Since they launched their label in 1993, design duo Rolf Snoeren and Viktor Horsting of Viktor and Rolf, have blurred the lines between art and fashion. Many times their creations border on art which is why they are snapped up by collectors and museums. Then you have their shows which are spectacles in themselves – one was famously executed back to front while another featured the designers dressing a model in layers of couture dresses, all piled on top of each other. It’s no wonder that many in the industry refer to them as artists rather than designers.
That being said there is a wearable element to their designs, a quality that has been honed since the boys took a break from the world of couture a few years ago. This year however, they celebrated 20 years in the industry with a Haute Couture comeback that surprised us all. We chatted about this and more on their recent trip to Hong Kong.
What kind of story do you want tell through your clothes?
Rolf: I think what sets us apart is that we are using fashion as medium to express ourselves. Fashion for us is almost like a self-portrait which is why our shows are more like performances. We like the fact that shows are a way to say something, to show something more than just the clothes of the season.
How do you guys work together on a collection?
Viktor: We share an office, and have a big table where we discuss ideas. We work on everything together. We never disagree – everything is discussed as we are very analytical. We don’t like conflict so when one of us feel something is wrong, we just talk.
What are you offering women that they don’t already have in their wardrobes?
Rolf: I think we try to re-invent things women already know, but in different ways. We like to start from something classical and then twist it in a way that you haven’t seen it before. Our clothes offer a few paradoxes – it’s about unexpected elegance, conceptual glamour and provocative couture. The idea of transformations is important in our work.
Is there a connection between men’s and women’s collections?
Viktor: We really project our men’s wear onto ourselves. The starting point is closer to a product than an idea. It’s really about who we are, what we’d like to wear, what we need in our life. We are the benchmark.
Rolf: Women’s is much more restricted, which we like. We don’t feel like we need to push boundaries in men’s wear. For women’s there’s a freedom that’s fantastic, and we use it as a means of expression.
This year you returned to the Haute Couture schedule after a long break. Why now?
Rolf: We wanted to focus on the business. Couture was giving us a lot of recognition and sold to museums, but it didn’t generate business. So we wanted to divide the message between ready-to-wear and couture so we decided to stop for some time. Now that we have defined the ready-to-wear message we decided it was the right time to come back.
Do you find there was this pressure to do something crazy?
Viktor: We try not to think that way. When we work, we try to stay away from thinking about what people are expecting. It’s much more about going inward and doing what we find important. The recent couture collection was the opposite of what people expected. It was very dramatic, but very grounded.
So tell us more about it…
Rolf: We had 20 girls in 20 outfits. From the start we wanted to create a tableau vivant of a Zen garden. So the girls would come out, walk and then take their positions in this “garden.” All the clothes were cut for their position so when they would sit, the garment would fall perfectly. When they stood you’d see unexpected drapes or asymmetric hemlines. Every piece was made from one fabric because we wanted it to look very organic. After 20 years of running around, it was time to take a moment and this garden was a symbol of serenity. Our next show will be completely different.
Nowadays many designers are focusing on making couture more wearable. Did you have this in mind when you designed the collection?
Rolf: For us it’s really a laboratory where we have no restrictions. So for us it’s given that we can do whatever we want. It’s really about freedom. But that being said, we are feeling a certain simplicity at the moment.
You are celebrating 20 years in the business. How has the industry changed?
Viktor: In terms of pace and exposure, it’s changed so much. The Internet has changed everything and everyone seems to be a fashion expert nowadays. We do feel there is a loss of mystery [in fashion] which is why we wanted to go back to couture. At the same time it’s also nice to see bloggers because they are bringing fashion to a new audience. People are so much more aware of what fashion is.
So what can we expect next?
Viktor: We are launching a new fragrance and a new store in Paris. We’d love to do make-up.
If you weren’t fashion designers what would you be?
Viktor: A violinist. I learnt it intensely for many years and still play.
Rolf: An illustrator.
An edited version of this interview appeared in the South China Morning Post.