Ahead of their survey exhibition in Australia, Dutch masters of couture, Viktor & Rolf, speak about the art of fashion.

Viktor & Rolf photographed by Inez & Vinoodh.

A lot can happen over dinner. If it wasn’t for a small Japanese restaurant in Paris, the forthcoming Viktor & Rolf survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria [NGV] might never have come to fruition. “It’s even not a famous or trendy place,” says Thierry-Maxime Loriot. And yet it was here that the French-Canadian curator and former model bumped into Dutch fashion mavericks Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, also frequent patrons of the establishment. “Obviously I knew their work and have always been quite a big fan of them, and we have mutual friends, like Rufus [Wainwright], so I went up and introduced myself. Really, it’s quite an unglamorous story.” Nonetheless, it marks the beginning of what the NGV has billed as a world-first exhibition which, when it opens in October, will showcase Viktor & Rolf’s notion of wearable art. As Mr Loriot says, “Viktor & Rolf are pretty much in another category when it comes to fashion, sitting perhaps with Hussein Chalayan and Iris van Herpen. What they show is not always commercial, but it has the power to set trends. The garments are sculptures, complicated in their construction and with intention behind every design.”

Masters of couture, Dutch duo Viktor & Rolf have often been described as artists by virtue of their complex and technically ambitious couture designs as well as the performative nature of their seasonal fashion shows. Past seasonal collection presentations have featured an entire upside down collection (which mirrors their iconic upside down store in Milan) a complete black collection in which even the models were painted black Black Light (spring/summer 1999), Babushka, (fall/winter 1999-2000) and a parade that featured one model (Maggie Rizer) on a turntable wearing one entire collection so that she resembled a Russian doll being dissembled piece by piece. Other productions have featured musician Roisin Murphy singing onstage in a signature architectural cut out tulle cut out gown, and Tori Amos who performed as part of Bedtime Story (fall/winter 2005-06), a collection made up of elaborate gowns that resembled a bed complete with pillow, the model transformed into a literal evocation of the idea. “The presentation is an important part of the development of a concept, we think of everything, the show and the collection, as one,” says Mr Horsting.

Viktor & Rolf, Look 46, Flowerbomb ready-to-wear collection, spring/summer 2005.

In 2003/04 they built the entire collection One Woman Show around the actress Tilda Swinton, their muse, and selected models who resembled the actress, sending a parade of red haired doppelgangers down the runway. The collection featured surreal details such as shirts with several collars. In 2007 they staged one of their most conceptual shows in which the parading models wore scaffolding supporting lights, so that each model became a contained show. Their 2008 collection, entitled NO!, was intended as a statement of disapproval about the nature of fast fashion. Models wore clothes with 3D fabric additions of the words such as DREAM, WOW and NO that appeared in three-dimensional sculptural relief or were embroidered on to the clothes.

“Especially recently, we have emphasised the idea of wearable art,” Mr Horsting tells Manuscript, noting that the brand recently ceased its ready-to-wear offering to focus solely on haute couture, supported financially by their successful fragrance Flowerbomb. “Ever since we started making couture, since we started out, we have thought of our clothes as autonomous pieces, not thinking about a person or wearability as such, but using [fashion] as a way of expressing our ideas, a laboratory for creativity. We look at our work as sculpture, as art.” That idea was particularly evident in the designers’ fall/winter 2015 couture collection, in which cloth was draped on the body in such a way as to depict the models coming out from a painted canvas – a most literal, and provocative, evocation of the notion of fashion as art. “When we did that show we had just stopped ready-to-wear, and so we wanted to express what couture means to us which, in contrast to ready-to-wear, is about wearable art, so it was about literally taking that idea of the girls wearing paintings.”

In talking to the designers, you quickly get the sense that the creative conservation between Mr Horsting and Mr Snoeren is ongoing and incredibly rich, and has now been in play for decades. Having met while studying at the Arnhem Academy of Art and Design, the designers came together to show their first collection in 1993, having won a talent competition as part of the Festival International de Mode et de Photographie in Hyeres, in France. In the same year, they moved to Paris, setting up their namesake business. “For us it has always been something that comes very naturally,” says Mr Horsting of the dynamic of working so closely with another designer. “It’s almost conditional. It’s not something that we decided, really, but something that just happened.” While the designers’ business bloomed in Europe’s fashion capital – they released a popular line for high street chain H&M in 2006, and in 2008 sold a controlling interest in their business to Renzo Rosso, the entrepreneurial owner of Maison Margiela and Diesel, among other brands – a return to their native Holland has afforded them a certain level of creative freedom. “We like to take a step back and reflect on our work, and we were not really utilising Paris as a tool, so it made sense to come back to the Netherlands.”

Viktor & Rolf, Performance of Sculptures haute couture collection, spring 2016.

In the 21st century, a designer’s image is inherently linked to the success and perception of a brand, and that’s nowhere more apparent than with Viktor & Rolf, who have created a persona for themselves that is as much a part of the label as the clothes they create, presenting themselves as fashion’s answer to quirky collaborative performance artists Gilbert and George, appearing in specially commissioned photographs for collections. For the presentation of their first menswear collection the pair modeled the clothes themselves, changing looks on the catwalk. “It shows that our work is almost like therapy, or an expression of who we are, and it makes it very personal,” says Mr Horsting. “That’s how we ended up putting ourselves forward in things like shoots and fashion shows – not out of a desire to be in the spotlight, just a logical consequence of the idea.”

Indicative of their artistic credentials, since 1998 Viktor & Rolf have either been featured in or the subject of countless exhibitions internationally, including a major survey, The House of Viktor & Rolf, at the Barbican Art Gallery in 2008. The exhibition offered a non-conventional approach to fashion presentation in the designers’ use of 1/3 life-sized dolls dressed in miniature bespoke versions of the clothing, displayed in a large dollhouse. This conscious thwarting of scale creatively upset traditional approaches to fashion curation, removing familiar elements (the body as represented via a mannequin with adult proportions) and highlighting the absurdity of haute couture and its artistry.

The designers have worked closely with Mr Loriot on the forthcoming Australian exhibition, which the curator notes is not a chronological retrospective, but rather about showing the depth of artistry in Viktor & Rolf’s practice. “It’s very much a contemporary installation of their archive, whether it’s colours that come back again and again, like black and pink, or about the craftsmanship and techniques, or how the shows are more performance than a typical fashion runway,” he explains. Mr Loriot notes, too, that it’s often easier to see a Picasso painting than a Viktor & Rolf garment, given the exclusive and limited nature of haute couture. As such, staging an exhibition – particularly on the other side of the world, in Australia – is about making the designers’ work inclusive.

“The great thing about a museum is that it’s much more democratic than a fashion show,” explains Mr Horsting. “So many more people can go and have a look.” The designers, and the NGV, are banking on this being the case with Viktor & Rolf: Fashion Artists, running on the back of its successful fashion exhibition, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, which attracted more than 226,000 visitors, as part of director Tony Ellwood’s curatorial preference for the blockbuster. “I hope people leave inspired,” says Mr Horsting. “If they are, then that makes us happy.”