From the very beginning, Olivier Theyskens has been acknowledged as one of the most idiosyncratic voices of contemporary fashion design. He started his own line at the age of 20, then creating costumes for the leading opera house in his native Belgium, the Théâtre de la Monnaie. In 2002, he became creative director of Rochas and, in 2006, of Nina Ricci. At Rochas, he was recognised as one of the most theatrical designers working in fashion. Since 2011, his career has taken a new direction, as he now serves as designer of Theyskens' Theory and artistic director of Theory, and adapts his vision to the stream of contemporary life.
How would you connect fashion to elegance?
I think that elegance evolves. When I put clothes on a girl today I find her elegant in a way that probably 50 years ago people would not have found elegant. There is an elegance that can be inherent, natural, personal: you put a trash bag on a certain girl, and she’s elegant. It’s a gift that is almost physical. And you don’t need a particular type of culture: I saw such elegant girls out of Siberia or out of Angola. It’s a mesmerising grace. It’s the gesture, something in the eyes that really brings a certain depth. As a designer, you also work to design clothes that help to be elegant. The way clothes are cut, jackets unfold on the body, it’s designed to make people look elegant. Girls come to the fitting for the show. They’re good-looking, of course, but they become really beautiful when they have these particular clothes on.
What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
It depends on the type of fashion. Fashion as designed by people that really have a strong point of view often has a deep relationship to history, because history brings obvious and hidden cultural references. Culture is something I want to feel in my work, even with a very modern silhouette. In my way of handling fashion, there will always be references, even hidden and simplified, brought to the essential. You will have these proportions that relate to the past, or another moment. Right now I don’t like to feel myself pictorial or really arty in my choice of colours and textures, but I’ve been by the past. I’ve been drawn to create a palette or have concepts behind a collection that are artistic behaviours.
"Elegance is a mesmerising grace...it’s the gesture, something in the eyes that really brings a certain depth"
Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did it?
It depends when. You do something to be shown, to interact. You choose the person with whom you want to interact with. Now I really want to interact with normal people, who are out of fashion, or very young people that discover fashion and think that what I’m doing is cooler than the rest of it. There is a conversation for sure.
The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
Some designers have a great intuition and are very reactive. A good designer should be able to move creatively wherever he feels. Often he would react to his environment. You can act politically with fashion, but it very quickly becomes distateful. Many people in the fashion world are probably not very good at politics: it’s a mental disconnection. Usually, fashion is for freedom, democracy, the human rights, all the good things. Where I feel some shadow in the politics of fashion, is when fashion has an extreme attitude: when you look at a fashion show, it’s almost another vision of the world. When sometimes you see an army of identical individuals, in an inhuman, rigid way, it is a problem. Some designers' shows are so monodirectional that it seems dangerous somehow. When the vision of the designer is very extreme, it feels scary. I’ve been scared by some collections.
How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style"?
There is a fashion world, but in the fashion world, very few people get what "style" actually is, even in the work of a designer. They get used to seeing so many collections, many propositions, and it becomes like browsing books for kids. They say, "He wanted to play red and dots," and they forget that after all some designers are not about giving trendy tricks, and they simply have style. You can see it even in normal, simple clothes. Many people in fashion have no clue about what style is.
"A good designer should be able to move creatively wherever he feels."
What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
Sometimes it’s good for fashion to have fresh inspirations, a certain degree of lightness. But’s it’s also interesting when it’s pushed to the limit of the process of intellectualisation. I come from Belgium. I’m not from Antwerp, but from Brussels, I’ve been balancing the intellectual side of Belgian designers, and the easy-going way of Paris fashion of the 80s. It’s not always so good for a designer to be systematically intellectual. Sometimes it’s amazing, but sometimes you want to tell the designer: "Would you just mind thinking that these are just clothes?".
You designed costumes for the theatre. What part does theatricality play in your conception of fashion?
A little part. To me, it’s almost pejorative to say that it looks "théâtreux". I am not driven so much towards people that have a very "théâtrale" attitude. On the other hand, theatre is a scene that may interest me. It interests me as much as going to a pottery lesson and make a beautiful vase. It’s not my calling, but I feel that I can bring something there. I don’t need to do it, but if a great guy comes along and is interested in doing something fascinating with theatre, film, I would be a very fulfilled partner, just for the sake of doing that work really well.
Your work seems to connect your personal style and addressing the mainstream. How do you see the relationship between people in the street and your creativity?
More than ever, this is an important part of my work. For the two last years, I’ve been developing my work with a specific girl in mind. I imagined what I would like to wear if I were in her place. My whole work is not supposed to excite an audience at a show. It’s about bringing pants and clothes to this girl, who could go out now. I connect this so much to me: I get up in the morning, and the experience of finding clothes for myself already drives me to that approach. I should probably travel a bit, and diversify my inspirations. As a boy, I always wear jeans and t-shirts. I hate to wear shirts, suits... When someone writes about the character of a novel, you can imagine yourself in the skin of another human being. I do the same: I imagine myself in the body of someone else. It’s the sensation of fiction.
In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the Chairman of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Didier Grumbach.