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Viktor&Rolf: Artful fashion statements at the Kunsthalle München

The Kunsthalle München is currently showing the first major retrospective of the Dutch fashion duo Viktor&Rolf in Germany. Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren have been working at the interface between haute couture and art for more than three decades. They are celebrated for their unconventional approach to fashion design: stars such as Madonna, Tilda Swinton, Lady Gaga, Doja Cat and Cardi B wear their clothes. They design ballet costumes or stage sets for performances such as for the romantic opera "Der Freischütz" directed by Robert Wilson. The Munich show presents 100 of their most daring creations, accompanied by videos, drawings and installations. Visitors are thus familiarised step by step with Viktor&Rolf's world of ideas.

Kunsthalle Munich & Fashion

The exhibition was developed by Kunsthalle München in collaboration with the Canadian curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot. Loriot has already curated fashion exhibitions at Kunsthalle München: 2015's "Jean Paul Gaultier. From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk" in 2015, "Peter Lindbergh. From Fashion to Reality" and 2020/2021 "Thierry Mugler. Couturissime". For this exhibition, Thierry-Maxime Loriot collaborated with Maison Viktor&Rolf and L'Oréal Luxe. The exhibition "Viktor&Rolf: Fashion Statements" is divided into a series of rooms with different connotations. Visitors are greeted by a mannequin whose skirt is pulled up and stiffened.

The installation is entitled "Late Stage Capitalism Waltz" and thus refers to the observations of Werner Sombart and his theory of the modern determination of needs. Simplified, Sombart said in his book "Economy and Fashion" in 1902: "Fashion is the favourite child of capitalism" and to this day, the rapid circulation speed of the fashion world presents us with — major — problems. But without the constant production of collections and mass-produced goods, the global textile industry would not be economically successful. You can't make a living from haute couture.

Although Viktor&Rolf were and are also active in the field of ready-to-wear fashion, their focus is on haute couture, which is categorised as art by fashion theorists anyway (Gertud Lehnert). Viktor&Rolf are artists and have a special perception of the fashion world. "Late Stage Capitalism Waltz" sets the mood and this can be seen in many details in the exhibition. At the two fashion designers' press conference, it was emphasised several times that simple fashion trends and sales figures are not actually the yardstick for their work. Nevertheless, haute couture is always the biggest advertising and marketing factor for a fashion house to successfully bring ready-to-wear to the market.

Who are Viktor&Rolf?

Viktor&Rolf is a Dutch avant-garde luxury fashion house founded in 1993 by Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren. For more than twenty years, Viktor&Rolf have been questioning the attitude of fashion. In their ready-to-wear collection, they design clothes, but their focus is on working on pieces of art. They often also incorporate the performing arts.

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren met in 1989 during their studies at the Arnhem School of Art and Design. In 1992, the two began working together and moved to Paris. Viktor&Rolf did not initially fit into the classic fashion industry. But the art scene gladly accepted them. In 2000, Viktor&Rolf founded their company and began to apply their artistic approach to their ready-to-wear collections.

The fat credit crunsh

If the fashion world has developed into a "capitalist waltz" since 1900 with the emergence of big business and mass society, things are moving even faster at the beginning of the 21st century. The first room tells of the times of the "credit crunsh" in 2008, which was also felt by the fashion industry in the high-end haute couture and ready-to-wear sector. Viktor&Rolf designed the "Immaculate Collection" for their haute couture line in 2010 in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which they labelled "Credit Crunch Couture" as budgets and production costs were cut during this time. Due to the economic situation, they also delivered the fashion items in a correspondingly fragmented or "imperfect" way. This included dresses with "cut-outs", where parts were missing, or split and cut-open dresses. If the economic system was fragile, so was fashion.

Contemporary Pandora dolls: Viktor&Rolf's Russian Dolls

Dolls are of great importance in the history of fashion. They travelled through courtly Europe with fabric and clothing models from the 14th century onwards. This made it possible to present models and fabrics, even without the later invention of the fashion journal. At the end of the 18th century, seamstresses, tailors and fashion retailers used them to present the latest fashion trends across their regions. Then the first fashion illustrated magazines were founded and couturier Charles Frederick Worth finally introduced live human models in the 1850s.

Viktor&Rolf's "Russian Dolls" are memorabilia from a performative fashion show (F/W 1999) in which they themselves took an active part. They carried supermodel Maggie Rizer onto the catwalk and gradually dressed her in nine dresses, one on top of the other — also a small reminiscence of the matryoshkas, which can be stacked on top of each other. The first short dress at the bottom was made of jute, and the material became more and more precious with the last surfaces. Nine dolls now show these dresses in the exhibition.

Art & Language in the Hall of Mirrors

The next room is reminiscent of the fashionable Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where fashion victim Louis Quartorze once found inspiration or became a trendsetter. Here, a colourful arrangement of tulle gowns stands on mannequins. But they are never what they seem at first glance. Almost every time, the gown is combined with quotes. Do they represent the thoughts of the potential wearer? The tone is not set by seduction, the role that fashion played in courtly or upper middle-class circles until the early 20th century, but by rejection of the other person. The slogans are reminiscent of the artists' group Art & Language and are ambivalent and provocative.

While the gala gown traditionally serves the purpose of representation or seduction, the texts make it impolite and expansive. What can be read? "I am not shy but I don't like you" or "Go to hell" or "Sorry I'm late I don't want to come". A large red "NO" is emblazoned on a blue, oversized, plush tulle dress that totally transforms the female doll's body and may also symbolise the gender shift in fashion. Because: there is no female body here, it's simply NO. The white gown, which reads "I love you" in bold red letters, is very conciliatory and almost traditional. A wedding dress for the bride?

Great stagecraft: Der Freischütz

The stage has always been one of the major themes for fashion designers. From Coco Chanel to Tim van Steenbergen — many fashion designers have brought great costumes and therefore great art to the stage. At Viktor&Rolf, it is white short tutu dresses with many layers of tulle for the ballet and the costumes for the romantic opera "Der Freischütz" by Carl Maria von Weber. It was premiered in 2009 at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden under the direction of Robert Wilson. Here, too, the costume is language and the principle of "art & language" reappears: The rich farmer Kilian wears the name "Bauer" on his chest, and not just to make the plot line comprehensible.


Text: Bettina Krogemann

Photo: Bettina Krogemann, Kunsthalle Munich

Kunsthalle Munich

Viktor&Rolf. Fashion Statements

February 23 until October 6, 2024


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