I’m posing questions to Dutch fashion designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren that are a little more searching than most. Instead of asking about their hit fragrance, Flowerbomb (one bottle sold every three minutes), or their private relationship (former partners, now plutonic—for the record), I’m plundering sociology, anthropology, in fact, any - ology I can muster. It’s done in the spirit of this audacious pair: a little bit grand, a touch whimsical and a whole lot fabulous. After all, they’re worth it. Who else can you think of in their milieu, blending fashion, art and brand-identity to such international acclaim? Viktor&rolf do not do fast fashion, they create haute couture in the style of visual artists; clothes, if such a description did them justice, that delight and inspire. The pair are both the brains and creative brawn behind extraordinarily unique pieces, acquired by collectors, and displayed in museums all over the world. In October 2016, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Australia will present, Fashion Artists, a show, that much like themselves, is a very big deal.
Amazingly, for men joined at the hip, Horsting is riding solo today. The pair enjoy a particularly close relationship— finishing each other’s sentences, inhabiting each other’s minds— and seem almost telepathic in their similarity. Does he mind sitting there alone? “It’s fine, I’m not worried. Believe it or not, it sometimes happens. I’m just hoping that your questions are not too … difficult.” So there is life beyond Rolf? “Our friendship is the basis of everything we do, but we can be autonomous too. We hardly ever talk on the phone though. We both don’t like it.”
While the mild-mannered aesthete may not have support today, he seems remarkably relaxed nonetheless. He also speaks English with the type of precise Dutch accent that puts most British people to shame. The grammar is clipped and mannered but warmed by a casual inflection that suggests a wry smile at the corner of his mouth. “I think I can cope.”
In 1992, Horsting and Snoeren graduated from the fashion department of Holland’s Arnhem Academy (“the best”) and then swiftly decanted to Paris, designing their future from a shoebox apartment in a resolutely unfashionable neighbourhood. A year later, their first collection— based on deconstruction—won three prizes at the Festival International de Mode et de Photographie in Hyere, France, presenting old suits that had been cut up and re-stitched together. Their second collection (”a scream for attention”) destroyed a dress with performance-like finesse (‘we amputated the arms, burnt it, cut it”) something more akin to art than fashion and the blueprint for much of what would follow. They produced installations in galleries, created conceptual, wearable art to exacting standards, and skillfully, almost subconsciously, subverted perceived notions of dress. “I think in our minds there wasn’t a blueprint. We had a notion of wanting to work at a very high level, and to us, making clothes and making collections, there was a standard which we thought was important to live up to. We always strived to make everything look like a million bucks, even though there was nothing.”
People wonder about the point of Viktor&rolf, whether their conceptual art should be worn or merely observed. They remain, to this eye, vitally unorthodox, pushing parameters of what is acceptable, while challenging everything in their path. Fashion culture can be vapid and disposable at the best of times, but to them, it transcends the idea of mere clothes. “In our world, fashion can be much more than style. Having said that, of course, to many people, that’s what they think fashion is. We’ve always used it as a tool, as a means of selfexpression, which is still quite unusual I think.”
This self-expression has found myriad forms. Their work can be introverted one season, extravagant the next. It plays with shape and scale, often commenting on a fashion world that feels slightly foreign. To the naysayers, this tendency to over intellectualise has made them hard to define. “Over-intellectualise?” he scoffs, “even the word itself is derogatory. Do you mean, do we care about what people write about us? We like to make things that can be looked at in different ways that are multifaceted. It can be approached from a professional angle, or any number of ways. We make it, we put it out, and, well, the world can do with it what it wants!”
Horsting and Snoeren are risk takers, producing clothes – and ways to present them—in obtuse ways. Notable fashion shows have included outfits embedded with lighting rigs (“It didn’t work. It was a great idea, but the girls were blinded by the follow spots”), models walking in vertical beds, and perhaps most memorably in 1999, layering, Russian Doll-style, the model Maggie Rizer— a well executed Dadaist statement that cemented their reputation as avant-garde provocateurs. “I think we are just really curious and we like to look for the limit. We like to look for borders. First of all, we have an idea, and the best way to express an idea is in an extreme way, a way that is quite radical. We always work with the process of deduction, trying to find the most distilled, the most pure way to communicate what we have in our minds. We want to express what we do in a way that’s beautiful, and that’s why we sometimes use the phrase ‘conceptual glamour’. There’s the idea— the concept— and there’s also a lot of glamour and beauty, and we don’t think one excludes the other. There’s a need to create something beautiful. Beauty communicates.”
As the title of their NGV show suggests, Horsting and Snoeren see no irony
in calling themselves fashion artists. “Since we abandoned ready to wear and focused on couture, we started analysing this because we consciously present ourselves as fashion artists. We’re looking for that boundary, that fine line. In the show we did for autumn/winter 2015, a painting became a dress, which became a painting, is a very literal elaboration of this notion of wearable art,” explains Horsting. The upcoming exhibition further contextualises and reinforces their bridging of art and fashion. “We really enjoy working on museum shows. It’s great, because in a way it’s comparable in timescale to working on a fragrance. Working on a museum show, there is time to think and rethink. And it’s democratic in a way, because a lot of people can go and see it, whereas there are only so many who get to see a show with their own eyes. It’s great that they can see the pieces up close, and see the technique and craftsmanship” exclaims Horsting.
Can fashion be art? “Not all fashion is art, but it’s possible.” When I liken the duo’s work to the boldness of Jeff Koons and the inherent glamour and revolutionary characteristics of Warhol, he laughs. “Oooh, well, those are big names. But Warhol, yes, we feel close to his way of thinking.” In the Viktor&rolf world, opposites attract; the designers are equally smitten by old Dutch masters as they are with modern pop. “But in terms of specific artists, we both love the work of Edvard Munch. There’s an introverted drama to his paintings that we find absolutely fascinating. He’s a brilliant painter. Whatever he does is aestheti- cally pleasing. You also see that throughout his career he kept on searching and pushing himself. There is nothing easy to what he does. I don’t know what else to say about Munch, but his work speaks to me.”
When quizzed about conceptual starting points and the process of ideation, Horsting is clear: The method is that basically we need to be together, to sit together at a table. We just need to be together and we need to talk. We need to sit in front of the dragon’s den and wait until the dragon comes out. It always starts with words— an idea. Then we’ll sketch a little bit. We share an office in a beautiful old canal house, where everybody works. There’s a big table in the middle with a couple of chairs and a desktop computer.”
While one could imagine an ordered creative process, Horsting attests otherwise. “It’s a huge mess, with a big pile of paper in the middle of the table— sketches and messy stuff. We’ll sit at this table and discuss shapes we have in mind and show our team sketches. Then they’ll start developing the first toiles. Sometimes it’s pretty clear, and sometimes it’s a long search and we have many trials. We don’t drape any more. But we used to drape and make all the patterns ourselves. But that’s a long time ago.”
Since then, their personal interventions have expanded to include the contribution of highly skilled artisans. “We have great people who do it much better than we did,” he admits. “But we still get a kick out of the fact that a lot of the things that are now in museums were hand made by us.”
Technique is obviously key. I mention The Chainsaw Massacre, their Spring 2010 show consisting of tulle evening dresses, punctured with giant portholes. The pieces, like many of their creations, look technically impossible, but the duo make it possible. “The head of our atelier sometimes says: ‘you know, gravity exists’ but we always reply: ‘if we can draw it, you can make it.’ A lot is possible. Just don’t take no for an answer.” Fashion Artists will exhibit at the NGV, Melbourne, from 21 October 2016 to 26 February 2017. The exhibition has been developed in close collaboration with Viktor&rolf and international guest curator Thierry-maxime Loriot.