DD: The shows were always very emotional, especially your last one at Ricci
Olivier Theyskens: I’m very full of emotions. I like that little bit of emotion no? I mean it’s natural for me to look after that. A lot of time I feel the emotion of my world in these pictures Julien has taken than on the catwalk. There is a whole world of mystery and emotions and they look more like my own world than pictures in fashion magazines.

DD: Tell us about the last collection with the girls in those space-age heels that made them look like aliens
Olivier Theyskens: The collection was not about making girls look like aliens! (laughs)  But I wanted the models to look really tall so it emphasized the silhouette. A lot of my work in the end comes from my drawings and I just draw my collection in that way. I was speaking about moonlight, a nocturnal mood, things of mystery, beauty and it all came out like that.

Kim Noorda at Rochas S/S 2005

DD: Given what happened at Rochas and then Ricci, is there any bitterness?
Olivier Theyskens: No, no. For me Rochas, I thought maybe I could stay 20 years, it was possible. It was chemical with Rochas. But I have to say with Nina Ricci, I did not get that feeling that strong. I was very inspired so that’s why I did it. I thought that girl could be someone I would design for. But I don’t have any bitterness. That is probably not in my character because whatever happens in life, I am always open to new adventures. Even if I have a big separation with somebody I never feel bitterness.
I’m very active, I’m never passive. I’m doing a lot of things. I’m not somebody who absolutely needs to draw and create. Hopefully you work in fashion because you have this rhythm. I would not say I am rushing to go back to working for a fashion house. Rushing is not very good. You have to temper yourself a little bit.

DD: What is the next chapter for Monsieur Theyskens then?
Olivier Theyskens: Ah that I cannot tell!

'Olivier Theyskens: The Other Side of The Picture' is released by Assouline and will be released soon during New York Fashion Week.

Lily Cole at Rochas S/S 2006

Siri Tollerod at Nina Ricci S/S 2008

Gemma Ward at Rochas A/W 2006-7

All images courtesy of Assouline and Julien Claessens