[Photographer and stylist Katja Rahlwes traveled to the V&R atelier in Amsterdam to speak with the inseparable pair.]
KATJA: Where do you find glamour in Holland?
ROLF: It doesn't exist here!
VIKTOR: It's true. But we travel a lot, so if we want glamour, we look for it in other cities.
ROLF: We're not particularly attached to Amsterdam, but at the moment it's a great place for us to be. People don't take fashion seriously in Holland it's almost viewed as a hobby, not a job. Since fashion doesn't exist here in Amsterdam, we feel more neutral towards the industry. We can isolate ourselves from the whole scene, which is relaxing. We have the room to create.
VIKTOR: Right after we graduated from school, we did live in Paris for a couple of years but we moved back to Holland.
ROLF: Parisians take fashion very seriously. It is very much a part their of culture.
VIKTOR: We both grew up in the Dutch version of suburbia. My childhood was very boring. There wasn't much available to me there. Fashion was the biggest inspiration for me. It gave me food for thought, something to fantasize about. I always wanted to be a fashion designer.
ROLF: It was very much the same for me. For me, fashion was glamour.
KATJA: Do you have a specific type of woman in mind when you design?
ROLF: It's a question of spirit much more than, say, age. That's why we often work with the Scottish actress, Tilda Swinton.
KATJA: Tilda modeled for your tenth anniversary show in 2003. She marched down the runway to a recording of her own cut-glass voice saying, "Follow your own path" followed by a legion of models dressed as her clones.
ROLF: Tilda is so intelligent and free-spirited. She's the type of person that we want to wear our clothes people who set their own rules.
KATJA: You two are often characterized as inseparable you share an office with desks facing one another.
VIKTOR: Rolf and I have worked together ever since we finished our fashion studies at the Arnhem Academy in 1992. We designed our first collection together in 1993, when we won the Salon European des Jeunes Stylistes prize for young designers in HyĆres. During the first five years of our career, we were still experimenting with how we would fit into the fashion world.
ROLF: In those early years we weren't interested in the commercial side of fashion. We were only concerned with the artistic and the experimental. Then we reached a point where we felt prepared to place ourselves in the middle of the fashion world. That's when we started doing haute couture in Paris.
KATJA: Your shows are very inventive they often border on performance art. In 1996 you flypostered Paris with signs that said "On Strike" because you did not have the funds to stage an actual fashion show.
VIKTOR: We worked so hard on our 1995 gold collection, but it didn't receive any attention from the press or buyers. We impressed a small group within the fashion elite, but that just wasn't the scale of recognition we wanted. We became really frustrated, so by 1996 we were thinking, "Let's go on strike because nobody cares."
ROLF: Later we realized that the press didn't respond because we weren't definite about what we were trying to say. In 1998, when we did our first haute couture show, we wanted to convey a very clear message.
KATJA: And that's when the international recognition came.
VIKTOR: We believe that couture should be a field for experimentation. It is a laboratory in which there are no restraints, commercial or otherwise. Our first couture collection showed our absolute dedication to fashion.
KATJA: A year later you presented your "Babushka" collection. The model Maggie Rizer became your Russian doll, on whom you layered ten outfits, one on top of the other.
VIKTOR: We undressed her on stage, layer by layer.
KATJA: For your first men's ready-to-wear show in 2003, you choreographed Viktor and Rolf clones to dress and undress on stage.
VIKTOR: That show made a clear statement about how personal this work is to us. Our work is rooted in our personal life and our position within the fashion world.
ROLF: The runway shows are important to us. They're not just about showing the clothes they're performances. We're trying to broadcast an emotion to the world.
KATJA: Each show is a surprise. You choose a very specific theme and take it to its extreme.
ROLF: When we had our ten-year retrospective at the Louvre in 2003, we were really stunned by how coherent our work looked when the designs from different collections were displayed next to each other. We've switched from one extreme to another, but in the end...
VIKTOR: ...All of the collections tell one big story.
ROLF: We realized that we have a very strong signature and it's never one-dimensional.
KATJA: You launched your new perfume, Flowerbomb, in the U.S. this spring. Back in 1996 you staged a fake perfume launch. You designed a bottle that wouldn't open, accompanied by an ad campaign, shot by the fashion photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. It was a statement that fashion branding is more concerned with packaging than content.
VIKTOR: We were being ironic when we launched our fake perfume, but it also revealed our desire and ambition to actually branch into cosmetics. It was a projection of what we wanted for the future. Our first product is an Eau de Parfum, but soon we'll expand into body and skincare. We're currently working on a men's cologne. There are a lot of possibilities.
KATJA: Is making perfume a very different creative process from designing clothes?
ROLF: Yes. First we had to learn how to smell! So we went to Paris, where perfume was born. We were drawn to the big classics that had lots of flowers, but we wanted to make something modern.
VIKTOR: We feel that fashion is about creating an aura, and that goes beyond mere clothes. Perfumes are just licensed products for many designers. It's not like that for us. It's not separate from our fashion. It comes from the same mind and the same soul.
KATJA: How did you decide to name this first perfume Flowerbomb?
ROLF: We didn't want to focus on one flower we thought it should be an explosion of scents. Viktor said, "It should be like a flower bomb," and we knew we had a name.
We wanted it to be romantic, but volatile. We wanted glamor, but with rage. We enjoy playing with opposites.
KATJA: You presented the perfume in Paris last fall, alongside your Spring/Summer 2005 ready-to-wear collection. The show opened with models all dressed in black, in shiny motorcycle helmets. But then it metamorphosed into a romantic vision of pinks and roses.
VIKTOR: Our clothes designs are hard-edged but very soft at the same time we like to twist the familiar. We wanted the perfume to have the same feel.
KATJA: Despite your commitment to high-concept fashion, you've been designing women's ready-to-wear since 2000.
ROLF: It wasn't enough to just get applause for our ideas. We want to communicate with a wider audience and make Viktor & Rolf a successful business.
VIKTOR: Since we wanted to create a clear distinction between our couture and ready-to-wear lines, our first prÉt-a-porter collection paid homage to commercialism.
We wanted Viktor & Rolf to become a global brand, so we used globally recognized symbols. We called the collection "Stars and Stripes," and it featured a stars-and-stripes-print fabric.
KATJA: You were designing clothes for everyday wear without sacrificing your creativity asymmetric dresses ruched at the side, vests that were padded to create top-heavy silhouettes. I wanted to buy so many pieces!
VIKTOR: It was very important to us to ground our clothes in reality. That was exactly what we were missing in couture.
KATJA: Then your second ready-to-wear show, "Tapdance," featured rows of dancers wearing your designs. It was nice to see your designs on real women, instead of on six-foot models.
ROLF: Our third ready-to-wear show, "Black Hole" in 2001, was perhaps the most important of our career.
VIKTOR: The collection was all about silhouettes. All the models were supposed to look like two-dimensional cutouts, so everything was black. We even painted the girls black.
ROLF: That show really brought us to a new level. It generated so much press.
KATJA: I know! I couldn't even get in!
VIKTOR: With that collection, our signature became very clear. A lot of people recognized elements from our couture that we had translated into the ready-to-wear. We're very focused on creating our own house. Nowadays too much attention is placed on reviving the classic fashion houses. There should be new names, new houses.
KATJA: How does it feel to see people wearing your clothes on the street?
VIKTOR: We designed a shirt that could be worn in different ways. We wanted the wearer to be able to play with it. Then, on a trip to Japan, we saw five women all wearing the shirt in different ways.
ROLF: That's the great thing about doing ready-to-wear. It gives our clothes their own life.