Tomorrow, the Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens will sign copies of his new book, “She Walks In Beauty,” at the Rizzoli store in New York City. With four collections under his newly relaunched eponymous line, a museum retrospective, and a book, Theyskens reflects on his body of work.
Last November the Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens led a press tour of his retrospective, “She Walks In Beauty,” at the Mode Museum in Antwerp. It was the last exhibit that MoMu put on before closing for a two-year renovation. Theyskens was in good spirits; few designers get a retrospective at forty, but Theyskens made seismic waves in fashion pretty much straight out of school. He was part of the golden generation of the Belgian designers that swept the fashion world off its feet in the ‘90s with an unprecedented tsunami of creativity. Theyskens was one of the few who were not a product of the Antwerp Royal Academy; he graduated from La Cambre, the visual art school in Brussels.
His darkly romantic vision jived well with the zeitgeist – back then the fashion world had not yet become the fashion industry, and depth of vision and creativity was prized above commercialism. His aesthetic neatly fit in with those of some of his countrymen – Ann Demeulemeester, Jurgi Persoons, and Veronique Branquinho – but it was also very much his own. For Theyskens the dress remained the pinnacle of a woman’s wardrobe, and he had the highest respect for Parisian couturiers. Theyskens’s greatest early achievement was to take couture and make it modern by liberating the handmade dress from the stuffy Parisian ateliers and haute bourgeoisie salons – he made it sensual, otherworldly, and relatable to a set of women who wouldn’t be caught dead near rue Cambon. He added leather to silk tulle, and he made the hook-and-eye closure into a sartorial sex symbol. There were quite a few standouts from his debut, Spring/Summer 1999, collection – a dress overlaid with pigeons that seemed to devour the model, a skirt with lines that resembled hair. Perhaps the most famous was the long black silk taffeta gown with hook-and-eye closure in a shape of a cross, which has become the holy grail of a wedding dress for many a goth bride.
Theyskens won famous fans and fanfare at the speed of light. Madonna wore one of his early ensembles. The Smashing Pumpkins used his dresses for the artwork and the tour for their 1998 album, “Adore.” In 2000, American Vogue declared him one of the most promising designers of the time in an issue that also featured Hussein Chalayan, Nicholas Ghesquire, Hedi Slimane, Junya Watanabe, and A.F. Vandevorst. His work was shot by Deborah Turbeville and Steven Meisel, among others.
And yet, as it often happens with a young designer, Theyskens operated on a shoestring budget. A season could make or break the brand, and break it did when the Twin Towers fell in 2001; the entire fashion calendar was thrown into disarray and buyers failed to show up. At the same time Rochas, the venerable French house that was being revived by Procter & Gamble, who owned its perfume division, came knocking on Theyskens’s door. With his label’s future uncertain, Theyskens took the opportunity.
At Rochas, and then at Nina Ricci, where he moved in 2006, Theyskens continued to flex his creative muscles. In a way those two houses were a perfect fit for Theyskens – who still got to do his version of couture. But eyebrows were raised when in 2010 he accepted a position as creative director at Theory, a mass-market brand known mostly for dressing white-collar office workers. Though Andrew Rosen, the company’s head, gave Theyskens his own line, the design parameters would clearly have to be shifted. As we collectively scratched heads trying to figure out what the maker of sweeping ball gowns and leather capes would do at Theory, Theyskens accepted it as a challenge to translate his lofty vision into a more mundane world of casual dressing. “It was a different modus operandi for me, fulfilling, but also very strange; I learned that my position as a designer was not going to be really understood by the house,” Theyskens told me. “I could have stayed longer, but I was not Olivier the couturier anymore.”
We were sitting at a table of Theyskens’s atelier in Paris two days after the show, his fourth since the designer relaunched his eponymous brand. The atelier, in a side street in the Marais, was turned into a showroom, where several buyers milled around one very long rack. The table was overflowing with white tulips, and next to it stood a rack of fashion books. Theyskens’s own apartment is next door, so he is never far from work. At forty, a few gray hairs notwithstanding, Theyskens looks very much the boy prodigy that he was at the end of the ‘90s. His deep-brown eyes are enigmatic, even more so when he gets pensive while searching for an answer to a question.
The collection Theyskens presented was his strongest since the brand’s relaunch, a marriage of couture elements and casual dressing all filtered through his visual language of dark romanticism. It was mostly black, and the fragility of lace was married to the strength of leather, with denim falling somewhere in-between. The hook-and-eye was oversized, this time tapering a sleeve on a turtleneck, or half-hidden on a denim jacket. The oversized platform boots were a perfect compliment to his vision, and they could be pared with a biker jacket or a velvet gown. It made Theyskens’s woman three-dimensional, nuanced, and in possession of uncertainty, that most basic human quality that fashion often likes to hide.
Our conversation turned to the female archetype that Theyskens inevitably comes back to, as he did with this collection. “You know, often talking about a collection stresses me out, because designing is such an intuitive process for me,” he said. “At the same time I was reading about all these sexual abuse stories. I’m the type who immediately embraces anything regarding equality and advancement of women, but I was wondering if it’s going to translate into my work. It’s only when the collection really came together that I started to understand that it was reflecting something that I truly believe about women; this conjunction of fragility and strength. And I thought that the collection reflected this duality. I developed these shoes, for example, as the only accessories in the collection, because I did not want to make it fussy. The shoes by themselves tell me more about the character of this imaginary girl. She’s ready to kick your ass with those boots, right? But then she might have a romantic dress that you could imagine on P.J. Harvey or Courtney [Love]. Something very fragile, a pretty, lacey dress, but it’s still them, as individuals.”
I noted that P. J. Harvey seems like the perfect archetype for Theyskens’s work and he lit up. “She is my girl, fore sure,” said he. “I evolved listening to her, and I’ve always had the highest degree of respect for what she does. Listening to her, there has never been a moment of feeling trapped. And then the way she looks, her physical presence – that’s another gift she has. I cannot see her art without thinking of her making it. Her presence is so strong that you can’t even judge it, you simply accept it.”
With a woman like Harvey in mind, Theyskens wanted to strip this collection down of anything superfluous. “I thought that three garments per look is already too much. So, we went with just a dress or a jacket over a dress.” Theyskens styles his own shows in order to fully realize his vision. He has worked with stylists before, but in the end he decided that it’s not for him. It’s a tricky balance between having another strong aesthetic eye and too many cooks in the kitchen. “In order to let a good stylist really work, you have to give them a real freedom of expression,” Theyskens said. “But the result can be that your vision as a designer is compromised, and the ideas that came with the collection are no longer there. So I prefer to style with the help of my team.”
This hands-on approach has been typical for Theyskens ever since he returned to Paris two years ago. At Theory his role was clear, but now he has to go back to wearing many hats in a way an entrepreneur does. Theyskens designs the entire collection, sketching on his iPad. “It’s made my life so much easier,” he said. “I used to travel to my manufacturers with a suitcase of drawings and fabric swatches, and my pencils and markers, but I never let anyone touch them, so they’d have to scan them on a computer. Now I just email them the drawings.”
Unlike many designers, Theyskens also makes most of his patterns. I mentioned that today it seems less important to designers to know how to actually makes clothes. “This is super important for me,” Theyskens said. “I’d rather spend my Christmas holiday making patterns, but have the pants fit exactly how I want them. I don’t understand how any student can come out of school not knowing how to make patterns. If you are starting out, you’ll have to do all these things yourself to save costs. Also, the advantage of being highly trained in pattern making and draping is that you really physically understand the proportion of the body. You get the nuance of the length. You really get that only if you are hands-on and get to know the garments inside out.”
Theyskens has learned some valuables lessons in the fifteen years of working for other brands. He learned how to work in a big team and deal with bureaucracy, and how to challenge himself under different design and aesthetic parameters. Theyskens told me that he never felt inauthentic working for others. And yet that confidence often stemmed from having established his own voice. “As a student I was always really nervous about being under someone’s influence,” he said. “For example, I loved Helmut Lang and I was buying a lot of his clothes. But at some point I realized that I was delivering Helmut Lang knock-offs in my school projects. And I got fed up with that, and decided to do anti-Helmut Lang collections, and that’s where all the chiffon dresses come from. Other students didn’t like it, but I did, and that’s what mattered.”
One man who has been complicit in creating the Theyskens aesthetic since his early days is the photographer Julien Claessens. The two met at La Cambre and immediately hit it off. Claessens started taking photos of Theyskens’s work while they were in school, and he still does today (Claessens works as a duo with Thomas Deschamps, who was also his classmate). “There was a real energy at La Cambre back then,” Claessens told me (editor’s note: Claessens has also shot several editorials for StyleZeitgeist magazine in print). “I think we attracted each other because we both liked the dark side of things. I was fascinated by Olivier, because you could already see back then how talented he was. He is a very charismatic guy. We have been friends for a long time, but I can still see it in the people who meet him for the first time.”
In the MoMu exhibit there is an entire wall devoted to Claessens’s photographs of Theyskens’s work through different stages of his career. Even at Theory, Theyskens insisted that Claessens travel from Brussels to take backstage photos. Over the years, the two have developed a highly intuitive relationship. I asked Claessens about how they work. “First I try to understand what kind of a woman Olivier has in mind at the moment,” he said. “Sometimes he is in a very glamorous mood, and sometimes it’s very punk; sometimes he envisions a very strong woman, sometimes the mood is very dark. I try to capture his vision through my own. And I get to take photos without asking myself what people in the fashion industry will think about them. Sometimes Olivier has a very strong and precise idea, and I try to help him realize it. And sometimes he just says, ‘Do what you want.’”
One conundrum Theyskens will have to solve as he develops his own line is where he fits into the fashion landscape today. With the rise of streetwear, fashion’s extreme casualization, it seems that there is not much room left for the kind of sweeping grandeur that Theyskens made his name with at the turn of the millennium. Today, even designers unabashed about luxury, like Haider Ackermann, make hoodies and tees, whether they like it or not. “I am glad that fashion changes,” Theyskens told me. “And I have respect for people who can do streetwear right, who can collapse the notions of what fashion is. The one thing I question is what passes for luxury fashion today. I see some designer fashion, and it’s an insult to the notion of luxury. They use cheap materials, cheap labor, and they try to hide it behind the logo of a French luxury brand. The fact that many consumers don’t see it, and don’t mind paying crazy prices for it, it’s strange. It’s like paying an extra thousand for a premium economy ticket – Ok, you get a little more legroom, but the service is basically the same.”
Thus far, Theyskens is very happy with the growth of his line, so evidently there is still a market for a designer who actually designs and who prides himself on using quality materials. When Theyskens goes to Premiere Vision, the fabric trade fair in Paris, he visits his favorite Japanese manufacturer. They call Theyskens “the golden fingers,” for the way he quickly goes through fabrics by touch and like clockwork lands on the most luxurious ones. “I hope that at the end of the day, the fashion consumer is not stupid,” he said. “And I see the buyers responding positively to what we do. So far, we have exceeded all the goals we have set for ourselves.”
Backstage photos and portrait Claessens & Deschamps
Olivier Theyskens, Spring/Summer 1999, dress in silk with hook-and-eye closure in the front in the shape of an open cross. Mannequin: TRIBE by Bonaveri. Photo Julien Claessens & Thomas Deschamps.