The wonders of Viktor & Rolf

 The Dutch duo’s remarkable career is captured in this array of beautifully executed “works.” The exhibition includes around 45 pieces from their collection, plus installations and films. It reminds us of the importance of the ideas behind fashion shows as well as the physical things.

Wearable Art haute couture, autumn-winter 2015.-16 is the collection that best embodies the title of the exhibition. The “masterpieces” are presented in the show with gilt frames and cleverly constructed to become dresses.

Viktor & Rolf Wearable Art haute couture collection, autumn-winter 2015-16. NGV/(c)Team Peter Stigter

The dresses were originally mounted on the walls of a fashion show. The pair then dressed a woman by literally removing the image from the wall and placing it on her body. Some are displayed on the wall at the NGV, while others are displayed on a mannequin.

The Russian Doll collection meanwhile shows how they turn fashion into performance. The designers dressed a rotating model in each of the nine looks in this collection, which was established in its entirety to the NGV audience on video. The model was engulfed by clothes, from the raw jute dress, to the culmination of a “Russian Doll” with an enlarged, embellished, and caricatured figure, nine layers in fashion. At the NGV, rotating mannequins display a selection from the collection.

Haute couture is a tradition that involves garments created bespoke for a client and presented in a fashion presentation. This is not about creating extreme or unwearable fashion. It is more of a specific fashion practice whereby invited designers are governed and regulated by a French organization with codes, schedules, and regulations. Most designers only discover this world after years of creating collections that are ready to wear or “off-the-rack.”

Viktor & Rolf remain, however, both inside and outside the fashion world in a modern way. The show shows how they’ve established a doubled identity, hidden within the worlds of haute couture.

The duo, who had graduated from their studies in the Netherlands and won a prestigious fashion competition in France back in 1993, presented their first collection at an art gallery. The “fashion house” they have had in Amsterdam, where they spent most of their careers, is a place that provokes critical thinking, questions and challenges. How, for example, does a designer create a collection, and how is that presented?

Many of the pieces in this exhibition will be familiar to fashion lovers – their images have been circulated so widely. Viktor & Rolf flourished during the 1990s when fashion took off on the internet. This meant that anyone could view and experience exclusive fashion shows. The assumptions about a fashion show are questioned in all the collections of Viktor & Rolf. The shows were more theatrical, and the designers often dressed the models themselves.

The exhibition is full of ambivalences and double-entendres. Viktor & Rolf Le Parfum bottles, for example, are in a form that cannot be opened. The liquid inside may be perfume. This installation is meant to show the seductiveness and the brand name of the bottles.

Wayne Taylor

There are also playful catwalks that challenge the entire concept of a fashion show. One installation includes a doll-size runway, with lights, music, and a front-row. The proportions of the robotic doll are similar to traditional Belgian half-scale dolls. The viewer enters the room and sits in the first row. The doll is then shown walking down the “catwalk”, wearing an item from the designer’s latest collection.

This show also includes a piece from the Long Live the Immaterial Collection – a bright blue ensemble which plays with the idea that photo montage can be achieved in post-production. Many of the pieces were made with “Blue Screen” material. Video images and footage are composited on the clothing for the shows. This plays with the division between the garment, the body, and the image.

This exhibition offers a beautiful contemporary look at the world of exclusive high fashion. This fashion designer believes that the exhibition’s greatest success is the chance to see these remarkable pieces in person.

Viktor&Rolf. Cutting Edge Couture ready-to-wear collection, spring/summer 2010. (c) Team Peter Stigter

The pair’s real-life presence was more than I could have imagined after seeing so many images of their clothes. You can’t tell how a work was conceived in 3D when you look at a fashion show photo. Closer inspection reveals that highly-skilled artisans created these garments in a traditional atelier. Some of the pieces on display at the NGV took up to 1000 hours to make. The clothes I saw were even more beautiful than what I had imagined, and the designers’ visions more tangible.

Cutting Edge Couture pieces, which featured heavily layered ball gowns in tulle with precision laser cutouts and voids played tricks on the eyes.

At the NGV, it was impossible not to touch the red bustier gown with its circle perfectly cut through hundreds of layers of tulle. The dress was transparent.

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