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Viktor & Rolf, fashion's most daring duo, celebrate 25 years of provocation

Published 10th July 2018
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Viktor & Rolf, fashion's most daring duo, celebrate 25 years of provocation
Written by Allyssia Alleyne, CNNParis
It's 88 degrees Fahrenheit in Paris, and backstage at the unairconditioned Le Trianon theater is sizzling. Sweat-drenched assistants move around in a daze, giving garments a last-minute punch of steam from an industrial iron or adding the finishing touches -- an altered sleeve here, a few more crystals there -- to dresses that will cost tens of thousands of dollars. Teenage models clomp between fittings and makeup stations in preparation for what will be a very tense 15 minutes.
Amid it all, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, the Dutch designers behind Viktor & Rolf, move through the fray with unexpected calm, given the occasion. This season's haute couture show, just hours away, is the apex of a year of celebration as the designers mark their brand's 25th anniversary.
Viktor Horsting, left and Rolf Snoeren backstage at their 25th anniversary show at Le Trianon theater in Paris on July 4, 2018.
Viktor Horsting, left and Rolf Snoeren backstage at their 25th anniversary show at Le Trianon theater in Paris on July 4, 2018. Credit: Suzanne Plunkett for CNN
Horsting and Snoeren, one of fashion's most outrageous odd couples, have been champions of the avant garde from the beginning. Since meeting as 19-year-olds at the Arnhem Academy of Art and Design in the Netherlands, they've aspired to design clothes that are more curious than commercial, spawning countless conversations about the separation of art and fashion with collections that straddle both.
Their menswear, womenswear and haute couture have earned them industry praise and patronage from the likes of Bjork, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Tilda Swinton, with the latter inspiring and walking in the pair's Autumn-Winter 2003 ready-to-wear show.
After revisiting their archives for "Viktor & Rolf: Fashion Artists 25 Years," an exhibition at the Kunsthal Rotterdam museum, and "Viktor & Rolf: Cover to Cover," an upcoming coffee table book, the designers have mined the past again for the runway. This latest show has seen them recreate 25 of their most iconic pieces in white, embellishing them with more than half a million Swarovski crystals.
Tailors take a break while putting the finishing touches on a creation backstage.
Tailors take a break while putting the finishing touches on a creation backstage. Credit: Suzanne Plunkett for CNN
"We've always cherished the work we did in the past. That's just part of who we are," says Snoeren. "We wanted it to not be nostalgic. We wanted it to be a light-hearted, fun, celebratory way of looking at the past."
But for those who have followed the brand, it's hard not to get pangs of nostalgia looking through the garments hanging from metal rails around us. The final selection is a retrospective of the weird and wonderful: One gown appears to be sewn from a duvet and pillows (Autumn-Winter 2005), while another seems to have had a cannonball knocked through its tulle skirts (Spring-Summer 2010). A painted dress from Viktor & Rolf's aptly titled "Wearable Art" collection (Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2015) transforms into a hangable canvas when taken off the wearer.
"We had to really show the codes of the work we've done," Snoeren says. "And it's interesting to see how timeless, in a way, the pieces are and how they connect because you can't really tell when each piece was made. Somehow, they've become a new unit -- in our eyes at least."
A model's dress, a recreation from Autumn-Winter 2005 ready-to-wear collection, is adjusted backstage before the show.
A model's dress, a recreation from Autumn-Winter 2005 ready-to-wear collection, is adjusted backstage before the show. Credit: Suzanne Plunkett for CNN
Such impractical concepts reflect the kind of creative independence that many designers dream of but few can afford. It is all made possible by Viktor & Rolf's business model, which uses profits from licensing and its wildly popular fragrance empire (which started with 2005's Flowerbomb) to fund more creative endeavors.
"I think at a certain moment, the success of our perfume business ... changed things for us," Horsting says. "We realized how important it is to put creativity at the forefront, and it (also) gave us more freedom to do that."
In 2008, Viktor & Rolf became a subsidiary of Only the Brave (the Renzo Rosso-owned company that backs Maison Margiela, Marni and Diesel) and in 2015, Horsting and Snoeren surprised many when they announced they were discontinuing their ready-to-wear lines.
At the time, Russo told Women's Wear Daily the decision was "a strategic decision to position the Viktor & Rolf brand in the highest luxury segment of fashion." But Horsting and Snoeren were also relieved to excuse themselves from a system they'd become disillusioned with, burdened by expectations around trendiness, wearability and commercial viability. They returned their focus to couture (they showed couture for two years from 1998, and returned to the schedule in 2013) and have recently branched out into bridal and occasionwear.
"We find it difficult to work in the (ready-to-wear) system -- the pace, the industrial system itself -- even if we worked with great partners. We just had a really hard time finding our groove there. I don't know how else to say it. We tried a lot of different ways, but I don't know. It wasn't us," Snoeren says.
At the rarefied world of Paris Couture Week, it's fantasies, not clothes, that are most in demand. Historically, this has been Viktor & Rolf's specialty. In Autumn-Winter 1999's "Russian Doll" couture show, for example, the designers showed an entire collection on one model, Maggie Rizer, personally dressing her in layer after layer on the runway. And in their Spring-Summer 2001 show, tap dancers in Louise Brooks-style wigs were drafted in to wear the clothes. (Horsting and Snoeren, wearing matching white suits, joined in on the final number.)
A model presents a creation during the Viktor & Rolf 25th Anniversary catwalk show.
A model presents a creation during the Viktor & Rolf 25th Anniversary catwalk show. Credit: Suzanne Plunkett for CNN
Horsting explains that runway concepts often come first, "and then the clothes are almost actors in a play." But today, they've decided to minimize the element of performance: "We really wanted to focus on those moments, so we didn't want any distractions."
Indeed, when the show finally begins (30 minutes behind schedule), the models walk through rows of chairs on black carpet, which is sprinkled with Swarovski crystals, with minimal fanfare. The clothes -- a Bowie-esque catsuit of mesh and glitter, a trench coat with the giant word "NO" protruding from the collar -- take the spotlight.
When the models line up on the stage for the finale in front of a twinkling curtain of gold lights, and dramatic music swells throughout the theater, it seems a fittingly spectacular climax.