TEXT BY PETER LYLE
PORTRAIT BY PHILLIP RICHES
We may have got Rolf to talk to us without Viktor, but when it came to what defines menswear, we got exactly the same answer: rules and regulations. For all the sales surges and proliferation of designers and labels in the menswear realm since he and Horsting first showed a Monsieur collection eight years ago, Rolf Snoeren believes the fundamentals of the discipline are unchanged.
"The base is so strict," he says, that certain elements of a menswear look follow on from it, they "automatically happen. You find certain elements in all the collections - I can wear a jacket from five years ago with the new clothes... it's still easier for men than women, in that there are only so many possibilities with menswear, and then it just ends." The trick, he adds, is to balance tradition and innovation to the point where you "do something polished, but not old."
If that sounds a little imprecise, the pair's practical implementation of it is anything but. Their forthcoming winter collection, aired in an intimate January presentation in which they invited La Roux to sing, dressed her in their menswear, takes on the idea of the "suit", rigorously distilling it to "two pieces of clothing in one material." Suddenly, jackets, jogging pants, slacks, pleats, fabrics and possibilities are all territory for legitimate exploration.
The formal aspect of Viktor & Rolf's design approach was informed by their style-obsessed early lives in the Netherlands, where they were attracting attention for their own art and collections by their early 20s, having met at college. They say the city of Amsterdam, where the label has its headquarters, is "totally casual," ("nobody dresses up here"), and that their studied smartness was originally a kind of reaction to that.
In 2008, Viktor & Rolf entered into a deal with Diesel founder Renzo Rosso's conglomerate of fashion brands, None But the Brave. At the time, the duo explained it as a logical way of strengthening their label's reach and potential without compromising their creative control. Their increasing visibility and retail oomph since (after the new Harvey Nichols corner, a Paris store and further openings are in the pipeline) suggest it's paid off. "That's the best thing about it," says Snoeren, "we have total creative freedom, the way we did before, but we are working with a partner with a lot more know-how. The biggest changes are taking place behind the scenes."
Which means that they spend more time than ever away from their Amsterdam HQ - visiting new clothing factories in Italy, or their fragrance partner L'Oreal in Paris, for example. Have they ever thought it might be time to pack up and relocate to an international fashion capital? "We've been thinking so much about moving, or where we'd want to go," Snoeren says, "but in the end I think we like to be isolated instead of in the middle of it, then enter the fashion world when we want to.
"Also, we're very loyal. We've always been here and - though people leave and get other jobs sometimes, of course - we stick to a certain team. Or, for instance we've always worked with Inez and Vinoodh" - by which he of course means the top-end Dutch photography duo, surnamed van Lamsweerde and Matadin respectively. "We met each other in 1993, we were both in a show in Paris that Olivier Zahm from Purple had curated, and we became friends. That helps when you work together, but the real reason why we work with them is that we love their work, and their visual language fits our work."
It's a touching, old-fashioned, well-mannered tribute to loyalty and knowing one's roots that one would expect more from unreconstructed old-world menswear craftsmen than from a designer who rose to fame on the back of arch art and extravagant, unreal couture. But after a pause, Snoeren tempers his ode to staying in Amsterdam with a rather less loyal thought. "Plus, Amsterdam has the biggest airport in the world, near
to the city, so you can get away to anywhere you want pretty easily."