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The House Of Viktor & Rolf

Posted in Art, Fashion by Jason Jones on August 5, 2008

viktor-rolf-01Is fashion art? Does it warrant houseroom in museums and galleries alongside more traditional artworks? Can the essentially ephemeral nature of fashion stand the test of time in the same way as a Degas or a Dalí? If there was any doubt, The House Of Viktor & Rolf exhibition at London’s Barbican puts it to bed.

Charting the burgeoning career of Dutch designing duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, the show is a retrospective of the past 15 years work at their eponymous fashion house. Famed for their avant-garde theatricality and surreal satirising, the pair take the conventions, language and motifs of fashion design and subvert them with their uniquely idiosyncratic eye.

Themed chronologically from their first fashion show in 1993, from the off the exhibition arrests the senses and turns the established notions of fashion, of how clothes are meant to be constructed and worn, on their head – quite literally in the case of the Upside Down collection that consists of clothes that can be worn either conventionally or bottom up.

One of the most striking pieces is the Russian Doll collection, where a solitary model is dressed in layer upon layer of garments until only the top of her head is visible. Is this a comment on how designer clothes are drowning out individuality and identity? This may sound like a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot spot of theorising for two people who are part of the fashion establishment, but that’s this double-act’s whole stock-in-trade – their desire to not exactly bite the hand that feeds, but prick its bent for pretension and pomposity with intelligence, irony and wit.

Take their Viktor & Rolf On Strike collection. In 1996, struggling to realise and stage a collection for every season as the fashion industry cycle dictates and equally frustrated by their lack of exposure in the press, they took to the streets of Paris with an audacious plan for self-promotion by plastering posters pronouncing ‘Viktor & Rolf On Strike’ across arguably the world’s numero uno fashion capital as well as sending them to various prominent magazines to create that essential media buzz the fashion world demands.

And this mischievous undermining of fashion’s received wisdoms is a recurring preoccupation in the V&R canon. The L’Apparence Du Vide show takes the ideas of the supermodel and the designer as star, bypassing models totally and instead suspending mannequins from the ceiling in gold vinyl as if gift-wrapped for our consumerist consumption, while all the time a recording of children repeating the names of supermodels is played as if they’re reciting the alphabet. It’s a brilliant piece of self-parody. As is the more recent No collection. Again frustrated by fashion’s relentless onward march, V&R present their displeasure by sending models down the runway with gigantic ‘Nos’ sprouting from their outfits as a protest against the unceasing search for The Next Big Thing.

And this is at the crux of what is so fascinating about the exhibition. As they’ve gained more and more success, how can their mockery of the fashion firmament not sound like hollow hypocrisy? In truth, it’s a fine line, but Viktor & Rolf walk it and you only have to watch their catwalk shows to see how they manage the tough balancing act. Projected on screens behind the exhibit of each collection, they convey the V&R ethos with a powerful visual punch, showing their outsider status despite being open-arms welcomed into fashion’s inner-circle fold. These shows are the absolute highlight, where the exhibition truly shines, because this is Viktor & Rolf’s philosophy in action, their vision made real by fabric and flesh, so much so after over three hours at the exhibition I was still there, enthralled by their mesmerising hypnotism.

Ultimately, Viktor & Rolf are fashion’s Gilbert & George. They dress like twins, speak in a seriously earnest monotone, never interrupting each other and always in agreement. It makes them deliberately and disconcertingly difficult to tell apart as well as nye on impossible to pin down and fathom. What this peerless exhibition does is go some way to deconstructing their fashion – and to a large extent their personal and political – ideology while teasingly and mysteriously leaving some questions decidedly and defiantly unanswered. Are they a couple or just business partners? If they have such contempt for rampant consumerism, why are they cogs in the machine? How does their brand of sensitive creativity survive the fashion snake-pit?

Who knows? Who cares? All you need to know is this exhibition is genius. Catch it before, like fashion, it moves on.

The House Of Viktor & Rolf runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until September 21. Admission, £8; concessions, £6 (0845 120 7550; www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery)

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