“A smile for Canada?” our fashion editor, Truc Nguyen, beseeches the Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, as Caitlin Cronenberg snaps away at Soho House Toronto. Their stoic (and, it must be said, very handsome) mugs don’t crack. “Only smizing,” quips Snoeren. His mouth momentarily spreads into a grin, but it’s just a flash.
That’s the wonderful thing about Horsting and Snoeren: They’re very funny about being serious, and very serious about being funny. The most arch example of the irreverently beautiful space they have carved out can be seen now at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, where their “growing family of dolls,” as they call them affectionately, and which now comprises 31, will be on display until the end of June.
The two have come to Toronto to discuss the special context (we won’t spoil the surprise) for these 70-centimetre-tall porcelain recreations of their runway high- lights, which they first made for a 2008 retrospective at the Barbican, London’s super-happening brutalist art epicentre. There, the dolls, which are made to look like the original models, were housed in a six-metre-high house.
Horsting and Snoeren have timed their installation check-in to coincide with a press junket. For the past two weeks, the designers have been travelling North America to glad-hand media and clientele. The evening before the shoot, there’s a cocktail party in their honour in The Room at Hudson’s Bay’s flag- ship Toronto store—which follows stops in Chicago, Dallas and Costa Mesa, Calif. The female guests, many in the high-contrast metallic pleats from their spring collection, swarm for photos and handshakes. The crowd is so thick that I resign myself to leaving our first meeting until the following morning.
The fireside sofa in the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel is a more serene setting, but Horsting and Snoeren are still buzzing from their whistle-stop tour. After this they’re heading home to Amsterdam. “It’s like we’re rock stars!” exclaims Snoeren. “City to city, it felt like being on tour,” says Horsting, completing the thought.
Their inventive fashion (witness their many-collared suit or the down-filled gown made to look like a duvet cover, complete with pillows, for fall 2005), is a form of conceptual art, a buyable form. When you own a piece of theirs, with its signature marriage of ladylike decorum and experimentation, you’ve got something that even years later will feel special and relevant. This something extra earns diehard fans.
The label was born 20 years ago when the two men competed at the Salon européen des jeunes stylistes in Hyères, France, after graduating from the Artez Institute of the Arts in the Netherlands. “We never really wanted to have a brand,” claims Horsting. “We had no jobs, so we participated in the contest to meet people. We won, and every- one thought we were a label—they called us onstage to pick up the prize and they said, ‘Viktor and Rolf.’ So we thought, ‘Oh, that sounds good!’”
“It’s really like having one brain,” Horsting says by way of explaining their collaborative process, and their habit of finishing each other’s sentences. “It’s like the way we’re talking to you now. We share an office, we do everything together, and after 20 years it’s still fine!” says Snoeren.
In their early days, the designers presented experimental fashion in stark spaces that looked more installation art than runway. In1996, seeking attention from the press, they mailed “Viktor & Rolf On Strike” posters around Paris. Later that year, they introduced Le Parfum, a “virtual” fragrance in impossible-to-open bottles.
“It was, on the one hand, an ironic commentary on what perfume really is,” says Snoeren of the stunt. “On the other hand, it was also a very genuine expression of a desire to be the kind of designers and the kind of brand that has perfumes. This particular project was part of an exhibition where we visualized all our dreams that were not coming true at all. Nothing was happening in our career, so we decided to show our ambitions in miniature scale.”
The visualization exercise worked. Flowerbomb, Viktor & Rolf’s first (real) fragrance, was released in 2005 in partnership with L’Oréal, and remains one of the most popular in the world—its heady floral scent is instantly recognizable, and its print campaign, shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, is a creative coup. Who could tire of seeing model Isabeli Fontana’s head explode into translucent silk that is either pink flames or a gigantic flower? In 2006, the designers were among the first to collaborate with H&M. Customers lined up at outposts around the world for a wallet- friendly hit of Viktor & Rolf—ruffled blouses, bowed sweaters and lots of heart motifs.
The duo showed their first ready-to-wear collection in Paris in 2000, in an effort to become more accessible—simultaneously ceasing couture. Their extravagant and often outrageous touch, however, remained. “We’ll design something very extreme and this will be the source for the rest of the collection,” says Horsting. “You can build and take small elements from an extreme idea and turn it into something that is more wearable.” The oversized bows on the fall ’13 runway, for instance, or the “summer fur” coat in delicate, dusty pink tulle from spring.
In 2008, they sold a stake of the company to Renzo Rosso, Diesel’s founder and president of Only the Brave (it owns Maison Martin Margiela, Vivienne Westwood and Marni, among other labels), with prospects of brand expansion.
A week or so after I meet Horsting and Snoeren in Toronto, I get an early-morning alert from Women’s Wear Daily: “Viktor & Rolf Returning to Couture.” I dash off an email to their rep in Amsterdam with a few supplementary questions. “Couture has always been our passion and natural inclination,” they write back (via email they merge into one entity completely). “We have never abandoned our couture spirit. We are very excited to return to this creative space and platform.”
Thus, this July, with the blessing of Paris’s formidable Chambre syndicale de la haute couture, editors and clients will welcome Viktor & Rolf back, and all we can be sure of is that, not unlike the ROM exhibit, it will be a spectacle to remember: a gregarious and unselfconscious celebration of conceptual fashion. “When I was a kid I wanted to escape the provincialism,” says Horsting. “I was very interested in glamour. And I loved to draw. I was good at it.”
“Quite the same,” says Snoeren. “As soon as I could hold a pencil, I would draw girls in dresses. Princesses, of course.”
TAKING A BOW
Outsized bows- the ultimate girlish signifier- are a running theme for Viktor & Rolf