Viktor & Rolf Interview


by Penny Martin .

Penny Martin: Thank you very much Rolf and Viktor for joining me on the stage.

Rolf Snoeren: Our pleasure.

Penny Martin: This is an incredibly intense, busy and fraught time in the fashion calendar for you to be giving up a full day - but I guess people always say that in fashion don't they? That they're terribly busy. But can you say how busy it is for you at the moment (laughter) and why we're so lucky to have you here today?

Viktor Horsting: Well there used to be a time when there would be a show, then you would start on a new collection, but that changed a long time ago. Now you have a show but you've already entered into the process of starting up a new collection way before. So now we are working on winter . . .

Rolf Snoeren: Sometimes on three seasons simultaneously.

Penny Martin: Does that mean you can tell us the next three? (Laughter)

RM: No

Viktor Horsting: Not today (laughter)

Rolf Snoeren: Fashion is about surprise; you can never spoil it.

Penny Martin: Can you describe what that's like then? Do you spin those collections like plates simultaneously, or do you complete them and then move on? Because that's how people imagine fashion designers, isn't it? Kind of 'one thing's gone, and the next thing'. But my impression is, that, with pre-collection and cruise and what I hear about with this collection 'Holiday' and spring-summer and autumn-winter, there are actually many things happening besides the two . . .

Rolf Snoeren: And the Men's and Women's and shoes...

Viktor Horsting: And bags and accessories. But for us, our way of working is always the same: we start with an idea, usually an idea about the presentation, and even though we're working on several seasons simultaneously, we will always go back to that first idea as a focal point, and that will always give us a focus.

Penny Martin: Well, you get this great opportunity twice a year to unveil that thinking, amaze us with this very fine single idea realised, as José explained to us, in a very thorough process that Ulrich took us through, and that happens twice a year. You get a chance to revise what you said before, predict what's going to come, invite everybody, show an amazing spectacle, why then would an exhibition have appeal for you?

Viktor Horsting: Well, to understand the catwalk show: it is always for a very limited audience, and it's always for a very short amount of time, so what we like about having a museum show is that it can address a larger audience and that sounds more democratic,. And also, it just lasts longer.

Rolf Snoeren: Plus you can control an exhibition; we can control what people can see, whereas for a fashion show, you can never rehearse a fashion show. It just happens so…

Viktor Horsting: Yes for better or for worse.

RH: And especially in our case, where we usually don't do a 'typical' fashion show - models are instructed to do different things so there's a lot of risk, there are a lot of things that can go wrong

Penny Martin: Can you give examples - I think I know what you mean. Can you say a little bit more because I don't imagine that it's at all spontaneous having seen your shows.

Rolf Snoeren: No, no, no. For example, when we did the show where models were walking on clogs with high heels and structures which was not easy, it was quite a balancing act, but when the models came in and we fitted the clothes, they walked like they walked on the street, it was very easy. But we couldn't rehearse the show - the first model went out on the runway and we hadn't realised that it was very dark and there were spotlights, so the models were blinded. But being blinded on clogs with high-heels and structures, that's very difficult.

Viktor Horsting: So there's always this anxiety of having this moment where it has to be perfect, and I mean this is an example of where things happen that were out of our control. For instance, when we did the 'Flower Bomb' show, there was a huge revolving platform and as the anxiety. 'Is this platform going to revolve at all?' 'Is this moment going to be the way we would like it to be?' So to have a museum show is just for us, we're control freaks I think. It's the perfect way of showing not just one idea but several ideas together, showing a body of work and how the ideas relate to each other.

Penny Martin: If I take you back to an early comment that you made - don't worry – where, in explaining your decision to start making couture and to show on the runway rather than show in a museum context, you felt that by showing static presentations in galleries and in museums you weren't really part of the system. This obviously went on to become a very big theme in your work about the industry and the systems of working in fashion and it seems to me, having seen 'The House of Viktor and Rolf' that actually you get an opportunity to do both; especially in these kind of satellite spaces that are away from the Doll's House, where you get to see the classical museum exhibit, but by having the film backdrop, you get the synthesis of what it's like on the catwalk and the splendor of the object. I wondered, if this isn't too long a question, is it when it finally becomes pictures or spectacle, is that when you get this ultimate outcome, is that what you're aiming for: not just the garment but when it's transported into image?

Viktor Horsting: Yes, total experience I think. You're right in saying that it's not just about showing a garment. A fashion show is for an elite and this elite, maybe ninety percent of this elite, will look for the new dress or the new dress of the season, which is what fashion's about. But we would like fashion to be about more than that, or that's what we've been exploring in the past years, so that's also what we explore in this exhibition by showing the catwalk show, but also showing it in a different way.

Rolf Snoeren: For us really the show is the performance, that is the real work. Those ten minutes is our work and the clothes are like actors in a play.

Penny Martin: You described this morning when we met before the symposium that there's actually an end product from that. Is there a sort of deflation afterwards? It must require incredible energy and focus - what happens after that?

Rolf Snoeren: There's a lot of blackness.

Penny Martin: Blackness?

Rolf Snoeren: You know there's such an adrenaline in that moment and always after a show you feel very down and it takes a few weeks to regenerate.

Viktor Horsting: But then imagine, you have a catwalk show which lasts just ten minutes, but there has been six months of work beforehand, and then once the show's finished, everybody stands up and rushes out of the door!

Penny Martin: The ingrates!

Viktor Horsting: And while we're giving interviews, they're already taking away the carpet because someone else will have hired the space after us, so…

Rolf Snoeren: So you have to explain what happened in the past ten minutes, but you have not processed it yourself, you barely know what happened in those ten minutes. But immediately afterwards you're talking to the world press, saying fifty times the same thing. (Laughter) So that's always a bizarre moment.

Penny Martin: I guess the exhibition gives you a chance to take the time out from that intense calendar and kind of reflect?

Viktor Horsting: Yes, it's more calm, it's also very pleasant.

Rolf Snoeren: And to hear other people talk about your work in different interpretations, that's great for us to hear.

Penny Martin: Well we'll come onto that in a moment then. Can you first say what you think are the most successful exhibits? What do you, when you go into 'The House of Viktor and Rolf', just love?

Viktor Horsting: It's difficult to say. Already what is in this show is a very strong edit of the work that we've done, because not all the collections are present and from the collections that are present we've chosen maybe one, two, three pieces. This is not answering your question probably, but we really like all of them but I think.

Rolf Snoeren: When we look at the exhibition the dolls house is really our favorite thing, for us it's really a new step in a new direction that we can see ourselves . . . because it's an installation, which goes so beyond mere clothes or fashion.

Penny Martin: I'm going to ask you in a moment just to reflect on some of the points that we heard in the papers earlier this afternoon, but can you say a little bit about where the Doll's House came from? Because it's such a strong structure idea and image. How did it start?

VS: Well when the Barbican called us, one and half years ago, inviting us to do this exhibition, we immediately said 'Yes we'd love to do it,' and one of the reasons was that this is an art space, it is not a museum that is aimed at showing fashion history or costume history. It's a very free space in that sense and we loved the opportunity not just to show all our old work, but to create something new in addition, for us that was really challenging. We came up with the idea of a doll's house, because we were thinking 'How can we address a fashion exhibition in a different way? How can we show all our work but sort of bind everything together into something that is new, show it like one entity?'

Penny Martin: How did you start thinking about what that could be?

Rolf Snoeren: We work very 'site specific', so when we came into the Barbican, we really thought 'Artist Atrium…' it's such a…

Penny Martin: People say it's a tricky space.

Rolf Snoeren: Yes, so really we wanted to create something for that atrium, to really use that space where you have two floors . . . That sort of started us thinking.

Viktor Horsting: Yes, then we thought of how we can create a new sensation or a new awareness or a new way of looking at the clothes that we have already created, how can we put them into a new context, not just show them the way they are but show them in a new light? Then we started thinking about the idea of a doll's house as a unifying element for all the collections and also reversing the idea: first showing the dolls house, showing everything small and then showing all the work around it as if you would enter the dolls house yourself and then yourself become small, making it like a strange experience of the space, but also making the work looking as if it was a consequence of the dolls house instead of the other way around. So I really like the point that Judith Clark was making about that.

Penny Martin: Well, lets come to the papers then. In José's paper, do you recognize the Dutchness that she identifies in your work? Clearly there are elements that are deliberately there, can you see it yourself when people talk about it?

Rolf Snoeren: First, us being fashion designers is very 'not Dutch'.

Penny Martin: Can you say what you mean by that?

Viktor Horsting: I don't know exactly how you put it but its true that the Dutch have a very hate/love relationship with fashion. It's not really existent in our culture.

Rolf Snoeren: It's non-existent (Laughter)

Penny Martin: Fashion?

Viktor Horsting: Not really, no. So…I think it has to do with escapism in a way but to describe our own Dutchness is very difficult because it's who we are, it's so close. Maybe there is something to say for the theory about Modernism where there's an emphasis on structure, on…

Rolf Snoeren: Concept.

Viktor Horsting: Concept that we can recognise. But then again there's also a different side to our work, which is totally opposed to that.

Rolf Snoeren: But lets say that the real folk inspiration, we did it once for [Autumn/Winter 2007], for the rest it's not at all something that we get inspired by. I must say maybe the opposite, where we see really fashion as a global language; one of the few global languages that we all speak, and it's great to be a voice in an international dialogue.

Viktor Horsting: So in that sense we are fighting with that Dutchness, because we've really had to struggle away from that to be able to develop a voice in the international fashion world. So we do have a love/ hate relationship with those roots because they also represent something that can hold one back.

Penny Martin: When I cited you as designers that are so sophisticated in your use and production of imagery about your collections, one thing to say about those kind of designers is that you may be able to consume their garments through pictures without really getting to grips with the craft of the stuff itself. So to think about Ulrich's paper, do you think knowledge about how you do it and what it is, does bring about a greater understanding about what you're doing? Are you keen for people to know how your garments were produced or are you happy for hem just to understand them as a visual image?

Viktor Horsting: We may use, lets say, the making or the construction of garments as a subject of design, or maybe on another level use thoughts about the structure of the fashion system itself as a source for our work. But on a whole I think we take technique or craftsmanship as a given; you know, perfection is a given. It's a necessity in order to translate or communicate.

Penny Martin: And was that available immediately? How long did it take you to get this given perfection?

Viktor Horsting: Maybe people should look at the first exhibits (Laughs). No of course not. We've been working for fifteen years, working together with a team of people on developing our own visual language and also skills to express that language. But I think the ideas or images that we had in our minds were very specific from the very start.

Penny Martin: People that work in pairs are often asked who does what? Is that something that you're asked a lot? Do you give that information, when you talk about skill bases that are developed do you rely on each other for different things or is that four eyes are better that two? What's the dynamic of it?

Rolf Snoeren: Well, we really do everything together, from the first sketches to every business decision, so there's not really a division in who does what. Of course we are two different people so it's two different talents combined together that create something more. But for us it is very difficult to describe.

Viktor Horsting: Yes, and now we have come to kind of play with this idea of two people being one, both of us being one or us being one mind and in that sense we play with our image to express that. We've done a show- the first menswear collection - that we modeled ourselves in a mirrored act of fifteen minutes, where we were one person in the mirror. That was also to express this idea of both of us working as one designer.

Penny Martin: And you also work with image makers in pairs, when I think about it, Anoushka Blommers and Neils Schumm, Inez and Vinoodh, maybe it's a sort of symmetry? (Laughs)

Viktor Horsting: Who knows, also Dutch!

Penny Martin: That too. And Judith's paper, tell me a little bit about the architecture in your work because it's important as she says at a retail level. How much do think about the cineography of your shows as being part of that, or are these distinct entities? Do you think about physical environments for your work as central to it or is it that it happens at the time of an exhibition or the time of a show?

Rolf Snoeren: It's true that space is very important in our shows and exhibitions and retail.

Viktor Horsting: We've done quite a lot of site-specific works. I mean, the Dolls House, there's an example. But also earlier on like the installation we did for 'La Vie et La Mort', where there were three white dresses that were made specifically for that space because it had this big glass wall. The 'Gold' installation was also an example that was very site-specific. Our first couture show, all the models would stand on a pedestal and this first fashion show was in an art gallery so we wanted to play on that idea.

Rolf Snoeren: Plus the 'Upside-Down' shop is in Milan; I don't think we would have had the same idea in Los Angeles. So it's always thinking about where is it and what is it for and what do you want to communicate.

Penny Martin: I've been very privileged in being able to see, I think, thirteen of your shows and there's a big difference between seeing on a catwalk in the Tuileries, in a really big space where Christian Dior and Lanvin and all these other people show and then I've also seen very different experience at the show. I can't remember the space, but the one Tori Amos performed at really changed how you experience and then remember a collection actually, the clothes become different. Do you just like to fluctuate? What's your reasoning between choosing a different kind of environment?

Rolf Snoeren: It really depends on whether we see, lets say, a clichéd catwalk show, with a back wall and a catwalk. Then, for example, you can change the make-up and everyone is painted black and then it doesn't matter what space it is. Then we think about music, having live music and having Tori Amos you don't think of a space like the Tuileries, which is like…

Viktor Horsting: It's like a blank piece of paper; you can fill it in how you like.

Rolf Snoeren: You need an atmosphere, so then we started looking at old theatres. So you really search for the space that fits the concept.

Penny Martin: This exhibition falls at a time in London where there is also a number of other fashion exhibitions. There was a fashion and architecture exhibition at Somerset House, there was also a fashion photography exhibition at the Photographers Gallery and it was a president of sorts at the Photographers Gallery for them to show a fashion show. I gather that it was met by people that are used to seeing other kinds of photography there with mixed reviews and real intrigue and similarly this show, though it has been very well received and people have been talking about it, it's interesting to see that, unlike your ten year retrospective at the Arts Decorative five years ago there's a question about whether a commercial designer should be shown in an art gallery. Are you surprised to read those kind of reviews? Do you expect them, do you like to be at the centre of debate? How do you feel about that because surely it only happens in Britain where this discussion happens and maybe it's a good thing, I don't know.

Viktor Horsting: I'm not sure if it only happens in Britain, bit it's like the good old Art/ Fashion debate or Art/ Design debate and it so like who belongs where and which drawer do you fit. To be honest, for us it's such a non-issue because we worked in both, we started more in the Art world showing in galleries and museums, but with the ambition to be fashion designers. Our work was always about fashion and then we moved more into the fashion system, first by doing haute couture and then to doing ready to wear. Now we are more and more infiltrating the system, but at the same time we have the ambition to work outside the system, to be artists, to be fashion artists if you will. So I thinks it just differs from designer to designer.

RM: Plus, in our case, it depends on what we are making. It can exist as a dress on a hanger in a shop, which is definitely not an art-work but when you talk about the dolls house and the china dolls, it's much more difficult to point out. We think in our case that we should exist in different worlds so it can exist in different worlds.

Penny Martin: You're both collectors; did I read that in Fantastic Man? That you like to collect art?

Viktor Horsting: Yes, together we started to collect, yes.

Penny Martin: Tell us about it.

Rolf Snoeren: It's just something that we like to visit, exhibitions.

Viktor Horsting: It's a very personal endeavor.

Rolf Snoeren: As well, it's not something that we use for our own work.

Penny Martin: That's interesting, because when you meet a designer - that evokes certain personalities that have got famous collections - you expect to see aspects of their favorite artists in the staging of their shows. I've read a lot about the fact that you don't really work from tear sheet references, you're not 'storyboard' designers.

VH; No, no.

Penny Martin: So there's no relationship with what you end up producing yourselves?

Viktor Horsting: Not directly, no. It's not like we'll go to see a movie or we'll have an artwork and then we will directly refer to it in our collections.

Rolf Snoeren: We don't want to translate other people's ideas into fashion. We want to create our own story, to be story-tellers of our own.

Penny Martin: That's an important point. When you did your ten-year retrospective in Paris, you said that in hindsight it had given you the opportunity use that as a departure point, move on, draw a line in the sand and think differently. Certainly there is a perceptible shift in your work after that time and a reengagement with the commercial ideas, or ideas about commerce, in your early collections and different translations. You told me you'd written your ten-year plan this morning with regards to the new investment in your company. Can you say how you hope to use 'The House of Viktor and Rolf ' as a shift? What do you think it might force you to do differently?

Viktor Horsting: Well, this exhibition came at a very significant moment for us, because it's fifteen years obviously and very briefly after the opening we entered into a big partnership with a partner who will invest in our company in order to achieve business goals we've had for a long time but we've just not been able to address.

Penny Martin: Can I briefly interject and ask you to explain what that's like? When you meet all these designers and they've been keeping it together for fifteen years, it's an amazing achievement to run a business for that amount of time. Is it like answered prayers? What's it like, it must be! (Laughter).

Viktor Horsting: Need I say more?

Rolf Snoeren: I can only say yes.

Viktor Horsting: Well, in order to build an image and in order to create you need to be creative, but in order to really build a brand and build a luxury brand for the twenty-first century - the way we would like to do and we intend to do - much more is needed than to be talented and to put on a great show and make beautiful work. It's also building a business from scratch. To do that you need a lot of money and a lot of perseverance and a lot of know-how. So yes it's great to have finally found a partner with all off that and also with the vision and the ordacity to want to work with us. It's pretty exiting.

Penny Martin: It's going to change your life isn't it? It's going to take away a whole lot of stuff that you never want to see again, surely?

Rolf Snoeren: Well hopefully we can focus more and more on just creativity and on one side grow the business. As well, the Doll's House is a departure for us to really start thinking about installations and work that is fashion-related but not at all closed, it can be anything.

Penny Martin: The visitors have had a chance to put some questions to you and I've had a look at lots of them and they're pretty amazing and varied and exiting, and I've chosen three. So let me put them to you. I've chose Leanne because she's fifteen and she's enthusiastic and she would like to know how difficult it was to break into the industry? You've just answered what it's like to get out of some aspects of it, but was it difficult to tap, tap, tap to get in?

Viktor Horsting: Quite, because when we started out we had no clue how to do that, how to be a fashion designer, what it takes to be a fashion designer other than create clothes. So we have found it quite difficult because we didn't understand the system, yet at the same time we are fascinated by it.

Rolf Snoeren: But, in hindsight you could say that it wasn't so, that when you make clothes and you have no PR agent it's not so strange that you don't get any PR. Or any press packs.

Penny Martin: You've now got a very good one.

Rolf Snoeren: So it's good to first understand the rules of the fashion business before you start making things and showing things.

Penny Martin: And when did you feel that you were a part of the fashion system, to extend Leanne's question?

Rolf Snoeren: I think when we did the second couture show, the 'Atomic Bomb' show that got us so much international recognition that we felt that now we were finally getting the brand recognition that we were hoping for. But then it's very much about perseverance and very much about always being there.

Viktor Horsting: Then at the same time, it's like we're never there, like we're never part of the system.

Rolf Snoeren: Because your goals keep shifting.

Penny Martin: Can you say what they are now then?

Viktor Horsting: Well right at this point we would like to expand our business, really build a firm basis for the house of Viktor and Rolf and also continue to create work other apart from the fashion collection and treat this work in more of an independent way. It will always relate to fashion in some way but we like to work within different contexts and with different media. So I think it's like penetrating these different types of work deeply.

Penny Martin: Megan Limbrick is doing her BA Thesis at Brighton and she had a lot of questions for you. If you let me read out her question because it's quite specific: do you think skill, craftsmanship and aspirational concept have the power to defeat the current commercialism of fashion? Craft will triumph over commerce, or do you want it to?

Rolf Snoeren: I don't know if the two are contradictory...

Penny Martin: I'll tell her. (Laughs)

Viktor Horsting: I don't know either we just hope that, well you need to have a great idea, you need to know how to execute it and then know how to get it where you want it to be, be it a museum, be it a shop…

Penny Martin: So you've got no desire to defeat commercialism, you just have to do it intelligently?

Rolf Snoeren: I think it's important to be an alternative for people, so that there's choice, that people can have a product with soul but that it's available, you don't have to search for it. In that sense we want to be commercial because we want to be part of the game. It's very easy to say, O.K we make a product with a soul but…

Viktor Horsting:'s just for me, or it's just to look at and then…

Rolf Snoeren: But why not make it commercial?

Penny Martin: It's a good answer, good. And finally, I hope I get her name correct, Sulyeman Khan from Essex asks a simple question but a good one: what do you love and what do hate most about fashion?

Viktor Horsting: Start with hate? Shall we start with hate? (Laughing as he speaks)

Penny Martin: That was your inclination, so…

Viktor Horsting: I think hate is probably the pace. Yes the pace and what was the other thing?

Rolf Snoeren: Maybe that it's one big power play. Sometimes it's like being in high school - who's the most popular kid, it's very adolescent, almost, in that way.

Viktor Horsting: But once you're able to get the play and you're able to play according to your own rules

Penny Martin: You're in the cool gang.

Viktor Horsting: Then it can be great. That's maybe the upside, and of course that it's great that we can do so many different things. We're not just sat there designing dresses, we travel a lot, we meet incredible people, all over the world. It's global, that's what's also really beautiful.

Rolf Snoeren: And the whole glamour part of it is something that still seduces us and that got us into fashion in the first place. Being young kids, the glamour of the fashion world is very seducing.

Viktor Horsting: But also in an image way: we may dream of a very glamorous event, but then we'll be there and afterwards it's just a moment, the moment when you have your photo taken, which is fascinating but the actual event may not be that interesting. It's as if our world exists as these kind of images or clichés or archetypes of what a famous designer's life could look like. This is also what the start of the show is about, all these small installations. It's all dreams about what it could be like to be really famous and successful.

Rolf Snoeren: But let's say we are happy with the Polaroid of it, with the memory.

Penny Martin: Well I'm just going to end by asking you one question. If you were to stop designing now (I hope you don't!) but what would you would you say, in hindsight, that your contribution to fashion has been? Can you cast your mind back and think what fashion was like before you started and distance yourself from yourselves and say what you hope you've contributed?

Viktor Horsting: I find that very difficult. I hope that we inspire people with the work that we do, give them something beautiful but something that makes them think and that touches them emotionally. I remember the way that certain designer's shows or just fashion images that I saw when I was little touched me emotionally and if I, or if we, can achieve that same effect on people then I think that's the goal.

Penny Martin: For you too?

Rolf Snoeren: Yeah, I think as well that it's probably up to other people to say what you contributed. It's very difficult to…

Penny Martin: Well, I hope that today has give you some food for thought and that you've enjoyed hearing other people's interpretations of you.

V&R: We have yes.

Penny Martin: It's been a great pleasure and privilege for me to have a chance to interview you and I hope the audience have also found it equally interesting and exiting. So I hope you'll join me in thanking Viktor and Rolf for a fantastic day. (Applause)

Penny Martin: Thank you.