SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY
‘Olivier Theyskens: She Walks In Beauty‘ is the first complete monograph of the Belgian wunderkind’s twenty-year career. The artisanal publication portrays an enriching retrospective from the very start of his career, right up to the highly anticipated 2016 return of his namesake label. Surrounded upon his 2017-18 exhibition in Antwerp’s MoMa museum, this tone pays homage to the impassioned exhibiton which featured the 8 landmark stages within his career.
Theyskens ‘Gothic Romantic’ sensibilities achieved critical acclaim back in the late 1990’s from the international fashion circuit. Hailed as the ‘Dark Prince Of Couture’, his aesthetic has ranged from melancholic to urban-progressive during his revitalisation of Nina Ricci and new vision for Rochas. Several years across the pond acting as the Creative Director of Theyskens’ Theory positioned him within the artisanal fashion scene as a master of couture, prêt-à-porter and a protagonist of the newly emerging ‘Demi-Couture‘ scene. Recognised for his sombre Gothic palette, exquisite tailoring and romantic silhouettes, Theyskens metamorphoses every house he directs.
‘Olivier’s Opus ‘She Walks In Beauty’ portrays a poetically haunting, moody and enlightening bound retrospective of his talent. There is no doubt that this book (which is a work of art, in itself) raises the benchmark for a new generation of fashion talent all across the world.’ – Charles Daniel McDonald
This treatise charts the double decade development of his exceptional artistic vision which has spanned a multitude of countries and cultures; as he changed the landscape of the fashion industry with his progressive aesthetic. This uniquely commissioned text sews the threads of the designers diverse practice – which is complimented with sketches and photography from each period within his career. Theyskens is most remebered for his ethereal aesthetics at Rochas and Nina Ricci, which at the time broke the norm with their unorthodox silhouettes and practices which saw him blend sheer fabrics and Victorian bustles with contrasting subversive punk elements.
In 2011, he left Paris for New York where his trail-blazing partnership with American brand Theory saw him take over the helm with Theyskens’ Theory. Since 2016, the fashion visionary is firmly estabilshed on Parisien soil with the development of his brand. Just like the girls he designs for, his aesthetic changes – but he walks in beauty wherever he goes.
Olivier Theyskens: She Walks In Beauty
Olivier Theyskens’ dreams were woven in cloth from childhood on: as a child he liked to play with fabrics, haberdashery and old garments. As a designer, Theyskens personifies the poetic spirit, with emphasis on the word’s ambiguous meaning “the capacity to feel and express the beauty of things”, as well as its reference to Ancient Greek etymology, poieisis, the verb poiein that signifies “to make, to create”.
Theyskens had been fascinated by fashion drawings ranging from the 1980’s to historical plates from 19th century illustrated fashion journals, but he experienced shock when his vision of splendid gowns with huge trains “in the style of James Tissot” came up against the reality of the bustle dresses he saw in historical costume exhibitions. Similarly, in his own work, the drawing of a silhouette is also the perfect image, the dream, to which the real cloth has to live up to.
As a child prodigy who had taught himself to draw and to sew in his own way, Theyskens carried on his autodidactic approach towards the material into later studies at La Cambre in Brussels, where his teacher nevertheless called him very accomplished and an ancient spirit. His incredible drawings seemed to come from another place and time. He left the school after two years, but today many of his collaborators still date from that time.
‘MoMu’s ‘She Walks In Beauty’ exhibition took you on a journey with one of the most entrancing Belgian designers – Olivier Theyskens. This ground-breaking showcase explored the creative evolution of his twenty years in the fashion business, his intricate craftsmanship and the changing atmospheres of his aesthetics through a multitude of silhouettes ingrained with couture spirit.’ – Charles Daniel McDonald
His career reads both as a novel and a treatise on the recent changes and state of affairs in the fashion industry. At the start of the 21st century, his work for the revered French houses, Rochas (2003-2006) and Nina Ricci (2006-2009) brought him worldwide fame. He brought the savoir-faire of couture to ready-to-wear collections at these houses and further democratized his vision by becoming artistic director at the American brand Theory (2010-2014), before relaunching his own brand Olivier Theyskens in 2016. Theyskens’ craftsmanship is palpable: he is the rare designer in today’s fashion world gifted with both artistic as well as mathematical precision skills, he is both architect, couturier and stylist.
In showing the half-point of a designers’ career, who, at 40, has worked for 5 labels, MoMu brings the unique perspective of a living designer in a changing fashion world at the brink of the 21st century. The five sequences of Theyskens’ career shape the rhythm of the exhibition, breathing the different atmospheres and attitudes of the Theyskens’ world. Accompanied by poems and literary voices from different eras, walking through the designer’s career becomes a journey through time.
Olivier Theyskens 1997-2002
Olivier Theyskens made his début in 1997 with a participation in the Barclay catwalk in Knokke, Belgium, followed by the Autumn-Winter 1998-99 show in Paris as an independent designer. He was part of the second wave of Belgian designers on the international scene, who were welcomed and reigned over the catwalks with their dark, underground aesthetic. Heralded as the “gothic prince” of fashion, his DNA of dark romanticism, echoes of different periods, specific use of recycled and processed textiles and dramatic silhouettes made him a spotlight favorite. His sensual couture spirit broke away from the typical “Belgian” realism and androgyny in fashion. Nevertheless, the Belgian heritage simmers through in his slightly surrealistic touch, the trompe l’oeil effects of the clothes and the presence of dark skies, clouds and mussels in his sceneries.
Throughout his first collections, we see Theyskens’ DNA appear in his love of dramatic silhouettes often executed in black. Swathes of lace, hook-and-eye closures, corsetry and other antiquated details became the building blocks of his often radical clothes – spliced with black leather and satin, or swimming in delicately destroyed tulle, beading, and feathers. The hook-and-eye closures return in different sizes to mark the body or scar the fabric: treated and exhibited as a jewelry piece they evolved from a delicate “objet trouvé” into a signature element. Corsets are a necessary anchor, a structural foundation to achieve fascinating fullness for the crinoline skirts: “As a child, I thought a full crinoline was the epitome of beauty”, he recalls. His creations swept the likes of Madonna and the Smashing Pumpkins, who wore his dramatic gowns with hedonistic abandon.
‘Unquestionably, this is a book that should be read and in some cases should be required reading for those who believe that their future lies in the world of fashion as a real designer and not as an impostor of a designer. Theyskens is every bit as modern as one can conjure and every bit as old school as so many of those who came before him.’ – Jeffrey Felner
Black brings out the most sculptural aspects of a silhouette, and the use of different materials and textures renders an all-black silhouette very tactile and sensual. Black fits Theyskens’ oppositional characteristics of mourning and seduction, of romance and rebellion. His aesthetic is that of the veiled eroticism, to be found in the poems of Lord Byron and Charles Baudelaire.
From his first three collections made from vintage and recycled bed linen and upholstery fabrics from Normandy attics, Theyskens makes technical progressions in his mastery of the bias cut, the research into corsetry and crinolines and the reworking and development of materials such as coated silk and leather. In his hands, sensuality and natural grace are translated through close attention to materials and craftsmanship.
The haute couture house founded by Marcel Rochas in 1925 was historically focused on fashion and perfume, especially known for the 1946 guêpière corset and the 1944 perfume Femme which was packaged in a cylindrical box covered with black Chantilly lace. The guêpière was a precursor to the success of Dior’s New Look of 1947, when the corseted wasp waist was a symbol of post-war refinement and luxury: the guêpière was less rigid as it combined a bustier, corset, girdle and a garter-holder which followed the movements of the body.
The house of Rochas had been a Sleeping Beauty (from the death of its founder in 1955) mainly selling perfume and beauty products until the late 20th century, when the RTW was launched. When Olivier Theyskens entered the house in 2002, he created a new vision for the Rochas wardrobe in the 21st century. Eschewing his darker tendencies, and demonstrating a discernible rigor, Theyskens managed to give the idea of Rochas form; to take the codes of the cylindrical box and black lace covering of the classic perfume and sculpt it into literal shape. He shrank shoulders and narrowed arms to couture dimensions; added fillips at the hems of little skirt suits and trapeze bustles to the backs of jackets.
‘Gifted with both mathematical and an artistic mindset, Theyskens masters the technique of cutting and understands the fine points of pattern making. He enjoys sewing and endlessly exploring the many equations that exist between volume, fabrics of different textures and weights, and the body that will make It all come to life.’ – Jeffrey Felner
In his silhouettes, Olivier Theyskens built upon the affinity Marcel Rochas felt for Chantilly lace to evoke a sensual, sophisticated femininity. In doing so, he echoed the age-old tradition of using lace for both outer apparel and undergarments and pairing it with silk fabrics in matching or contrasting colors. Chantilly lace motifs were also used in prints on silk fabrics.
In his designs for Rochas, Theyskens revealed the refined character of lace and its connection to French haute couture, as well as its association with an adult, self-aware femininity. His “couture spirit” was called out by the press who dubbed these prêt-à-porter collections “demi-couture”. After a few collections in which he explored the many options of lace, Theyskens emancipated himself from the Rochas DNA and used his new artistic couture techniques to make lighter silhouettes with delicate embroideries and dashes of color which captured the pace of a contemporary body in movement.
Olivier Theyskens’ meeting and subsequent collaboration with photographer Ali Mahdavi was a happy coincidence, as well as something that seemed inevitable: two artists with an eye for timeless beauty and a love of the surreal, were bound to meet. They met and began working together in the early years of Theyskens’ rise in the world of fashion. Both were enamored of cinematographic light effects, silver gelatin prints and old-fashioned Hollywood glamour with a surrealistic and burlesque twist.
His photographs for Rochas, which are both sensitive and daring because of the play with light and shadow, reinforce the timeless and sometimes surprising beauty of his subjects. By isolating his figures from the often busy backstage surroundings, he increases the intimacy shared between the viewer and the models he photographs.
From their very first meeting at La Cambre in 1995, photographer Julien Claessens was able to capture Theyskens’ world in atmospheric analogue images. Backstage at Nina Ricci, Claessens exchanges his analogue Hasselblad for a digital camera in order to capture the right moment more quickly. The backstage is depicted through the eye of a portrait photographer in filmic images. The models are lonely figures, lost in thought and exhibit inexplicable tranquility in a hectic environment. These images invoke nostalgia for the moments in which they were frozen, and in them, time is indefinable.
Nina Ricci 2007-2009
After his period at Rochas, Olivier Theyskens continued his research into movement and fabrics at Nina Ricci, the haute couture house founded in 1932, famous for its 1948 bestseller perfume L’Air du Temps.
Theyskens developed new treatments and fabrics, and found new solutions for creating the desired cut which followed the movement of the body. Thin, fine, and slightly transparent textiles such as chiffon and tulle flow differently as they catch the air, depending on their density. Other, more fluid fabrics fall more or less rapidly in an almost liquid fashion. Thus they create folds that can vary in fullness. Firmer fabrics, such as taffeta, interact with the light, resulting in a shimmering effect.
‘His first collection for Nina Ricci, Autumn-Winter 2007-08, was fueled and directly inspired by the spiraling shape of L’Air du Temps bottle, the brand’s emblematic fragrance. This gave Theyskens an opportunity to explore plasticity while following in the steps of Madeleine Vionnet, the ultimate master of the bias cut.’ – MoMa Fashion Museum
Inspired by the world of dance, for Spring-Summer 2009 Theyskens imagined dresses that are short in the front and longer in the back, each with its own way of moving. From floating trains that skim over marked lower back curves to skirts that flow at each step to reveal the legs, the designer exhibits his mastery at choosing the size and placement of every flounce, as well as understanding the specific texture of the chiffon, satin, or tulle that would create the full effect of the animated silhouette he had envisaged.
His Bladerunner-type girls of Autumn-Winter 2009-10 were in tune with the Zeitgeist of the new millennium: hovering above the ground in sky-high boots, they wore futuristic power silhouettes which pointed in a new direction for Theyskens.
During a time full of turmoil in fashion, when brands were looking for creative directors rather than oldschool designers, Olivier Theyskens took the role of creative director and head designer of the American contemporary brand Theory. He democratized his creations by bringing a sleek, minimal approach to his designs, a tailored wardrobe for the urban working girl: Theyskens’ Theory was launched, and later Theyskens became creative director for the whole brand. At Theory, Theyskens was confronted with new production methods for a larger scale, typical for a brand in the contemporary segment, so he upped the pace of the collections, continuously improving fit and shape in the studio. The different collections show a perfection of tailored suiting and sharp-cut blazers, fused with a sportswear spirit. The lines were easy and supple, an incarnation of movement, weightlessness and elegance.
Wedding Dress Nellie Diamond
After leaving Theory in June of 2014, Theyskens went on a break before starting his own collection in 2016. During this interlude, he sewed a wedding gown by himself for his friend, New York entrepreneur, Nellie Diamond. The dress featured a silk satin train that spread five metres wide and required three months of work before its debut in the South of France. It is the epitome of his sewing skills, patience and eye for detail as well as his romantic mind-set.
Olivier Theyskens NOW
In 2016, Olivier Theyskens made his re-entry on the Paris stage with his own eponymous label. After the multiple stages in both European and American fashion houses, a contemporary vision of his own DNA resurfaces: little black leather dresses framed with lace, tartan coats, bustier tops, bias-cut gowns, and the ever-present hooks-and-eyes closures on shoes, shirts and jackets.
His love for coupe and delicate craftsmanship is present in every creation: the embroideries are sometimes hand-made by Theyskens himself and he is still very intrigued by the possibilities of the material. His childhood’s fascination for 19th century fashion magazines and intricate patterns, both technical as well as ornate, is here mirrored by two patterns for dresses in his recent collections. In these, we recognize the savoir-faire of someone who has never stopped perfecting his early skills, it is a demonstration of the ‘couture spirit’ in a prêt-à-porter brand.
‘Olivier Theyskens ‘In Praesentia’’ is the first of two monograph’s on Olivier Theyskens. This edition surveys his twenty-year career and documents the highly anticipated return of his eponymous label. Avaliable on Amazon, it was written by Kaat Debo, Vanessa Friedman, Lydia Kamitsis, Wim Mertens and Elisa De Wyngaert.
Article: Charles Daniel McDonald
Quotes: Olivier Theyskens / MoMa
Photography: Olivier Theyskens / MoMa / Ali Mahdavi / Julien Claessens