Viktor & Rolf's Imaginarium

::photo_caption::Rolf Snoeren (left) and Viktor Horsting::/photo_caption::

The design duo behind some of the catwalk’s most otherworldly spectacles explain their love-hate relationship with planet fashion.

By Claire Carruthers
Jul 04, 2013

In 1988, when Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren were both just 18, they joined the Netherlands’ prestigious Arnhem Academy of Art and Design and instantly clicked. “Collaborating came naturally to us,” says Horsting. “We sensed right away that it just worked, in a very organic way. Of course, it took us a long time to work on our style and develop our visual language, but we admired each other’s work from the start and we recognized the same ambition level.”

Deciding to join forces after graduating in 1992, the duo headed to Paris, scooping up top prizes at the Hyères Festival of Fashion and Photography – the international design competition that has become as much a laboratory of new ideas and upcoming trends as a career launch-pad for burgeoning creatives – thanks to their heretical aesthetic: they mine inspiration from fashion’s innovative old guard (Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent) and avant-garde (Kanai Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto).

“For us the purpose of fashion is creation itself,” says Snoeren. “The process [of creating] is a basic need for us, without it we would not be expressing ourselves – we deeply believe in the possibility that fashion is transformational.”

Essentially, in its earliest incarnation, Viktor & Rolf – the label – made statements rather than clothes: Designs were bold, with an emphasis on volume, reconstruction, asymmetrical tailoring, draping and folding. Even bolder were the presentations – creative flights of fancy that included a toy-like miniature fashion show and fake ad campaign; an army of models painted entirely black, dressed in black and shown against a pitch-black backdrop; and for the Fall 1999 couture line, a lone model, Maggie Rizer, was positioned on a revolving platform and dressed in heavily embroidered and embellished gowns, each one added on top of the other to create a Russian doll in reverse.

“We conceive a collection and show integrally,” says Horsting. “The idea for the presentation often comes together with the idea for the clothes – they’re like actors in a play. For some shows we take the runway to a whole different level, like with [the Fall 2010 collection] Glamour Factory where we dressed and un-dressed [the model] Kristen McMenamy live on the catwalk – we seize the moment of a show to create an experience.”

While headline-grabbing performances guaranteed column inches in the early days, some critics began accusing the interview-shy designers of simply being anti-fashion pranksters whose presentations had begun to overshadow the clothes ­– it’s an assessment that remains pertinent when the duo consider their relationship with commercialism, fashion’s dictatorship of “continuous, relentless deadlines” through seasons and their conflicting creative leanings. “Very often people don’t seem to understand that you can be artistic and commercial or conceptual and commercial at the same time. It’s a challenge to do something that works in both worlds. For us it has always been something that we both wanted. We want to do it all, we want to have it all. Why not?”

Perhaps as a result of their multi-medium approach and disinterest in fashion’s conventional structure, the duo now reside in Amsterdam “away from the distractions of Paris or larger cities, to work within the comfort of our own design bubble. We have more creative space here. But we travel a lot and Paris is still our fashion home – we can choose to enter [the fashion world] when we want to.”

Eager to prove their brand had real commercial clout, when Horsting and Snoeren turned their backs on Paris they also turned their backs on couture. In 2000, they launched a ready-to-wear line, followed by a popular L’Oréal-backed fragrance, Flowerbomb, in 2005, and a hugely successful collaboration with high-street retailer H&M in 2006. Perhaps the duo’s most restrained (and retail-friendly) collection to date, however, is for Fall 2013. It offers signature intricately folded, integrated bow decoration on sculpted black dresses for women, and a subtle nod to schoolboy attire with slim-fit silhouettes for men.

But fantasy and make-believe are still what drive the designers, and this month marks their return to couture having been listed as a Correspondent Member in the official Haute Couture Paris schedule. “Fashion still has an allure and a mystique that no other industry can touch,” Horsting says. “We’re always on a quest to transform anything into something. Something beautiful.”

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