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Sylvie is wearing a linen and silk gown by Olivier Theyskens

Alexander Fury: Meeting the Gothic Hero of French Fashion Olivier Theyskens

For the Spring/Summer issue of AnOther Magazine, Alexander Fury sits down with the designer whose work is embedded in the kind of painstaking technique often considered impossible outside couture’s rarefied halls

Lead ImageSylvie is wearing a linen and silk gown by Olivier Theyskens

Olivier Theyskens’ studio is in the third arrondissement of Paris. It is a small space filled with big dresses and petites mains, the French term for the workers in couture houses whose nimble fingers construct clothes like no one else. Theyskens’ isn’t a couture house – he’s never designed haute couture, in the true application of the term for made-to-measure, hand-constructed garments. Yet his work is embedded in the kind of painstaking technique often considered impossible outside couture’s rarefied halls. Example: three days before his Spring/Summer 2019 show, a woman crouches over a table set beneath the vast crinolined skirt of one of three finale ballgowns swinging poetically from the rafters. They’re all hanging up there – it’s the only way to make enough room to work around them. She is deftly but slowly threading grosgrain ribbon through a graphic lattice-work of lace, transforming it into a kind of tweed. Seeing it stitched together into a short, collarless jacket that blurred past on the catwalk, it was impossible to comprehend the hours of handiwork behind its creation.

In part, that’s Theyskens’ own fault: it was black ribbon threaded through black lace. The adjective – or epithet – most often applied to him is ‘goth’. Theyskens himself, beautiful and slight and slightly wheyfaced, with shanks of poker-straight dark hair hanging to the middle of his chest, resembles the hero of a gothic romance novel. He called his first collection Gloomy Trips and made it from old Chantilly lace, 19th-century textiles sourced from Normandy flea markets, and fabrics given to him by his grandmother. Goth? A lot. He leapt to prominence when he designed a dress for Madonna, in her Frozen period, to wear to the 1998 Academy Awards – a floor-length satin coat dress (guess what colour) over a grey tulle petticoat. Later that year, she wore a second, a corseted, arsenic-yellow satin gown, slashed apart and Frankensteined back together with hook-and-eye fastenings (500, sewn by hand by Theyskens and his friends), a detail that has become a low-key signature.

These two dresses came from the first life of Theyskens: he has assumed multiple roles since, as creative director of the resuscitated French fashion house Rochas (2002-2006), then of Nina Ricci (2006-2009) and finally the New York label Theory (2010-2014). Theyskens returned to show under his own name in Paris in 2016; this Spring collection, however, best captures the singular qualities that have marked him out as a near-silent but nevertheless salient shaper of fashion for the past two decades. The swishing, trumpet-skirted ballgowns recalled his work at both Ricci and Rochas, the French couture houses that had been lying relatively dormant since the mid-century, with profitable perfume businesses and hazy identities, until Theyskens breathed new life into them. His debut at Rochas in particular caused something of a sensation: intricate and couture-influenced, it sparked a resurgence of interest in the shapes of the 1950s, as well as the resurrection of a clutch of words little-used in the lexicon of early-00s fashion: elegant, refined, dignified. Those qualities influenced fashion far wider than may be supposed from a minor, all-but-forgotten French label. In actual fact, they are words that describe Theyskens’ work before then, and since.

They are qualities that were present even in his first incarnation, of neophyte Belgian wunderkind catapulted to attention as a 20-year-old drop-out from Brussels’ prestigious École nationale supérieure des arts visuels de La Cambre. Rather than finishing his degree, Theyskens elected to launch a label. “I was too immature to be guided by professors, I guess, because I wasn’t really absorbing critique,” he allows. He shrugs, like a teenager. Theyskens is so boyish it’s hard not to feel protective – to ask if he’s warm or cold, or proffer gloves and scarves, when we meet on a cold November afternoon in a café close to his studio. Theyskens’ youth has always been noteworthy – by 24, roughly the age he looks today, although he’s actually 42, many designers are only leaving school. But by then, Theyskens had spent almost half a decade in the business, and was wrapping up his own label (his financial backing was withdrawn in the recession triggered post-September 11) to move to Rochas. A retrospective exhibition was staged in 2017: titled She Walks in Beauty after a poem by Lord Byron, it charted a clean yet remarkable 20 years of work. Preparations for another are underway, fittingly to be staged at the Museum of Lace and Fashion in Calais – lace is a material he has used throughout his career, one which his spidery drawings resemble.

Theyskens has always created intricate sketches detailing every element of his clothing – “I had other professors at school that were begging me to stop fashion and go into painting or illustration or something really connected with drawing,” he says. He still illustrates every outfit himself: even the spindly twigs spiked through models’ hair in his latest show were sketched in place months before. “Oui, oui, oui,” Theysken says, excitedly, showing the drawings sent to the hairstylist Eugene Souleiman weeks before the show. A vision so fully formed is rare at any age. Apparently, it was there in Theyskens from the beginning. “The premise of my first collection was made at school. I did drawings, I left very quickly after showing them,” Theyskens says. “I started just doing clothes, one after the other. I was sewing at home, I was working on the side, so I took a rental in the middle of the city. It was a bit more spacious, and I started doing bigger things. I started doing bigger coats and longer dresses right away. At my parents’, in my little bedroom, I was doing corsets, and women’s shirts, and little things. All of it, I was using things I had.” Including dishcloths and bedsheets, and the aforementioned old lace embellished with jet taken from Victorian mourning jewellery, this small collection became Gloomy Trips. Theyskens created 24 outfits, or thereabouts, and grabbed attention at a showcase for Belgian talent. Then he showed in Paris in March 1998. Lots of it was made from upholstery fabrics; a young Belgian make-up artist, Peter Philips, powdered the models to a pallor; a few had mannequin hands clutching at their faces. The audience was small but engaged, intrigued. Then, Madonna called.

Madonna helped, but didn’t ‘make’ Theyskens, to borrow industry parlance. His clothes had already been championed by the fashion editor Isabella Blow, among influential others, grouping him alongside a bunch of ‘nouvelle vague’ Parisian designers emerging on the cusp of the new millennium, such as Jeremy Scott and Jérôme Dreyfuss. “Journalists used to ask me, ‘Are you the straight one?’” Theyskens says, laughing (he isn’t – Dreyfuss is married to fellow designer Isabel Marant). But while Dreyfuss made bustiers from adhesive tape and Scott was mining 80s pastiche, Theyskens garnered repute for slender tailoring, leather and a dark sense of romance, as well as dramatic ballroom dressing of Second Empire proportions.

Those touches, and that of the surrealist kind, became leitmotifs for Theyskens. In his most recent Spring collection, the designer nodded to that movement with prints of Hans Bellmer’s dismembered poupées. It is rare to see this imagery used in such context, given the protective nature of Bellmer’s estate; it is also the first time Theyskens has used another artist’s output in his clothes. “His work has only been used in books, I’ve never seen a mug or plate,” Theyskens says of Bellmer. “I started feeling he’s an artist who’s been pretty untouched by all this bad taste of derivations. It is very preserved and highly regarded by connoisseurs. I was like, ‘Oh, I cannot just use it as a pretty print. It needs to be handled with… almost a disruptive way.’” The artist’s work was printed over silk slip dresses, sliced open across the middle and layered with lace, or crawling like branches on opera gloves up the arms. “I avoided the print on the T-shirt,” Theyskens says. “I wanted it to be more intricately, mysteriously hidden.” The mood informed the entire collection, with corset coutil used for long coats, fine lace for military trousers, and his romantic ballgowns disrupted, bustles placed in the front to distend and deform the body. “It wasn’t necessarily a collection that was made for walking,” Theyskens says, smiling. It was, in short, evocative and provocative rather than plainly pretty – yet still elegant, refined, dignified, and loyal to Theyskens’ distinct aesthetic imprint.

It was also, somewhat plainly, beautiful. Something that feels as relevant and rare today as when Theyskens first began.

Hair: Alexander Soltermann using Oribe. Make-up: Siddhartha Simone at Julian Watson Agency. Model: Sylvie Makower at Casting Real. Casting: Simone Schofer. Set design: Thomas Bird at Bryant Artists. Manicure: Saffron Goddard at Saint Luke Artists using Le Gel Top Coat and La Crème Main Texture Riche by Chanel. Digital tech: Daniel Archer at Dtouch London. Lighting: Emma Ercolani and Ibby Azab. Styling assistant: Isobel Attrill. Make-up assistant: Asuka Fukuda. Production: Webber, Vinita Davé and Nathan Kerry Davé. Post-production: Dtouch London

This story originally featured in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of AnOther Magazine which is on sale internationally now.