Olivier Theyskens, A Fashion Odyssee
From 15 June 2019 until 5 January 2020, the Museum for Lace and Fashion in Calais is presenting the exhibition ‘In Praesentia’ curated by Lydia Kamitsis. Seven of Theyskens’ signature pieces creations from the MoMu collection will be on display: six dresses he designed for Nina Ricci and Rochas, and one pair of shoes. The Museum for Lace and Fashion is juxtaposing these contempory designs with pieces from their own historical and industrial collections.
The story of Olivier Theyskens knows many interpretations. A fairytale to some, a fable to others, it is best described as a myth - a fashion odyssey of sorts. The path of this Belgian designer has been strewn with trials and tribulations by the hands of the invisible forces of a ruthless fashion industry. As Theyskens’ journey unfolds, the struggle of a resilient designer to reconcile creativity with commerce becomes symbolic for the challenges which many of his contemporaries faced.
Theyskens’ breakthrough in 1998 was a rebellious leap of faith. At a mere 21 years old, he traded the halls of Belgian art school La Cambre for Paris, trailing a set of old lace bed sheets under one arm and the ambition to launch his own brand under the other. His first show was unconventional, off-schedule, but memorable above all: people from all across Paris had followed a trail of whispers, to a grimy warehouse where they were immediately enchanted by Theyskens’ idiosyncratic combination of historical and contemporary references and remarkable attention to - often eery - details. In wake of this monumental debut, Theyskens was soon dubbed fashion’s “Prince of Darkness”, and in that same year forged an alliance with Queen of Pop Madonna, whose red carpet passages in Theyskens’ creations confirmed his position.
After four years of prosperity, fortune turned its back on Theyskens. Following the aftermath of 9/11, he was forced to close shop after his financial supporter had backed out, leaving Theyskens surrounded by hungry fashion conglomerates, to whom the highly coveted designer was a valuable commodity. Theyskens eventually signed with the French heritage brand Rochas, who assigned him the task of revising their mostly dormant fashion division, and so he did. Managing to translate the chic air of the house into a new type of ready-to-wear, which the press called ‘demi-couture’, his collections were characterised by couture-like attention to detail, but without the involvement of an atelier. This proved to be the brand’s Achilles’ heel, for despite of its good reception by the industry, customers were not yet ready for this type of fashion; it would however resurface successfully a decade later with brands like Schiaparelli. Soon the corporation behind Rochas pulled the plug of its fashion division and sold the brand entirely in 2006.
As soon as Theyskens was turned out the door, he was taken under the wings of another perfume giant - Nina Ricci - who had unceremoniously ousted their former designer Lars Nilsson for Theyskens’ sake. Again, he delivered. Three years of memorable shows and red carpet statements later, the global economic crisis meant the end of Theyskens’ reign. As he was forced out of his position to make room for a more commercial designer, the fashion industry expressed its anger and shock, with Anna Wintour as its most public voice of dissent. In an unprecedented statement in her monthly Editor’s Letter, she expressed her concern about the industry’s undervaluation of its visionaries, which she regards as its greatest asset.
Following a third conflict between commerce and creativity, Theyskens exchanged Paris for New York, and - in a perhaps more unsuspected move - high-fashion for low-fashion. He joined forces with the commercial brand Theory, for whom he was asked to create a highly wearable capsule collection. Following its staggering succes, Theyskens was appointed creative director of the brand, and successfully extended this fruitful collaboration between high and low fashion. In 2014, Theory and Theyskens - their similarly sounding names having become almost irrevocably entangled - parted ways amicably.
At long last, Theyskens returned to Paris. For the first time in over a decade, he created a garment under his own name - a wedding dress for a close friend, beautifully crafted and expressive of Theyskens’ undying belief in a singular kind of fashion. Cautiously, he kept his creation away from the market.
Two years later, in the autumn of 2016, Theyskens carefully reintroduced himself to the fashion world, this time not with a leap but with a careful tread. During a show in the afternoon, in a crowded Parisian apartment adjacent to his own, he showed a collection both expressive of his immense talent and his hard-earned experiences. The Prince has now completed his perilous journey, and taken his rightful place in the fashion world: on the throne.