Viktor & Rolf: Fashion Artists at the National Gallery of Victoria celebrates the luxury of unwearable fashion. This array of stunningly executed “works” captures the remarkable career of the enigmatic Dutch duo. The exhibition, consisting of around 45 items from their collection plus installations and film, reminds us that the ideas behind a fashion show are just as important as the material things.
The works that most clearly encapsulate the exhibition’s title are those from the pair’s Wearable Art haute couture collection, autumn–winter 2015–16. Presented in the exhibition as gilt framed canvas “masterpieces”, they are cleverly engineered to transform into dresses through mind-boggling construction.NGV/©Team Peter Stigter
When originally presented in a fashion show, the dresses were mounted on the wall. The duo then dressed a model by literally taking the picture off the wall and placing it on her body. At the NGV, some are on a wall, others are on a mannequin.
The works presented from the Russian Doll collection, meanwhile, illustrate how the pair turn fashion into performance art. In this collection – shown to viewers in its entirety at the NGV on video - a model on a rotating platform was dressed by the designers in all nine outfits consecutively. She became engulfed in clothes: from a raw jute dress to her culmination as a “Russian doll” in enlarged, embellished and caricatured silhouette, nine layers deep in fashion. (At the NGV, a selection of pieces from the collection are shown on rotating mannequins.)
Haute couture traditionally involves garments made bespoke for an individual client, which are presented first in a fashion show. It’s not just about making extreme or un-wearable fashion. Rather, it is a very specific type of fashion practice where invited designers are governed by a French body with specific codes, regulations and schedules. For most designers it is a world that only comes to them after many years of producing collections that are prêt a porter- “ready to wear” or “off the rack”.
Viktor & Rolf, however, remain both inside and outside of the world of fashion in a contemporary way. The show illustrates how they have established a type of doubled, cloaked identity within the world of haute couture.
After winning a revered fashion competition in France in 1993 and graduating from studies in the Netherlands, the duo presented their first collection in an art gallery. Their “fashion house,” based in Amsterdam for most of their career, has become a place to question, challenge and provoke critical reflection. How does a designer make a collection, for instance, and how is it presented?
For followers of fashion, many of the works in the exhibition are very familiar - images of them have circulated for so long. During the time Viktor & Rolf emerged and flourished in the 1990’s, fashion was taking off on the Internet, meaning exclusive fashion shows could be viewed and experienced by anyone. In all of the pair’s collections, the assumptions of a fashion show have been questioned and subverted. Their shows were much more theatrical than most and often, the designers were on the stage themselves dressing the models.
This is an exhibition replete with ambivalence and double entendres. For instance, an installation of Viktor & Rolf Le Parfum bottles consists of bottles that can’t be opened (containing a liquid that may be perfume), signalling the seductiveness of the “brand name”.
Authors: Ricarda Bigolin, Program Manager, Master of Fashion (Design), RMIT University