“She Walks in Beauty” Exhibition At MoMu Takes a Closer Look at Olivier Theyskens’ Poetic Oeuvre

As the show dedicated to Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens opens at Antwerp's MoMu, we talk to curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven about why Theyskens' work is ripe for a retrospective.

Olivier Theyskens S/S 2001, Photo: Thomas Schenk, Dutch Magazine, 2001

“Is there a place for Olivier Theyskens?” This question was posed by the New York Times in 2006, shortly after the closure of Rochas, which Theyskens had been the creative director of. What prompted this blunt question was Theyskens’ outsider status in the world of 2000s fashion. The early aughts were dominated by the likes of Tom Ford’s sexy jet-setter style, and Theyskens’ exquisite gowns seemed out of place. A dreamer and a romantic in a time when everyone from Stella McCartney to Phoebe Philo was churning out low-slung jeans and V-necked tops, Olivier Theyskens felt somewhat anachronistic. He created voluminous, meticulously embellished dresses, which were sometimes referred to as “demi-couture”.

Today, the question of whether or not there is a place for Olivier Theyskens seems redundant. Resisting the pressure to bow to contemporary trends, his style has definitely stood the test of time. Throughout his 20-year career that included creative directorships at Rochas, Nina Ricci, Theory and his eponymous brand, Theyskens has stayed true to his romantic vision. These days, he’s focused on his own brand, which offers clean-cut, elegantly feminine and subtly charming pieces with his signature imaginative twist. Nothing Theyskens has ever created is simply elegant – there is always a mystery in his clothes, a romantic touch. It is this uniquely poetic approach that makes Theyskens an exceptionally interesting designer — an opinion which is echoed by Karen Van Godtsenhoven, the curator behind the show “Olivier Theyskens – She Walks in Beauty”, which opened at Antwerp’s Museum of Fashion on the 11th of October.

Courtesy of MoMu

The exhibition presents over 100 works, including the designer’s illustrations and the couture-like pieces he worked on at Rochas and Nina Ricci. Ahead of the opening, we talked to curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven about the highlights of the show, and Theyskens’ artisanal approach to fashion.

Olivier Theyskens has always remained an underdog of Belgian fashion. Why did you decide to choose him as a subject for the new show?

Theyskens’ work is multilayered and rich, and he is an extremely prolific designer. I feel it was only a matter of time before we specifically focused on his work. It’s definitely an oversight that he is not as well-known as many first- and second-generation Belgian designers. This could partly be attributed to the fact that he is from Brussels, not Antwerp, and has therefore never been associated with the local fashion scene. What is also incredibly interesting about Theyskens is that he is an autodidact, and a designer with a highly original vision that he managed to implement in very different brands.

Nina Ricci by Olivier Theyskens F/W 2007-2008, Photo: Sybille Walter, Encens Magazine, 2007 – Model: Hannelore Knuts – Styling: Haider Ackermann Hair & Make-up: Carole Colombani

As you say, Theyskens has always stayed true to his vision, yet the demi-couture pieces that he created at Rochas and Nina Ricci are quite different from the pared-down clothes he made at Theory.

The exciting thing about Theyskens is that he is as good at creating opulent, almost artisanal pieces, as he is at working on ready-to-wear clothes. His works for Rochas and Nina Ricci were, indeed, couture-like, while at Theory he succeeded in creating a practical, sober wardrobe that was still very elegant. In the exhibition we tried to show how his vision manifests itself in whatever he venture he embarks upon.

Tell us about the importance of drawing in Theyskens’ work, and in the show.

Of course! We are going to have a lot of drawings. Olivier’s illustration skills play are incredibly important in his work as a designer. He does not drape fabric, he never uses mood-boards, instead he draws. At Rochas, for instance, he would consider a collection almost finished as soon as he was ready with the drawings.

Olivier Theyskens A/W 1999-2000, Photo: Les Cyclopes

At the previous MoMu show, dedicated to Martin Margiela, the designer himself took an active part in putting the exhibition together. Did Olivier help organise this show?

He most certainly did, and, unsurprisingly, from the very start he knew what he wanted it to look like. At times working with him was not easy, as he has very high demands. But the precise sketches he made certainly helped a lot in putting the whole thing together. Working on this show was also a very emotional thing for him. When he came by yesterday, he was overwhelmed to see all these very different clothes from very different phases of his career gathered here.

What were the difficulties you had to overcome while putting the show together?

One of the huge problems is that the house of Rochas doesn’t have an archive, which means we had to hunt down almost every single Rochas piece we have in the exhibition. We had to go to American thrift shops, as in the 2000s Olivier Theyskens enjoyed a crazy popularity in the States. Then we had an issue with transportation. At the show you will see a magnificent wedding dress that Olivier created for a client in mid-2000s. This dress had to be brought from the US, which was problematic because of it has a large crinoline and is embellished with tiny feathers. Since it could not be packed or folded, the only way to transport it was to put it on a mannequin, built specifically for this occasion. And of course we had a hard time procuring pieces from Madonna.

Do you have any personal favourites in the show?

If I had to choose, I’d probably say my personal favourite is a white voluminous Nina Ricci dress that looks like a Georgia O’Keefe’s flower.

For more information about “She Walks in Beauty” and to buy tickets, visit the MoMu website.

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