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Viktor and Rolf: the visionary Dutch design duo on their 'creative' marriage

Viktor & Rolf, the design duo behind one of the world's bestselling perfumes, are famous for their avant-garde couture. The pair tell Bairbre Power about their 27-year creative 'marriage' and how, when it came to designing their first eyewear collection, less was definitely more

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 Designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren walk the runway during the Viktor & Rolf Spring Summer 2018 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 24, 2018 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images)

Designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren walk the runway during the Viktor & Rolf Spring Summer 2018 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 24, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images)

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Spec appeal: Rolf and Viktor wearing glasses from their new Vision range. Photo: Alexander Sporre

Spec appeal: Rolf and Viktor wearing glasses from their new Vision range. Photo: Alexander Sporre

Glasses from the Victor&Rolf Vision range

Glasses from the Victor&Rolf Vision range

Glasses from the Victor&Rolf Vision range

Glasses from the Victor&Rolf Vision range

The art of fashion:  Viktor & Rolf Autumn 2015 couture show saw the designers dismantle their artwork-themed dresses on the catwalk

The art of fashion: Viktor & Rolf Autumn 2015 couture show saw the designers dismantle their artwork-themed dresses on the catwalk

Getty Images

Modern message: the pair's slogan couture

Modern message: the pair's slogan couture

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Viktor and Rolf's slogan couture on the catwalk

Viktor and Rolf's slogan couture on the catwalk

Getty Images

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Designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren walk the runway during the Viktor & Rolf Spring Summer 2018 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 24, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images)

Smiling, bespectacled and imbued with impossibly good manners, the design duo jump to their feet and extend a warm, friendly handshake.

It's a hot day in Amsterdam and the plan for a round-table chat outdoors is moved indoors at the 11th hour. I'm just as pleased. Time is tight - Viktor and Rolf are much in demand to discuss Vision, a 18-piece range of glasses and sunglasses for Specsavers, and the cool interiors may offer a better opportunity to observe the stylish duo up close.

As it happens, I'm in for quite a surprise. Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren are not at all what I had expected after years of studying the serious-looking doppelgängers and their designs in glossy magazines. In press shots, they usually dress like mirror images of each other, with heavy-set glasses, dark suits, tailored jackets or matching black polonecks.

Up close and personal, you see the energy of this very productive partnership. The two, who both turned 50 last year, smile and laugh a lot and it's easy to appreciate their individual personalities. Viktor wears a graphic print 'bowler hats' shirt with relaxed chalk-stripe trousers and a striking pair of checkerboard trainers, all the better for hopping on a bicycle to cycle off home afterwards.

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The art of fashion:  Viktor & Rolf Autumn 2015 couture show saw the designers dismantle their artwork-themed dresses on the catwalk

The art of fashion: Viktor & Rolf Autumn 2015 couture show saw the designers dismantle their artwork-themed dresses on the catwalk

Getty Images

Rolf, who always stands to the left in their portrait photos, even though their eponymous brand title reads the other way around, wears a chambray shirt bearing another fashion motif - in this case ladies' mid-calf boots. But it's his sensational bum bag slung around his waist that immediately catches my eye. It has the face of a cat with long eyelashes and pink fabric stand-up ears.

"I thought you were all about dogs," I comment, referencing Little Swan, Rolf's beloved miniature dachshund who is quite the diva, it seems. She once famously blanked A-lister client Grace Jones when she went to pet her.

Rolf's face lights up at the mention of his dog's name and he acknowledges "she is old, she is almost 17".

When Viktor's dog, Vickie, was alive, the designers' canine pals didn't get on, but their owners do, and have done ever since they partnered up after winning a prestigious competition in the south of France.

It was one of those fate-meets-fashion moments. The pair, who first met at Arnhem Academy of Art and Design in 1989, didn't make a conscious choice to start working together - it just happened after their Dutch luck, or 'geluk', kicked in at Hyères in 1993.

The two had been selected to take part in the influential Festival International de Mode et de Photographie. They won three prizes and scooped the grand Prix. As the judges called "Viktor and Rolf, come on stage", the pair thought to themselves that it sounded good. They ran with it and a label was born.

Some 27 years later, the fashion world is still enjoying the benefits of their talents, which they first deployed in the realm of haute couture. They moved to ready-to-wear and back again to doing couture where they consistently grab the headlines, most recently for their SS19 'Fashion Statements' collection.

Their take on 'slogan couture' was executed with five miles of brightly hued tulle and their epic proportioned gowns emblazoned with anti-social graffiti like 'Sorry I'm Late I Didn't Want To Come' and 'I'm Not Shy I Just Don't Like You' garnered front-page coverage around the world.

Viktor and Rolf play a strong game in irony. Their 'No Photos' slogan on pretty tulle ruffles turned into Instagram gold. The concept, they explain, was to explore to what extent can you say something with clothing, literally. And the photographers couldn't get enough of it on the Met Gala red carpet last May when it was worn by Hailee Steinfeld.

According to Rolf, the only thing the two designers ever disagree about is the temperature in the car and he maintains they are a good example of the 'polder model', in that they keep on talking until there is a consensus.

For the uninitiated, the polder model is consensus decision-making, based on the acclaimed Dutch version of consensus-based economic and social policy making in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We hardly ever disagree but there is some tension when it comes to temperature. We share a car, I want it to be cold, Rolf wants it to be hot," Viktor explained at their launch party in Amsterdam.

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Modern message: the pair's slogan couture

Modern message: the pair's slogan couture

Getty Images

The fashion world has had lots of collaborating duos down the years, from Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana to 'Preen' husband and wife team of Justin Thornton and Thea Bragazzi and Dean and Dan Caten, the Canadian twins behind Dsquared². Given their analytic approach to work, I'm intrigued by Viktor and Rolf's design process. So, how does it work?

"We don't have separate tasks", Viktor explains.

He compares their way of working to a constant game of ping pong. The creative collaboration starts with one table, two chairs and a sheet of paper. The pair close the door on the world. There is silence. They talk, take notes, write it down and slowly but surely, they begin to visualise the collection. The collaborative nature of their successful working arrangement means they like to take meetings together and clearly find strength in each other's presence. In between designing sessions, you might find them practise ashtanga yoga.

They have worked together for so long that they often complete each other's sentences but they are not a couple in the romantic sense of the word. Their work is a celebration of friendship, of being on the same page, so to speak. Viktor says it's like they share the one brain. They are designing partners in a creative marriage but have different lives.

"We are each other's best friend. We've come through so much together," says Rolf.

For the eyewear launch in Amsterdam, a group of friends and press gather for an evening launch party. All eyes are on the door. Will any celebrity clients arrive? Heaven knows they have enough, from Christina Aguilera to Tori Amos, Lady Gaga to Madonna.

In Holland, they have a special fan in Princess Mabel of Orange-Nassau. For her 2004 wedding to Prince Friso, the duo created a stunning silk wedding dress with 264 handmade bows. The prince died tragically in a skiing accident in 2013 and the princess remains a loyal fan and supporter. She opened their Fashion Artists' 25 Years exhibition at the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam and she attended Rolf's civil wedding in 2018 when he married his American partner, Brandon, in a ceremony in Amsterdam.

For many people, their first introduction to the brand is through their blockbuster fragrance, Flowerbomb, a blend of bergamot, jasmine, orchid, freesia and centifolia rose with a base note of patchouli delivered in a grenade shaped bottle. Throwing in grenades is nothing new to the pair.

In 2005, they delivered a chic rendering of a bedtime theme with models in duvet coats complete with pillows. Ten years later, they pushed the boundaries of art into fashion, conjuring up dresses from oil paintings complete with ornate picture frames broken into pieces to form overblown, zigzag hemlines.

The designers are especially fond of the bow shape which turns up with feminine finesse in their couture line and also in their Mariage wedding range. The shape also makes an appearance in their optical range for Specsavers.

How different was this project compared to designing clothes?

"Haute couture is something that you can do with a very big gesture," Viktor explains. "It's about big statements. You think about doing designs the same way but when designing glasses, it is much smaller so the design gesture is much smaller. It is supposed to be a functional object so we design with an idea in mind, but also we want people to look good," he adds.

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Spec appeal: Rolf and Viktor wearing glasses from their new Vision range. Photo: Alexander Sporre

Spec appeal: Rolf and Viktor wearing glasses from their new Vision range. Photo: Alexander Sporre

Rolf picks up the storytelling. "We've been wearing square frames for such a long time and suddenly we were in the mood for round. We wear glasses ourselves, we did not want to go to an extreme. We feel it is important to look chic and to be able to wear them every day."

They've both worn glasses for years. Viktor explains how he got his pair of glasses at age eight. "I said to my mother, 'I am so happy to have them because now I can see the traffic lights when I go into town for my violin lessons.' She nearly had a heart attack."

He has good comedic timing. The violin playing is gone, he says, "but I still wear glasses."

Their new eyewear collection, Viktor&Rolf Vision launches at Specsavers in Ireland on February 10, priced at €239. The collection is made up of three distinct design stories: patchwork, sculptural and evening, and features a number of unisex styles.

The 'patchwork' story has a combination of inner and outer frame shapes fused together and a double-framed aviator-style with a thin, gold metal design that appears as two frames in one. Designers are never happier than when talking about shapes and proportions and they come to the fore in the 'sculptural' story with paddle-shaped sides on oversized bow-shaped sunnies.

The round-eye shaped sunglasses style with double bridge and two-tone yellow and brown tortoiseshell colouring boast that retro vibe that Annie Hall fans will love.

In an ode to their world-famous fragrance, metal Flowerbomb details appear on the front or tip-end of frames and the cases echo the lines of the bottle.

The most 'fashionable' element of the collection was exploring the optical equivalent of 'day-to-night'. In their 'evening' section, they introduce a Swarovski crystal diadem which clips onto the bridge of the frames to ramp up the glamour.

We've had clip-on sunshades for decades but detachable jewellery for spectacles is a nice new bonus from the designers. Why am I not surprised that it is conceptualists like Viktor and Rolf who have introduced 'face furniture' with a difference?

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