Viktor and Rolf are crestfallen. The Dutch designers fashion-set favorites who are now out to prove that they're not too quirky for mainstream success are in London for their first-ever movie premiere, the opening of Young Adam, starring Ewan McGregor and their friend and muse Tilda Swinton. Part of Leicester Square is cordoned off and Swinton, whose short red hair and long black chiffon Viktor & Rolf dress make her look like a fiery upside-down exclamation point, is signing autographs and posing. Viktor and Rolf trail behind her. It's all so nearly perfect, and yet ? "There's no red carpet," says a forlorn Viktor. "No red carpet," says Rolf.
It is not at all obvious from meeting Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren that they would care about something like a red carpet. The skinny, bespectacled look-alike design team radiates more geek than glamour. They are darlings of fashion's intelligentsia (they had two openings in Paris last week: a show of their new spring/summer collection, and a Louvre exhibition devoted to their work that runs until Jan. 25, the first in nearly a decade to focus on fashion designers). But they have a secret: they want to be huge. Not "I've got a nice business selling to those in the know" kind of hugeness, like Martin Margiela, but Armani huge, household-name huge, dresser-of-stars-who-are-very-very-red-carpet huge. "We have this ambition to reach the top," says Horsting, 34. "We are very ambitious and very impatient," says Snoeren, 33.
If they get there, it will be on the quirkiest of paths. Viktor & Rolf launched their design career not on runways but in art galleries. And their early work such as Viktor & Rolf Le Parfum, from 1996, a limited-edition bottle of tap water complete with sexy ad campaign was more a comment on the world of commerce than an attempt to participate in it. And when they started making clothes, it was to attract attention rather than sales. In 1998 they launched the Atomic Bomb collection, featuring shirts stuffed with helium balloons to mimic a mushroom cloud. After that came the Babushka collection, a single model wearing nine layers of beaded clothing. "We decided we were too much picked up by the art world, so we did couture," says Horsting. "It was a good way to get our name out," says Snoeren.
The fashion press began to take notice, as did Franco Pene, head of the Italian manufacturing company Gibo and the man who made the early collections of Helmut Lang, Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs. When he approached Horsting and Snoeren and asked if they could translate their unwearable haute couture collections into a commercial ready-to-wear line, they were eager to try. Even then, they remained abstract. Each article of clothing was made up of three pieces that had to be bought separately, and then attached. "They had no idea about sales," laughs Pene. "But they had the right mood. I said: 'Give us something they can buy.'" They responded by covering jeans, shirts and sweatshirts with a garish American-flag print. The press loved it, and subsequent collections were eagerly anticipated the all-black collections, with blackface models, and the ode to the age of sharp suits and tap dancing. But even fashion editors can tire of wearing ideas. The blue-screen collection for last autumn was fun to watch but hard to wear. Sales flattened and the buzz waned.
Then, at the Viktor & Rolf show last winter, as the lights came up a familiar voice intoned, "Be yourself. Follow your own path." The speaker and the model on the runway were the same: Tilda Swinton. The collection, worn on a parade of models all made up to look like Swinton, with alabaster face and red hair, was a breakthrough. Ordinary duffel coats were made pretty with the addition of flowing ribbons. Denim vests and jackets boasted puffy, pleated hems. Silk shirtdresses had overlapping collars. It was a collection as easy to wear as anything at the Gap, but with flourishes that made it very Viktor & Rolf. "Before, they always had the concept first, now they're focusing on garments first, concept second, and sales are starting to move again," says Pene.
The first part of the collection shown last week was more of the daywear-with-a-twist that worked so well last time around. But this time the items were off-the-shoulder jersey shirts, slouchy jeans and shorts. The looks that really got the audience going were the evening ones long gowns in chiffon or tulle that flowed off a pant leg, satin and chiffon tiered column dresses, sexy blouses what Snoeren called: "Our attempt to make glamour modern."
Viktor & Rolf say their transformation took place during the recent development of their menswear line. "It was liberating to have the restrictions of menswear, and we thought it'd be good to have the same restrictions in women's," says Snoeren. Others credit the daily presence of a real woman in their lives: Swinton. "It had a lot to do with their desire to contact something real and wearable as a concept in women's wear," she says. The three now communicate daily, trading encouragement and ideas. Swinton has almost become a third member of the team: she has given feedback on sketches for future collections, and advice on how to stage their exhibit at the Louvre. The exhibition features footage from all of their best shows, as well as the gowns and wax dummies of the designers themselves.
Swinton, whose career is supple enough to include independent films like Young Adam and Hollywood blockbusters like The Beach, personifies the individual yet popular reach to which the designers aspire. "Tilda calls it user-friendliness," says Horsting. "Be yourself, but be user-friendly. Allow people to enter your world. Make it fathomable." Even without the Louvre show, this has been a pretty fathomable and user-friendly year for the duo. They did a capsule collection of j180 tuxedos, ?60 shirts and ?170 trousers for the famous La Redoute mail-order catalog in France. And with a little help from Swinton, they finalized the designs and scent for their L'Oréal-backed fragrance, which will be introduced in 2005.
Now the duo-plus-one dreams of collaborating on a film. The team may seem an unusual one, but the three share at least one thing: a desire to stay unique while appealing to a large audience. And a red carpet wouldn't hurt, either.