Olivier Theyskens is getting comfortable. So much so, that when he meets to speak about his latest collection and illustrious career, he sits cross-legged on the floor of his Rue Portefoin atelier, avoiding the unforgiving sun pouring in on a rare sunny day in Paris.
With gentle features and projecting a certain innocence, it is hard to believe that the designer has been wowing us for 21 years. It’s been a journey in which he has explored many facets, lived a few different lives, and yet come through unscathed, still extremely humble and mature.
Theyskens debuted in the second wave of Belgian designers to hit the high fashion scene: Raf Simons, Veronique Branquinho, and duo An Vandevorst and Filip Arickx, to name a few. His haunting, ethereal, and romantic designer-goth aesthetic caught the eye of Madonna, who wore his creations in 1998 to the Academy Awards and in her Ray of Light video, among other places. His own line took off, but in 2002 he was summoned to helm Rochas, a position he imagined he’d “have for 20 or 30 years.”
Such was the time, but then-owner P&G shuttered the ready-to-wear division. His dark and otherworldly creations awed critics but annoyed the suits when he joined Nina Ricci next for a quick two years, ending reportedly due to creative differences. In an about face, he joined contemporary wardrobe staple Theory just as New York’s Meatpacking District (where the brand relocated), was taking off. Theyskens’ Theory was an exploratory exercise for the designer. “My collections were always real in my mind, but at Theory I had the challenge of taking a generic element and using my saviness and point of view to make it relevant to a new audience,” he tells CR. “It was not something that you could do in the luxury market and it was a welcome expectation after always having to create extremely special clothes.”
After five years in New York, he returned to Paris to relaunch his eponymous line in 2016 in an entrepreneurial role that drew upon his practical Belgian outlook, his French sophistication, and savoir-faire as well as the three very different powerhouse brands where he honed his skills. Now in its fourth season, the cool, modern Olivier Theyskens woman still comes with a certain rock/goth panache, but its in the most exquisite way possible. Pared down would be the simplest way to describe his new collection that Theyskens explains is about, “identifying a new girl and not just a projection of the designer.”
Theyskens’ sensitive approach surfaced in the Fall 2018 collection, which was being designed as the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement was unfolding. “I wanted to reflect how I see women; in a mode of strength, and the capacity to be feminine, soft, sensual with a certain ambivalence,” the designer explains. Heavy platform boots were added as an additional “decoration of strength. This dichotomy played out in structured leather or lacquered-fabric outerwear with belts and hardware such as signature hooks and eyes or distressed denim paired with the thinnest lace or the most-simple looking slip dress. But duality goes deeper in Theyskens’ hand; even a slip dress can become a complex garment with hidden layers and linings with French seams. A denim skirt bearing both bias and straight grain construction also offers more than meets the eye. Perfecting these simple details with his craftsmen in Italy brings joy to the soulful couturier as well as clients who purchase his clothes as stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Brown’s, Joyce.
It’s taken the designer years to come to terms with an evident muse. While PJ Harvey looking strong in a delicate dress or lithe German dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch, and, of course, Madge come to mind, Theyskens says, “I realized that I was forming an image of different women from my family and friends to certain women in movies and on stage that was quite fragmented. She was all of these things, an amalgamation.” In more practical terms, when it comes to his evening wear he says, “I like to think a girl who would never wear a cocktail dress would wear one of my dresses.”
Looks just scratch the surface, feelings complete the picture. “When I design, I grasp different emotions; joy, pride, and sorrow, which contribute to the beauty and vision,” he says. He alludes to the dark romanticism in his work: “There is beauty in melancholy. I was melancholic though I’ve changed, I still love this mixture of romanticism, ethereal, drama mixed with the girl next door.”
Indeed, the designer seems chipper about his new endeavor of running his own business yet again. “I still discover new things because the processes have evolved with the times and challenges our systems.” His intuition guides him to the future of the Olivier Theyskens woman though thus far, his past helped define her. While creating his new brand and vision, Theyskens was also putting together the exhibit “She walks in Beauty” for the MoMu museum in Antwerp, which concludes April 15, 2018.
“On one had I was doing this dynamic project about my future at the same time I was revisiting my past,” He explains. “It allowed me to explore things I always loved.” The process allowed Theyskens to make peace with the last 21 years. Now, he says, “I am totally free to move on.”END
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