Olivier Theyskens - leather blouse with silk gros grain finishing worn inside out
OLIVIER THEYSKENS REFLECTS ON TWENTY YEARS OF RADICAL FASHION
By Armelle Leturcq
As a student at La Cambre in Brussels, Olivier Theyskens dove headlong into a bold endeavor: to create his own clothing brand at just twenty years old. Featuring gothic romanticism and a poetic spirit from a bygone era, his first collections conjure up a sense of time that belongs wholly to the Belgian designer’s unique creative realm. The success is immediate. He then works for Rochas, Nina Ricci and Theory, which he steered for five years. Today, almost twenty years after his first runway show in Paris, Olivier Theyskens is back at the helm of his fashion house, which he revived in 2016.
Can you tell us about your background?
I started out in 1997 and my career developed in an organic way. I made clothes and eventually put together a collection, which I photographed and sent out to a lot of people. Little by little, I started getting requests for magazine photo shoots. Then I did a second collection that I showed in Paris, at a time when I still didn’t have the means to mass produce my designs. But I took the right steps to make sure I could market my clothes for the first time by the next season, summer 1999. I kept advancing until 2002 when I took a short break, moved to Paris and started working at Rochas.
Your brand met with remarkable success.
I worked like a dog at home in Brussels, but it paid off extremely well. My work appeared in some of my favorite publications. Isabella Blow immediately shot my looks, and I worked with great photographers like Déborah Turbeville and Cometti. Many of those images echoed my own creative universe. Certain artistic perspectives helped me pinpoint who I am and what I want to convey, especially magazines like Dutch which focused on themes that really spoke to me. All in all, those artistic collaborations helped kickstart my visibility even before I started marketing my collections.
Back then, some designers would launch collections without even worrying about whether or not they would reach the market!
After my first runway show in Paris, the first person who came to my little showroom was Julie Gilhart from Barney’s. She couldn’t believe that I had leather items in my collection but couldn’t manufacture them for the market. My collections were all unique pieces, prototypes that I stitched and sewed together with a few friends, except for a few models made in a leather studio. I could have worked double time to fill the Barney’s order, but I preferred to wait for my next collection. Having publications already in hand gave me a leg up when I went to Italy to meet with manufacturers. I explained my project and asked them to make a few suit jackets. Many of the manufacturers in Italy signed on to the project and it grew larger over time. It was that entrepreneurship that made me who I am today. But I was also hoping for a creative director position, because I wanted something a little less demanding for me in terms of organization. When Rochas approached me, I knew I would also have a hand in the entrepreneurial side of things. We had to rebuild a studio, an atelier, a team, a press office and appoint sales representatives. We had our work cut out for us.
Did you close your fashion house when you joined Rochas?
Yes, but I had already put our operations on standby, shortly before September 11, 2001. By the following year I was already working in the Rochas offices. I stayed until 2006. I left in July of that year and I went to Nina Ricci in September. There was a major transfer at that time. Most of the people I worked with went on vacation and came back to their fashion house to find a new artistic director. The group that owned Rochas changed hands and so the house fell under the control of Procter & Gamble, which is a group that has nothing to do with fashion. But my departure was handled in the right way. They let us operate until the end of my contract, but they lacked the fashion expertise and experience to guide the development of the brand. In my view, I was working at a small French fashion house that needed a specific fashion culture and know-how in order to move forward. I originally thought I would be there for thirty years. Back then, when you took on that kind of project, you started thinking about the careers of other designers in charge of the major fashion houses. At the same time, I always wanted to launch my own brand one day. As soon as the opportunity arose at Nina Ricci, I began to explore something more feminine and ethereal. Despite all the work we did and the incredible feats we accomplished, we still had a small team at Rochas.
You received a lot of support from Anna Wintour, right?
We got a lot of attention from the American press. The style we put forward resonated strongly in the States. But we were still just a tiny organization. Whenever I run into people I worked with in those days, we always have extraordinary memories to share.
Rochas was almost like couture.
Yet the only items we made in the atelier were bespoke garments, while our collections were manufactured entirely in a factory. But as far as style goes, I liked to add an atelier touch. I used a lot of tulle, lace and layered materials. We paid a lot of attention to detail within a very French, somewhat retro 20th century approach to fashion. I had fun imagining a modern young lady as the kind of girl who would waltz into an art gallery wearing our outfits. I thought it was cool with a ladylike touch I liked. Our collections also had a slightly dark vibe, too.
Your collections were very wearable, too.
Yes. At the time I was thinking that if I launched my brand at the same time, I had to design jeans and t-shirts to create a full wardrobe. Back then I liked each garment to be fully immersed in the spirit of the collection, and to see my friends in real life match the pieces with a pair of jeans. Our little Rochas jacket was the perfect finishing touch for any look.
Yes, I remember buying Maria-Luisa jackets back then. And then Nina Ricci came along.
I only did five shows with Nina Ricci, but each one was very unique. I have a lot of good memories from there, too. We ramped up the atelier’s activity enormously during that time. I worked with some of those people for over four years. We created different teams and began running the atelier at an exceptional level after two years. It was an incredible adventure. After Rochas, I wanted to work within a more robust organization. I ended up staying three years at Nina Ricci. Eventually I got tired of working on collections in Paris, and I always wanted to create my own brand. I took a year off after Ricci, a full sabbatical year. I published a book with Assouline. I wanted to explore a more accessible level of the fashion industry. As it turned out, I met Andrew Rosen who founded the brand Theory in the United States, and he suggested we work together. I was eager to launch Theyskens and we settled on the idea of doing a joint-venture, so we created Theyskens’ Theory. I was able to develop my ideas and perspective in the collections, all with the support of an entire organization. I designed a capsule for summer 2011 and it was an enormous success. Right after that he asked me to serve as creative director for the entire brand. We had three studios: a men’s studio, a women’s studio and a Theyskens’ Theory studio. I ended up spending five years in the United States. Andrew knew I wanted to create my own brand and I was worried I would get too attached to that project, so I took a year off to come up with a plan. I finally launched my brand in January 2016.
Why did you launch it in Paris and not in the United States?
I originally took up residence in New York because I was used to working there. Some people from Paris joined me there. I put together a tight-knit crew there. But since I took time to think through my plans and wanted to produce my clothes in Italy, it made sense to operate in Europe.
What was your main goal when you created your brand?
I wanted to get back to my basics: working closely with manufacturers in Italy using the best processes to produce high-end ready-to-wear and reorganizing my efforts to surround myself with people I love working with. There are many different ways to create a start-up, and I wanted to work with a high-end product while keeping in mind that the Theyskens woman also wears jeans and t-shirts. There are still many strong pieces that are carefully thought out. After spending so many years in the United States, I wanted to reconnect with this side of the industry through a small organization.
Is there still room for independent designers among the major brands in the market today?
My feeling is that huge brands have always been around. There were times when I had to tell myself that even though my brand was tiny, it had enormous growth potential. I’ve always liked the entrepreneurial side of things, even with Theory. Of course I’m always second-guessing myself. (laughs) There will always be demand for alternative brands, but there was a time when alternative brands had more opportunities. Maria Luisa featured those types of brands in her store, along with small fashion houses that the department stores didn’t carry. Today, buyers like her dedicate sixty percent of their floorspace to megabrands. That’s something I’ve noticed.
Even at Dover Street Market, Gucci has an entire floor.
It’s something relatively new. Today’s megabrands tend to use every tool at their disposal. They play up the hype one day, appear conservative the next, etc. They want to reach everyone. Then people start to say that “the industry is ailing” or that “everything is controlled by three groups”. I just think that there are cycles. Things always go off the rails from time to time. We don’t know what the future holds. I view it more as a transformation. Like the total sea change that took place between the 1950s and the 1960s, when old fashion ideas died out.
Small organizations have the advantage of being able to adapt rapidly to change.
After spending five years at an organization with several hundred employees, I wanted to move on to a new experience. Since we’re a small organization, we are more flexible and better able to take initiatives. Methodologies have seen many changes, however, even with just a handful of people in our team. Computers and email play a much larger role, while the technical side is more advanced thanks to new computing possibilities. It’s nothing like the way we worked in the 1990s. Even young people just starting out have to adapt fast and learn a lot of skills, like communication. I force everyone to use the phone, especially when contacting factories.
How do you build your collections?
It all depends on the collection. Every season I go through a period of questioning and anxiety. Sadly it has always been that way. But I’m ever the optimist: I know inspiration will eventually strike. Oftentimes it all starts with a look, which may reveal a hidden theme that is not apparent at first glance. Whenever I find a crucial look, I imagine wearing it as a woman. Afterwards I try to cobble together the rest of the collection and see where it takes us. It may seem a bit abstract, but that’s how I work. I don’t work with images, but years of experience have shown me just how important mood boards are for everyone else. It gets people in the right mindset and helps them understand what I have in mind!
Do you plan to open your own stores?
Sometimes I design storefronts and boutique spaces. It’s hard to imagine a brand with no storefront. People need to walk by and see the pieces from close up. That’s something I learned in childhood, because when I was little we would go downtown to window shop once or twice a year. I was fascinated by all the stores and the women out shopping. There must be people who still have a soft spot for that kind of thing. I have enough experience under my belt to see things in a relatively fluid manner. We’re like memory factory. We’ve lived through our share of rock ‘n’ roll scenarios because we grew up in the industry. On a personal level, creating your own brand is a wonderful experience.
Do you feel like the press supports you?
I don’t feel any animosity. Things don’t come easy to everyone. I know all too well that we’re living through a time of vast transformations and everyone is worried. Questions about new media and changing attention spans have become crucial today. In my own work, I focus on my collections and what it is that I want to show people. Everyone is influenced by everyone else, so it’s important to keep your integrity.
Do you use your own archives to put together new collections?
Not really, but last summer I used some patterns from my early pieces. I was working on an exhibition I put on in Antwerp called She Walks in Beauty. I dove back into my archives and rediscovered a few pieces. Many pieces featured in the Spring/Summer 2018 show are new avatars of things I did in the past. But I did it without a marketing campaign. (laughs) I wanted it to be so subtle that only a handful of connoisseurs would recognize things…
Olivier Theyskens – Leather blouse with silk gros grain finishing worn reverse inside out [SS18], silk corset worn reverse inside out [FW18], silk skirt with multilayer crinoline jupon and front slip worn reverse inside out [SS18], leather platform high boots [FW18]
Olivier Theyskens – Leather blouse with silk gros grain finishing worn reverse inside out [SS18], silk corset worn reverse inside out [FW18], silk skirt with multilayer crinoline jupon and front slip worn reverse inside out [SS18]
Olivier Theyskens – Sheer silk top [SS18], leather pleated ra-ra midi dress [SS18], leather platform high boots [FW18]
Falke – White tights
Olivier Theyskens – Silk and wool knitted body worn reverse inside out [SS18], leather blouse with silk gros grain finish worn reverse inside out [SS18], sheer silk lace lingerie cropped top worn reverse inside out [SS18], Wolford – Tights worn as sleeves, tights, stockings
Olivier Theyskens – Velvet skirt worn as a dress [SS18], leather plat- form high boots [FW18]
Olivier Theyskens – Leather top [SS18], leather biker jacket [SS18], leather pants with slit [SS18]
Photographer: Vantin B.Giacobetti
Stylist: Andrej Skok
Model: Bianca O’brien
Make-up: Alice Gendrih
Hair: Olivier Schawalder
Assistante styliste: Pauline Grosjean