Often dubbed fashion’s Gilbert & George, Viktor&Rolf is known for pushing the boundaries between fashion and art. The Dutch duo of Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren took the concept even further in their latest haute couture presentation in July – their first since discontinuing their ready-to-wear business.

Ever the showmen, the duo put themselves at the centre of the show – or rather an act of performance art, which called on a certain déjà vu of their previous collections as early as the 1999 Russian Doll series, where model Maggie Rizer stood on a revolving turntable.

The haute couture collection, aptly titled “Wearable Art”, saw models donning deconstructed golden frames from which printed fabrics protruded. The designers unhinged the frames from the models and then hung the skirts-turned-paintings on a blank wall. The prints referenced works of art from the Dutch Golden Age in the 1650s, such as Jan Asselijn’s The Threatened Swan.

“We are fashion artists. This season especially we wanted to showcase this in a literal way. We consider haute couture to be like a laboratory, with every collection posing its own set of unique technical challenges,” Horsting says.

The challenge for this couture collection in particular, the duo say, was to work with “un-clothing-like elements” as structurally imposing as the frames.

Haute couture is more than just a testing ground for Viktor & Rolf – it has also freed them from the creative restrictions that come with the gruelling pace of ready-to-wear and retail.

“[We feel] that ready-to-wear, with its many deadlines and fierce competition, is creatively restraining,” Snoeren says. This sentiment towards today’s fashion industry is shared by some of the most prolific and influential designers in the trade – for example, Jean Paul Gaultier ended his ready-to-wear business last year and, more recently, Raf Simons stepped down as creative director at Dior.

Viktor and Rolf have voiced their frustrations and referenced them in their designs.

Their 2008 autumn-winter collection, for example, features the word “No” rendered in 3D as a key motif reflecting on the status quo of the fashion industry.

The duo’s decision to end their ready-to-wear collections was announced in February. The label’s majority shareholder, Renzo Rosso – whose company OTB also owns Maison Martin Margiela, Marni and more – calls it a strategic decision to position the Viktor&Rolf brand in the highest luxury segment of fashion.

For the duo, the notion of luxury is in sync with their ideal muse who they strive to capture in their creations – individuality.

“Luxury is synonymous with self-evident rarity and quality,” Horsting says. “We are attracted to women who possess a unique mindset – women who are intelligent and stylish.”

Now focusing solely on their haute couture and fragrance businesses, the duo have found their anchor in creativity.

“We now have much more time to create. It feels like a breath of fresh air,” Horsting says. By presenting only two collections a year instead of up to 10, the duo can now take their time on the design and execution with the craftsmen in their own atelier. “It’s very different from working with a factory, even though we’ve worked with the best,” Snoeren says.

Their efforts in pushing the boundary between fashion and art have been consistent since the start of their career in the 1990s.

Their works are featured as much as in galleries and museums as they are in high-end boutiques and select shops. Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, for instance, features Viktor&Rolf designs in a permanent collection.

The launch of Le Parfum in 1996 – a bottle of perfume with a lid that’s designed to be impossible to open – probably better illustrates their commitment to the merging of fashion and art. The perfume, as the duo describe, “can neither evaporate nor give off its scent, and will forever be a potential-pure promise”.

Theatrical productions are often seen at Viktor&Rolf shows that evoke emotions and inspire ideas, using ultraviolet lights that make white objects glow or models with their faces painted in fierce red.

They collaborated with theatre director and visual artist Robert Wilson in 2009 to design costumes for the German opera Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber. The two designers used almost 1 million crystallised Swarovski elements to create ultracolourful and flamboyant costumes that looked like flower bombs.

“We have always used fashion as a primary means of artistic creation,” Snoeren says.

The synergy between the two since the very beginning has set the foundation for their creations. Growing up as best pals in the Netherlands, they started collaborating after graduating from the Netherlands’ Arnhem Academy. They showed their first collection in 1993 at a competition called Salon European des Jeunes Stylistes, and it wasn’t until the late 1990s that they started showing regularly in Paris. The duo have been working alongside each other for more than 20 years now and say that meeting each other was their biggest career breakthrough.

“As teenagers, independent of each other, we were both inspired by perfume advertisements,” Horsting says. “We enjoyed the glamour and mystery these images convey. For us, this fascination served as an entry into the fashion world.”

Snoeren says their collaboration has been a continuing conversation. “Our friendship forms the base of our creative relationship,” he says.

“It’s a relationship that allows us to create as one. There’s really no difference as to who does what. Also, there is not much separation between life and work in the sense that we communicate daily about everything. ”

Their bond also holds the key to the duo’s longevity in fashion. “We just really enjoy coming up with ideas together,” Snoeren adds. “Fashion itself is very inspiring – its possibilities and impossibilities allow us to create the unexpected.”

Now focusing on their haute couture collection, the duo are optimistic about their future prospects.

“In this day and age, where we live by visuals, the craftsmanship involved in the creation of haute couture is more relevant than ever,” Snoeren says. “It is like a beacon, reminding the world that a dress does not come out of a computer, but is made by human hands. Couture is the ultimate expression thereof, and the world needs this awareness.”

 

MILESTONES

1969
Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren are born

1998
Groninger Museum includes Viktor & Rolf pieces in permanent art collection

1999
Presents Russian Doll collection

2000
Launches ready-to-wear collection, ends haute couture collections

2005
Unveils Flowerbomb fragrance

2006
Designs capsule collection for H&M

2008
Acquired by OTB

2009
Designs costumes for German opera production Der Freischütz

2015
Discontinues ready-to-wear retail to focus on haute couture and fragrances