Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The House of Viktor & Rolf

The House of Viktor & Rolf

Barbican Art Gallery

Viktor & Rolf are artists. They just happen to make clothes. Their first pieces, and in fact, a large proportion of all their pieces, are not exactly made to be worn. An early collection consisted of puffed out golden costumes, empty of a wearer and suspended above the ground casting ‘shadows’ of black organza shapes below. Wouldn’t fit too fabulously with your new Office pumps, probably.

Their art is all about the concept. Where most designers and shoppers want to have the prettiest, the sexiest, the most luxurious, V&R make no excuses for the challenges they pose to conventional beauty and the factory-farm fashion industry. Since their first meeting as fashion students at Arnhem art academy, Viktor & Rolf have struggled to come to terms with their own position within the industry.

Early collections saw the pair refuse to show at all, instead stationing models across Paris armed with placards: Viktor & Rolf on strike. At once in love and in hate with the glossy fashion cocoon that has showered praise on them from the start (even when, in doing so, it acknowledges the criticisms levelled at it), V&R seem to be obsessed with opposites.

Seeing the pair’s chronological progression in this career retrospective at the Barbican, it’s striking how they are so keen to abandon the sentiment of each previous collection while retaining a solid identity, obvious even in early prototypes. And that identity, that V&R essence, is like a controlled madness – the giddy whimsy of the Flowerbomb collection, complete with crimped afro hair pieces, saccharine florals and models dancing down the aisles, contrasts violently with the Black collection, featuring models painted a dusty charcoal on every inch of skin and parading the darkest of dark clothes from head to toe.

Elsewhere – because this show is really more of a gallery of separate installations than a list of past collections – the Blue collection uses chromakey technology to project clouds, cityscapes and helicopters onto exquisitely detailed outfits of purest Yves Klein blue, creating a surprisingly haunting, even poignant effect. Yet the centrepiece of the exhibition is a giant three storey doll’s house populated with miniature porcelain dolls wearing exact copies of V&R’s most iconic and memorable pieces, right down to the Tilda Swinton doll with slicked back flaming red hair and ten collars piled high on top of each other.

The fashion equivalent of a fondant fancy, it’s oversized, preening and playful against the seriousness of the Blue and Black collections. Head-to-toe black one season, purest white the next. Masculine tailoring meets the feminine goddess head-on in a floor-length chiffon dress the colour of marshmallow, one half of which is tucked into a single slim grey trouser leg. Opposites clash but always complement.

Viktor & Rolf recognise the inherent triviality and superficiality of fashion with its constantly changing trends and demands, but rather than shouting back in an overtly political way à la Katharine Hamnett (she of the 80s slogan t-shirt ‘CHOOSE LIFE’), they revel in its glossy vapidity. Marketing a perfume that doesn’t open as well as others that do, showing their clothes on mannequins with porcelain dolls’ heads - it’s a dressing up game with a childish appeal, and yet the ideas propping up the V&R show are entirely adult.

It’s bafflingly good, and likely to surprise and impress even the most hardcore of existing V&R fans. This is a design team who see the catwalk as their canvas, as a venue for a happening, as a place to protest and pout in equal measure. Though V&R have a ready-to-wear line, not to mention a high street collaboration with H&M two years ago, it still takes a certain woman to wear a cocktail dress filled with helium balloons. Polarising stuff.

No comments: