Once the aesthetic aspirations of a cultural epoch are achieved, one of two things happens. Either the movement self-destructs, its ideology torn down and replaced with a more salient one or else visual statements are pushed beyond the initial goal, towards a more extreme form of beauty than originally envisaged.
In art, Michelangelo is the most famous example of this. Unsatisfied by the resolution of single-point perspective and realisation of the classical nude achieved in his painting, Michelangelo's later work progressed beyond reality, into convoluted compositions populated by figures with improbable physiques. For him, nature was not enough; only the visual complexity and emotional intensity of Mannerism could reach the extreme beauty he imagined.
The comparison may itself be extreme, but if there was ever a fashion equivalent of Michelangelo's Mannerism, it is in the designs of Viktor & Rolf. Having mastered the technical requirements of haute couture in their early shows, the Dutch designers' subsequent collections of ready-to-wear have radically extended the possibilities of what might be accepted as clothing. Multiple collars, stacked on top of each other like an armadillo, long, attenuated sleeves, oversize poke-your-eye-out cuffs with enormous buttons, asymmetrical shirt plackets, trouser legs emerging from evening gowns; this is the lexicon of exaggerated forms Viktor & Rolf drawn upon to create the most audacious garments in contemporary fashion.
Yet there is also a latent commercialism behind the Mannerist imperative that marks the designers out from other fashion extremists, maintaining Viktor & Rolf's relevance to international fashion design and their market both. That they understand the politics of global fashion branding Viktor & Rolf made clear seasons ago, when in 1996 they launched a spurious fragrance, for which only the corporate identity and packaging existed. October's Spring/Summer 2004 catwalk presentation saw them do it for real as their ribbon-strewn procession built into an acoustic crescendo, echoing the word 'Flowerbomb', the title of their new perfume.
Fashioned like a multi-faceted glass grenade, with the landmark V&R black seal as the pin, the Flowerbomb bottle is a perfect metaphor for the Viktor & Rolf paradox: latent violence laced with seductive elegance. Even the packaging has been carefully considered to represent the dual concerns. From a distance, the box looks like a Futurist car crash of force lines culminating in a central black splat. In the hand, though, it is a pretty arrangement of black and silver petersham ribbon on iridescent pink card, secured by the faux wax seal.
As fashion design struggles for ideas beyond recycling old ones and image-making yearns for new life outside stultifying re-touching, Flowerbomb poses the opposing twin options of aesthetic accomplishment: do we tear it all down or push it a little further?
Flowerbomb by Viktor and Rolf, £50 for 50ml at Selfridges 0800 123 400