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Viktor&Rolf Fashion Artists

Louis XIV, the Sun King, is famous for creating the glittering palace of Versailles and committing its court to a life of unbridled decadence. Louis liked cleaning his teeth with wine, bestowing favour on courtiers by allowing them to wipe his royal bottom, and fathering illegitimate children – about a dozen in all. He was also addicted to fashion. The king’s sartorial whims were frequent, fleeting and expensive, and the whole court had to keep up. It was Louis who made France the fashion capital of the world, revolutionising fabrics and designs, and commissioning small, beautiful dolls clad in immaculate miniature replicas. These tiny models toured the continent, introducing French couture to the courts of Europe.

Today, the phrase ‘fashion designer’ can evoke the modern equivalent of Louis XIV’s excesses: flashy labels, gratuitous spending, and narcissistic celebrity culture. But Viktor&Rolf, whose work is on show at the NGV International this summer, are truly, as the exhibition’s title indicates, ‘fashion artists’. Their garments are more fantastical sculptures than something you’d see on the high street. They embody not only extraordinary conceptual and technical skill (and not a few trade secrets), but also the social and cultural reality of their creators. And like sculptures, each garment is accompanied by its maquette: a perfectly proportioned and identically clad doll, named after the model who originally paraded the outfit down the catwalk. The dolls have become an iconic element of the designers’ approach: a nod to tradition in unexpected harmony with such avant-garde creations.

Today, the phrase ‘fashion designer’ can evoke the modern equivalent of Louis XIV’s excesses: flashy labels, gratuitous spending, and narcissistic celebrity culture. But Viktor&Rolf, whose work is on show at the NGV International this summer, are truly, as the exhibition’s title indicates, ‘fashion artists’. Their garments are more fantastical sculptures than something you’d see on the high street. They embody not only extraordinary conceptual and technical skill (and not a few trade secrets), but also the social and cultural reality of their creators. And like sculptures, each garment is accompanied by its maquette: a perfectly proportioned and identically clad doll, named after the model who originally paraded the outfit down the catwalk. The dolls have become an iconic element of the designers’ approach: a nod to tradition in unexpected harmony with such avant-garde creations.

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren began as penniless fashion graduates in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and much of their fashion reflects their struggles to achieve the freedom and financial security to create haute couture, rather than ready-to-wear collections. One wide, silvery-cobweb ballgown from these early days is deliberately deeply frayed and distressed, reflecting its creators’ own strain to fund their art. These days, of course, they are far from their humble origins.

    Like many couturiers, their perfumes – entry level designer purchases all can aspire to – fund their label, particularly their haute couture collections. This allows them to take flights of fancy and fantasy, creating garments that make you feel as though you’ve suddenly tumbled down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole. Defying convention, logic and expectation, each gown is confronting, multi-layered and highly structural. One mannequin appears to be folded deep in a glowing, crimson satin duvet; in another room a Kyoto zen garden can be found, bells chiming faintly in the dark, with tall swathed forms clustering in its centre. Another cavernous salon is papered entirely in 20 years’ worth of the artists’ own sketches, whimsical illustrations of dancing imagination.

Each of the collections represented is an innovative conceptual exploration testing the bounds of what is physically possible, incorporating frameworks, headdresses, layer-upon-layer, and references to Picasso, Van Gogh, and even the Y2K fears of the year 2000. The exhibition also features video installations of Viktor&Rolf runway shows, including the first to be held solely online: part of what Viktor&Rolf call the ‘democratisation of fashion’.

Their breathtaking work is an antidote to the environmentally disastrous ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon brought about by insatiable demand for the latest look, plus lack of transparency throughout fashion supply chains. By creating controversial garments that are intricate and thoughtful, they force us to question the very nature of fashion. In so doing, they wrest it from the grip of narcissists and elevate it to the level of art. Their garments are fashion at its best: pushing boundaries, confounding expectation, and igniting the imagination. And of course they are not without a certain delicious decadence: the exquisite handmade dolls modelling the collection were flown to Melbourne in their own private jet. Louis XIV would have approved.

Until February 26, 2017
NGV International
180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Victoria
Open 10am-5pm daily
Ticket entry prices apply
www.ngv.vic.gov.au