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Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf translate runway looks into new art with exhibit

TORONTO - As if conceiving of and crafting their creations wasn't enough of an undertaking for Viktor & Rolf, the inventive label has channelled its avant-garde designs into a new form of artistic expression.
Dutch design duo Viktor Horsting (left) and Rolf Snoeren are photographed in Toronto on Tuesday April 16, 2013, as they promote their fashion line and their upcoming exhibit at Luminato. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - As if conceiving of and crafting their creations wasn't enough of an undertaking for Viktor & Rolf, the inventive label has channelled its avant-garde designs into a new form of artistic expression.

What started as work for a fashion retrospective for a London gallery has become a self-described labour of love for Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, the collaborators behind the famed fashion house.

For years, the bespectacled duo has been meticulously replicating iconic looks from each season of collections for placement on antique Victorian dolls roughly 70 centimetres tall that are styled to resemble models from their respective shows, right down to the hair and makeup.

"What we wanted to emphasize with the work that we make (is) even though they're separate collections and every season is something new, at the same time to us, our work is also one whole," Snoeren said in a recent interview alongside Horsting at the Bay's flagship downtown Toronto location, where their line is carried.

Canadians will get a firsthand glimpse as "Dolls by Viktor & Rolf" makes its North American premiere at the Royal Ontario Museum beginning June 9.

The exhibit is set to feature a cross-section of at least 30 porcelain dolls in signature looks mined from the pair's extensive catalogue.

Past memorable runway looks translated into doll-sized form include a shirt stuffed with helium balloons designed to mimic a mushroom cloud. Another presentation which saw models carry their own sound and lighting equipment while teetering on clogs is also reinterpreted.

Horsting said it's much more work for them to create the doll dresses than life-sized designs. But they embrace the effort as a unique way to add longevity to their creations.

"What appeals especially to us about these porcelain dolls is that fashion is so disposable nowadays. It goes so fast. And it feels like we are freezing time by making all of these dolls."

"(It's) emphasizing the fact that an idea or a garment, if it's beautiful, it doesn't go away. It lasts," added Snoeren.

The "Dolls by Viktor & Rolf" exhibit will be unveiled at Luminato's inaugural Big Bang Bash. The design duo have a close relationship with the Toronto festival's artistic director, Jorn Weisbrodt, and his husband, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, creating custom suits for the couple's wedding last year, which they also attended.

During an evening event at the Bay held in their honour, they tweeted a photo posing with Wainwright and Weisbrodt along with the remarks: "Our very favourite (and handsome) friends in Toronto Rufus and Jorn."

"It started because we loved Rufus's music and then we met him, we worked with him, and meeting Rufus means meeting Jorn," Snoeren said of the friendship. Wainwright performed for the label's Ballroom collection and also created a song especially for the show, Horsting noted.

Beyond Wainwright, the designers have turned to well-known talents outside of the fashion world for their presentations, from singer Tori Amos playing piano to Oscar winner Tilda Swinton walking the runway to the soundtrack of her own voice in a show featuring models cast and made up in her likeness.

"There's certain artists that we admire and we feel that a show can be more than a parade of clothes — it can be a performance. And live music can enhance the energy in a room," said Horsting.

Snoeren said the pair's recently unveiled fall collection was inspired by their desire to create a "chic rebel" and offer a "surreal, couture take" on rock 'n' roll.

Beyond their cutting-edge creations, they have built a reputation for bringing a taste of the theatrical to their runway shows, even opting to eschew the traditional format.

The label was well ahead of the digital curve when they enlisted Oshawa, Ont.-born Shalom Harlow to don all the looks for their spring collection for an online-only fashion show in 2008.

For the unveiling of their fall 2010 collection, model Kristen McMenamy wore multiple layers of garments from the line which the designers peeled off to place on catwalkers taking to the runway.

"We like to tell a story, to say something, to communicate," said Snoeren.

"We realize that a show is a great tool to communicate a story, and often, we'll want to enhance a story by creating certain pieces that are exaggerated. Exaggeration helps to communicate something in a very clear way."



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