Morecombe and Wise, Gilbert and George, Bert and Ernie… Double-acts do it better. Just look at fashion’s dynamic duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren. Since joining forces in the early 90s, Viktor & Rolf have created a world all of their own. Models painted black. Male-on-male ballroom dancers. Mushroom-cloud gowns stuffed with balloons. And a giant dolls’ house. Iain R. Webb tracks down one half of the twosome in their Amsterdam studio. “It’s fine, we speak as one voice,” says Rolf.
WONDERLAND: Your latest menswear collection features a Geek meets Jock look. But you are the most un-Jock-like men…
ROLF: [Laughs] Yes, but that’s why it works. To have two clichés clash together creates a tension.
WONDERLAND: The new collection made me think of an American tourist in Hawaii in the 50s.
ROLF: [Laughs] For us it started with the fact that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. We just felt the need to go back to this positive time. American-inspired, but from an era when we still all believed in it.
WONDERLAND: So how do you feel now he is President elect?
ROLF: Incredibly happy. Happy and relieved.
WONDERLAND: Do you have a different approach when you design for men and women?
ROLF: They are both about something bigger than clothes but the menswear is more practical and less linked to a show.
WONDERLAND: And there is an autobiographical element to your menswear…
ROLF: Absolutely. When we launched the collection we did a show with just the two of us. It’s the clothes we want to wear; so it’s rooted in something classical twisted with something more ironic.
WONDERLAND: How do you want to be perceived: as fashion designers or conceptual artists?
ROLF: As fashion artists! We started by doing things that were about fashion but not necessarily about clothes. With the dolls’ house [at The Barbican retrospective] and some future projects we are going back into more art installations but it’s difficult to say what’s art and what’s fashion.
WONDERLAND: Your fashion shows are always thought-provoking…
ROLF: We regard our real work as the show. The shows are the performance and the clothes are the actors. A show is a way to tell a story and is so much more than just presenting the clothes for the season. A show is the reason why we went into fashion; it’s the way you can present your dreams.
WONDERLAND: What drew you to each other when you were studying at Arnhem Academy?
ROLF: First of all our shared vision of fashion and our shared taste and I think we also had the same level of ambition. We both wanted to become a fashion label. When we work together there is this extra strength that we don’t have separately. There was never a question to work alone…
WONDERLAND: Your first collections were very conceptual.
ROLF: Even though for the first five years we didn’t get so much attention, we always say that these years were the most important in our career because we could experiment and find ourselves.
WONDERLAND: The fashion industry has an obsession with new, new, new. Is it difficult for young designers to get attention so quickly?
ROLF: Absolutely. In our case that would have been devastating. It takes time to find your own voice.
WONDERLAND: And being able to make mistakes…
ROLF: Our mistakes have been our biggest lessons.
WONDERLAND: How does reality live up to the mini-world of Viktor & Rolf? You haven’t done badly have you?
ROLF: [Laughs] Have you heard of The Secret? It’s this book that is an absolute hype right now. The secret in The Secret is just visualising your dreams. When Viktor and I read that book we thought, ‘That’s exactly what we did!’.
WONDERLAND: You enjoy collaborating with musicians and actors. Why?
ROLF: We are never so interested in celebrities – the nicest thing is to be able to work together with someone you admire, like Rufus Wainwright or Tilda Swinton, to create something new. It’s beneficial for our growth.
WONDERLAND: Swinton’s career mirrors your own – the way she mixes art-house and big bucks mainstream blockbusters.
ROLF: By doing both you create a very rich world in which everything is possible: you don’t want to choose. She knows how to reach a big public.
WONDERLAND: And it stops it from being elitist.
ROLF: Yeah, but if you want to be elitist you can be as well…
WONDERLAND: Did you enjoy seeing your work in an art gallery situation at The Barbican?
ROLF: Absolutely. You know fashion is so much what you said, about newness, and it goes so fast. This season’s ideas are thrown away next season… What is enjoyable when you see all your work together like that, is that you see you have a body of work that you can cherish. We are romantic because we always want to hold on to what we are doing, in that sense we are almost anti-fashion. In our collections we often work with the idea of trying to hold onto things instead of going too fast, like when we dipped everything in silver, it was a wish to freeze a moment.
WONDERLAND: Why specifically dolls and a dolls’ house?
ROLF: You can easily control dolls. They do whatever you want! Recreating the work in a different scale makes people look at it differently, and that’s what we try to do, to look at the world we all know from a different angle. We almost preferred the dolls to the clothes in real life.
WONDERLAND: In your S/S 2009 virtual show with Shalom Harlow you appear like puppet masters looming over the set.
ROLF: Yes, that was the idea.
WONDERLAND: Do you enjoy being in control?
ROLF: [Laughs] Yes, it’s very important for us.
WONDERLAND: Another recurring theme in your shows is dance –
ROLF: It’s very strange because we never dance ourselves. I think it’s about trying to escape the rigid form of a fashion show where models are walking like robots on a catwalk.
WONDERLAND: Which designers do you admire?
ROLF: We admire designers who really have their own style whether it’s very artistic or not, from Margiela to Yves Saint Laurent. In the end that is what lasts. You can lose yourself in trends but its important to really keep it close to yourself.
WONDERLAND: How do you work together as a duo?
ROLF: We do everything together. Every business decision, every idea. That is why we play with our image, the same glasses and the same clothes: to show that we act as one designer; we feel as one designer.
WONDERLAND: Do you never disagree?
ROLF: We don’t always agree but we never fight. We just talk until we find consensus and when we both have a different opinion it means the idea is not yet polished, or finished.
WONDERLAND: Will Viktor & Rolf always work in the fashion arena?
ROLF: Yes, but maybe not exclusively in the fashion arena. But fashion is, let’s say, the love of our lives.
WONDERLAND: Where is Viktor today?
ROLF: He is making sketches. That’s the good thing about being two people.
Photographer: Tom Allen
Fashion: Way Perry
Words: Iain R. Webb
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #16, Dec/Jan 2008/09