Olivier Theyskens: “You have to dare to avoid the obvious.”
The Belgian designer spoke to us about his past at Rochas, Nina Ricci and Theory, the meaning of heritage and how to reinvent oneself.
This article originally appeared in 1 Granary Issue 5
Olivier Theyskens is a designer of mythical stories. The raven-haired boy who left a renowned fashion school in Brussels to set up his own label in Paris at the age of twenty-one, using old linen sheets from his Norman family to create his first collection. The shows where goth girls in blood-covered gowns stamped across dark rooms as women screamed in the background and black shells cracked underneath their feet. And his turbulent and fluctuant career, which can be read like the case study of a mutating industry. Olivier was appointed the role of creative director at luxury house Rochas in 2002 when his independent label struggled to survive, then by Nina Ricci when Procter & Gamble didn’t see the advantage of keeping their only fashion brand alive. Barely out the door at the former, he was invited by Andrew Rosen to work for Theory in New York, where he was dedicated to designing “cool clothes for cool girls.” Last year, Olivier relaunched his eponymous label. Set in a plain and minimal environment, the show was intended to have nothing but the clothes to do the talking.
A similar calm surrounded designer when I met him at the MoMu in Antwerp, where he was preparing his exhibition, She Walks in Beauty. Dressed in all white, seated at a long, empty table, Olivier looked ready to face his past. Remarkably, the designer felt no need to hierarchize his experiences and spoke with passionate dedication. Whether he is explaining the meaning of a couture gown or describing how to design the perfect leather jacket, Olivier is always looking for unchallengeable beauty.
Working on an exhibition provides an opportunity to look back on your career. What was that experience like for you?
It’s an interesting one, but it’s crucial to remember that the environment was different when I started. It’s good to look back at stuff, but at the same time, to not forget that it was a different era and a different structure. I myself was in a different mindset, and also the environment was different: the people, the energy. That is key, to take a distance and realize that it’s your stuff, but it’s you, back then. It’s not you, forever. It’s not necessarily something you’ll do again, but eventually, you might go back near that place. The funny thing is that, when I left Theory, I took a year off and decided to take care of my archives. I had a lot of things, but they were in boxes, a bit here and there. I really wanted to take the time to put everything in order, so that there was some conservation. I worked hard to make sure there was a form of classification. It was hard, tedious work, but I did it, with the help of friends. When the MoMu asked me to do something together, I said – thank God I did all that work, because I would’ve never had the time to dig and find the pieces and make them look complete. Actually, I had this “look back” on my work before the exhibition, right after New York and Theory.
During that time reflecting upon your career, were there any surprises?
There were some weird things! For example, when I was at Theory, a lot of the jackets I did had a cut in the back of the collars, every jacket was snit in the back so they’d fall in a cool way. I thought I found that idea at Theory, when I first started working there, but actually, when I was putting my archives back in order, I realized it was a detail I had already done in the past for SS02. That collection was inspired by gloves, and gloves have this opening at the wrist. I was transfixing that idea to the back of the neck, but visually it turned out the same. During all these years in New York, I had never made the link with that collection. That detail was in the shirts, in the jackets, in the leather coats. This is weird, that the same idea came from two entirely different places: once inspired by gloves, and once because I wanted to create jackets that were really comfortable. Otherwise, I have a strong recollection of my past work.
I was more surprised by the manufacturing. Towards the end of the 90s and 00s it improved significantly. In the industry as a whole, manufacturing got more subtle and detailed. Technical details, that most people might not notice, things that were made by incredibly skilled people back then, looking back I realize they would never be accepted now. You can see that manufacturing has improved in its capacity to do things well.
“BECAUSE THERE’S A NOSTALGIA, I WILL NOT GO THERE.”
Is that linked to an advancement in technology?
It’s a constant improvement. Take soft fabrics with a micro hem, for example, the way it’s cover stitched. You can tell when something is from the 90s, it’s not the same quality. It looks rough or plain, thick and large.
That’s fascinating. There is this general idea that there’s a decline in quality, that somehow fashion is at a low point.
I do not agree with that! For a long time, before I started at Rochas, I had been working on A Magazine, for which I was in touch with the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to shoot historic dresses. I picked Dior, Jacques Griffe, and old Marcel Rochas among others. Back in those days, the dresses were carried over by one seamstress or a couple who would work on a single dress, and they’d make it happen so it wasn’t always that pristine in terms of manufacturing. I was very surprised by this, because it was from the past, I assumed it would be better, but it wasn’t that well engineered. It’s not easy to find incredible manufacturing in vintage clothes. For ready-to-wear and luxury ready-to-wear there has been a lot of improvement. What happens, however, is that brands might not necessarily demand that quality of manufacturers. That might be why people feel like the quality is declining, because brands are asking manufacturers to do things faster, to not go into the technical details. But if you want to do things very well, you have the option to do it better today than you would have done twenty years ago. Anything feels possible as well. You want a specific shoulderpad structure? You can work with Japanese factories that are doing incredible shoulderpads. You can have the lightest fabrics, things you barely feel. So many recent inventions that allow you to do things better than before.
Looking back at your work also means reflecting on the industry as a whole. I know your work was always about finding what a woman wants. Is that still true today and how has that changed?
I don’t know if I can tell exactly what women want. In me, I imagine being “her” at large. “I would love to wear that, and look for that, I would want something else.” Me, as Olivier, I can bring that. It’s something I imagine as a desire. Changes are natural, because you never want to repeat yourself, and we constantly evolve in a changing world. I think you can chitchat with a friend who you trust and wonder for hours what the right approach is. You constantly wonder: “What I’m doing now, is it the right thing? Does it have any scale? Does it have an effect?” You always wonder what the right way is to be yourself. I see now that I went through a lot of changes. I cannot transport myself back to then, and what I would do then, is not something I’d do now, even if I can appreciate what I did. It would make no sense to do it now. I can feel sometimes that there’s a nostalgia, people would love to see me doing THAT again, but then it’s exactly what I don’t want to do. Because there’s a nostalgia, I will not go there.
What was very telling of your change, were your first shows. The very first one in the 90s, I wasn’t there, unfortunately [Olivier laughs], but I read that it was such an intense theatrical experience, very dramatic. Then when you relaunched, the show was focussed on the clothes, in a very pure environment. Was that intentional?
Yes, because those are things that aren’t relevant to me anymore. I try to be careful with elements that could be self-satisfactory. Elements that are a sure thing, a win-win. You have to dare to avoid the obvious. For example, when there’s a musician I love, an album from a decade ago, I might think that I want that person to do the same thing over and over, but that’s not true if that person would repeat themselves, it would feel old, it wouldn’t feel right. We have to evolve and move on. But then again, when I did the collection for SS17, I wasn’t shy to show things that are part of me. I was putting hooks and eyes everywhere. Just because those are components that I regularly worked with. They are part of my ingredients as a cook.
It’s interesting that you say this, right after you spent a year looking at your own work. Does the archive make it easier to let go of your past?
It was interesting because, somehow, you keep a memory of the things, and sometimes it’s a memory that transcends the reality, and makes you imagine the past in a different way. Then you see it again, and say: “It was nice, but let’s reconsider what we wanted to do.” Maybe I should’ve pursued it more, and I could’ve gotten to a place where it would have really been nice.
“LOOKING BACK I OFTEN THINK I COULD’VE WORKED ON SOMETHING FURTHER.”
It reminds me of the Proust theory, that you can only understand a person through a number of fixed points in time, and their combination.
It’s very much that. You see a lot of attempts, looking back at your own work. I can see when I was frustrated, when it wasn’t as good as I wanted. Actually, a tailoring jacket, it took me ages to get there. Even at Theory, it was the first time I saw a perfectly crafted tailoring jacket, I was always blocked there. I can see in my archives how much I tried, and I never really got there. Many collections had a specific theme, and I couldn’t go into the same theme again, so you have to move on to another story and you leave the previous theme where it is, even when it isn’t accomplished to a point where you’re satisfied. Looking back I often think I could’ve worked on something further.
What’s so interesting is that your “ingredients” as you call them, have been applied to various different houses and labels. I’m interested by how your identity is expressed through the name or house of someone else.
The thing is that, clearly I have things that keep coming back over and over, I wouldn’t say it’s repetitive, but there are things that are typically me and they’re resurgent, and always come back. There will always be that type of girl, a certain feel or a look, a certain approach to colour and material, that will come back over and over. Going over my archive, I also realized how important my roots are. I have these Normandy roots in France from my mother, and this Belgian spirit, and they’re always in contrast. It’s part of me, it’s always there. The girl in black, not because she’s gothic, but because she’s alluring. That long white dress, not because I like wedding dresses, but because it’s beautiful to me. And they will come back over and over, it’s part of an obsession. One day I’ll stop doing it for a few years, then it’ll come back flamboyantly or in a very discreet way. It must be part of my DNA. I cannot look at my work and say – “The DNA of that mayor house from the 20th century is fixed and detached from me,” because I’m a live matter and I’m still evolving. It’s all part of my language and I have to accept it.
That was part of the reason why I presented my SS17 collection in a very clean surrounding, very plain. All of these silhouettes were part of my basics, and I thought, let’s not be shy. When you’re working for other brands, you try to open the box of this new environment, and reveal the brand while expressing yourself. So you get away from who you are and your own clothing codes. I had that for Ricci, where I was trying to avoid the ‘Theyskenian’ elements. When I look back now, it looks very ‘Theyskenian’, but while I was there I had the feeling that I was discovering something completely different from what I had done in the past. It was different, and new. If it had been another brand, I would’ve designed something very different. It’s funny because I can see myself in this work, but I did it because I worked for these names.
I’m really intrigued by what it means to work for a ‘heritage’ brand. Your career marks a turning point in the rise of big conglomerates working with young designers. Within this, what does heritage mean?
Most houses that have a dignified heritage today went through a period where they dismantled that heritage, and they didn’t want to sell that anymore. I had that with Rochas when I started there. Of course, the Chantilly lace was the code of the house, back in the old days, very far back, but they hadn’t touched it for ages. They were keeping it only in the Femme perfume. When I arrived I said: “I have seen this black Chantilly lace on a white background – the way Marcel Rochas did it – on ten other brands, but it’s you guys who own it. I’m sorry but that’s what we’ll do.” For a brand, it’s good to have someone with a strong character who comes and says the hard things. This new marketing team might have said what the colour of the season is, but they’re wrong. I’m sorry you paid them a lot, but I’m here to tell you no [laughs]. You hired me, I’ll tell you the truth.
So you think it’s impossible for a marketing team to make those decisions?
It’s possible, but some of the brands get out of touch with their roots and they don’t know how to proceed with their baggage. So they’ll hire an external team and redesign their whole store. That’s why those companies need the right people to guide them. If Chanel would say, no more CC, we don’t want to hear that anymore, twenty years later everybody would ask why they stopped. That’s what happened for me when I was at Rochas. I asked: “Why isn’t there anything connected to the heritage?” The other thing that was tricky for me, is that it was very hard to find documents. There was one book from the 80s in black and white and a few in-house documents. So I had to figure out what their heritage was. I talked to Helène Rochas, and people in Paris that knew the old brand. I was working as an investigator. Playing with the past and the future, and through that you design. You want to take risks of course, so that’s why you spent hours talking to friends! There’s so much to take into account.
“I WAS WORKING AS AN INVESTIGATOR. PLAYING WITH THE PAST AND THE FUTURE, AND THROUGH THAT YOU DESIGN.”
Talking about combining multiple elements, your work always balances haute couture and ready-to-wear. Even in your earliest interviews, I get the sense that you were very aware that fashion is commercial, yet you also have this innate feeling of fashion as art. How do you oppose those two sides?
I think that people are so confused with the term ‘haute couture’ and one of the big mistakes was that people tried to define couture through rules that had to be respected. You need a certain number of employees, you need to do things in a precise way. But you could do the most horrifying collection of haute couture, and at the same time, ready-to-wear designers like Galliano are making the most beautiful couture-looking garments. People got confused by the fact that ready-to-wear was displaying outfits that were clearly couture. I see them in my own collection, in McQueen’s, garments that are very couture. You wouldn’t wear it in the street, it just looks amazing, like a work of art. It’s crazy, uber-conceptual, like Viktor&Rolf or Rei Kawakubo. So many designers in ready-to-wear are doing pure couture. To me, haute couture is anything that is made to measure. I take your measurements, I create something just for you, and I have my team working on it as a whole project. They would make the whole thing only for you. This, to me, is couture. It can even be a t-shirt, but it has to go through a personal interaction with the designer, adapting everything to that person.
In your career, you’ve always balanced the two.
I’ve always been in this balance. I think that the first motor for me is always the tip of the threat, which feels new and exciting and it animates me with energy. You can have a concept of a sleeve shape, and this can be beautiful in the most minimalistic material in a super practical garment, or you can adapt that sleevework to something very elaborate and pushed to the craziest artistic piece. As a creative person, you cannot say: “Now I’m on this side of the border, and now I’m on the other side.” If it makes sense, you should do it. When you work in the industry with manufacturers, you experience the moment where you start asking things that are against everybody’s interest. You can have manufacturers that are so good at what they do, and you can find a way that everybody evolves. But there is a moment, if you go too far, that it becomes too demanding, and it’s not in the interest of the manufacturer anymore. That’s when you understand that you’re not designing responsibly. This is not the right way to approach this. Knowing the people you want to work with, and knowing the factories, is also knowing what their limits are. If your ideas aren’t good for them you have to find another way to make it.
Let’s talk about your work method. I know you always start from an illustration, how do you take something from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional?
When I sketch, I already have a three-dimensional idea. For example, it takes a lot of time to draw something front and back, but often I already know what the back looks like. Usually, I draw everything from the front but I can do it from profile as well, when I think of the people in attendance at the show. After I sketch, I give explanations to my team and there are a lot of questions, so I add extra sketches to show the details. This is an important step.
At one point I skipped drawing and I worked on wearability, so I would drape and cut directly. It became very organic, the methodology became different. Now I’m back to the way I worked in the very beginning, I sketch but I feel free to change it around once I develop. I don’t think there’s a perfect methodology, because I don’t like to repeat a process too much. In the book of the exhibition, we’ve collected sketches from previous collections. The illustrations would look completely different from season to season, simply because I would change the format of paper, or the tools I used. If I didn’t, I would be so bored.
I’ve seen the sketches, and the atmosphere changes in each collection, but what’s so interesting, is that the girls are always walking.
It’s one of the reasons the title of the exhibition is ‘She Walks in Beauty’. There’s this constant quest for beauty in my work, even if it is uncomfortable. In my way, there is always a dimension connected to beauty. I personally feel that something beautiful can be ugly to others. The fact that I sketch girls walking is that I always thought it had something energetic. It also shows how I want the fabric to flow around the model, which is helpful for pattern makers. In the exhibition, we have to keep the clothes still, because they are so fragile. When I work, it’s always with movement in mind.
That’s what’s so frustrating about a fashion exhibition. You place something which is flux and try to conserve it.
But the power of our imagination is huge, and we have the capacity to know what it’s like when it moves. If I look at an old dress of Marie Antoinette from Versailles, just seeing it can look sad, but then you imagine walking around in the gardens, and you remember the movies you’ve seen. Editorial images play a big role there. The real garment is almost a relic. I saw the Dior exhibition recently. I wouldn’t be surprised if his work is still relevant historically, a thousand years from now, we’ll still need it, so we need to be so careful handling them.
Talking about conservation through imagination, your work has always been surrounded with such strong imagery that there are pieces I know purely through fashion editorials, like the cap dress.
When I started, there was no internet, so the only way to communicate with people was by sending them images. So even from my very early work, the images I kept aren’t from fashion shows, they’re images I had to produce myself to promote and communicate these collections. I think that at that time, more effort was put into the making of those pictures. People were more scrupulous and looking at things in detail. I would buy Italian Vogue and The Face, and they’d stay on my desk for a month. This would be all I had as image food for a month, until the next issue came out. It was very bizarre, because I was always waiting to see more stuff. We weren’t submerged as we are today. I feel lucky that, when I started, some pictures became more iconic than pictures that could be done today, because there was more room for pictures to make their mark. In the exhibition catalog, a lot of the documents are from the early stages, because they feel more interesting. They captured a lot of information for what was about to come.
I’m really curious about how you run your business as well. Did you try to keep it small like when you just started?
I don’t think I could’ve repeated the same thing I did before, the industry has changed too much. When I relaunched, I couldn’t think of a scale that would be appropriate, I just felt like it was important to go step by step, and I wanted to be with people that I could see every day. If that’s your focus, with a little team, you can do a lot. After Theory, it was hard for me to imagine any activity with less than forty people. But after a year off, and focussing on myself, I really wanted to work with a small team where I could have an interaction with everybody all the time, where it feels like a small family. It’s important that those people are very committed and were part of the moment where it all began. We’re still evolving, maybe we’ll reach a bigger number later on. For now, we’re a small team, and I’m working with people that I’ve known for a long time. In the end, when I see the number of people involved on a global scale, it’s a lot. But within the team, my headquarters in Paris, it’s just a handful.
“ON YOUR OWN, YOU WON’T SUCCEED, YOU’LL JUST GET TIRED.”
You left fashion school before completing your degree. What did you learn at LaCambre, and why did you decide to quit?
The first thing I learned, is that there are two threads in a machine. As a child, I was always sewing by hand and I would always look at my mother using the machine. I dreamt about using it, but she’d always take out the spool. So when I’d try in secret, the thread would fly through, but the fabric wouldn’t stay together. So I learned that (at the age of 18!), but it was also my first contact with young people that were creative. I came from a very classic background, a very boring school, I did science and Latin. So I met all these people at LaCambre: gays, eccentrics, designers, and I was fascinated by those other people. Some of them I liked a lot and I remained friends with them.
The first year was fun, the second year I was less concentrated and started working on the side, and by the third year my nature became very strong, and I decided I didn’t want to go to the school anymore. It was very instinctive, I felt, this is enough, so I moved very sudden. I wanted to keep learning on my own. My personality didn’t work, being with other people in a classroom, doing similar stuff, and getting judged by a professor. That wasn’t my nature. I’m not saying it’s better to leave school. But I wanted to remain free from the style education. I was feeling like I didn’t want to be influenced on my style. They did nothing wrong, but that’s what I thought as a 19-year-old kid. I wanted to remain white and blank from the point of view of others, and do what I believed in. When I just left school, I had drawn my first collection, SS98, and I had no point of view on it. I left school with nothing but my collection in mind.
I tried to do internships, at Jean-Paul Gaultier for example, I arrived with my sketches and the lady at the reception said: “You can leave them here, we’ll call you back.” And I thought: “I can’t leave them here, it’s full of ideas!” So I just left and decided to do my own thing.
Starting your own label right after school, what was your biggest challenge back then?
Everything was happening very organically. The challenge for me was that the industry requires of labels or brands to have enough organization, to ensure that they can produce and deliver. At my early stages, I was struggling to find the best, or the less bad, scenario to be able to produce. The first year, I just presented what I was doing to buyers and press, but I wasn’t able to actually produce it. I told them we had to wait a season. I was very cautious not to spend too much, I was using material from back home, like old linen sheets and lace from my family. I think that, at that time, buyers were more open and used to the fact that a new designer would be a bit late, and that there would be imperfections. There was a level of tolerance, that nowadays is gone. There are fewer people in the field that have this capacity to cope with imperfections. I wasn’t perfect when I started, but it didn’t hurt my business back then. I also had a lot of support from important actors in the field that helped me with the commercial part. So my biggest challenge was definitely to get organized, and I also think it’s where most young designers fail. I had a lot of help from people around me, a friend from business school for example. You should always look around you and think about who could be able to help. That’s important, not to stay in your own little cell. You have to share what you want to do, and consider teaming up. On your own, you won’t succeed, you’ll just get tired. You also need to understand that a big part of the job has nothing to do with designing, you’re faced with practical situations and paying bills. On that side, you can’t make any mistakes. If you’re not organized, your business will fail.
You also had a lot of press attention from the start, and a few celebrity endorsements. How important was that to you?
I think that it was important, but that it isn’t today anymore. Everybody sees so much media, and receives so much information. If we transport ourselves back into the 90s, where we had to communicate by fax and meet people to show your clothes, back then, having the support of someone like Isabella Blow, who put a silhouette on the cover of the Sunday Times… It was something people in the industry would pay attention to, and they would show up to the presentation or the showroom. But that whole thing, I don’t think it happens anymore today. Back then, there was a small number of professionals who really had an impact on the industry, whether they were buyers or journalists. I’m not convinced that is still the case today.
You have sat on the jury for schools a few times. Do you ever see students like you, who don’t need education to develop their style? Or is it very rare?
It’s hard for me to tell. I think there are people who have the talent to spot other talent. When I meet students during jury time, they’re usually not in their natural state of mind. So I don’t really think about it, and I don’t know enough about it to be a specialist. When I had my first publication, a small picture in The Face magazine, I was instantly contacted by a guy from Italy, a talent scout. He had been behind the beginnings of McQueen, and many other Belgians like Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten. He would put young designers in touch with manufacturers, and he really helped me to get there. He taught me where to be cautious, and what steps to take. It was really crucial for me to have him at my side, someone who could spot talent, but also knew the industry. His experience was very important to me. I’m still thankful for his guidance. It’s impossible to leave school and immediately have all the keys to understand how to maneuver through the industry. You need advice from people with experience.
I have one last question. Talking to you, I have the feeling that your education didn’t stop after you left school. For example, you mention learning to make the perfect tailored jacket at Theory. At what point did you feel in control of your creative expression?
I think it’s different. There’s never a moment where you reach the final level and just stay there forever. That’s not what happens. Sometimes you might reach it, but then a year later, because you start moving onto something else, you come back down to the learning. I can recognize that there were points at Rochas, for example, where I was really on top of my game. I don’t think I was ever at a place where I felt like I couldn’t learn anymore. That just isn’t my personality, other people might be like that but it would be boring for me, I wouldn’t like that. With the relaunch of the label, I started working on my own classics, and I’m flirting with the feeling of already having done something. I know that with my personality, I’m always moving on to something else. I think that’s what life’s about, you get bored if you don’t try something else.