Viktor & Rolf, the Dutch design duo behind some of the most elaborate and awe-inspiring couture pieces of our time, currently have a retrospective of their 25-year collaboration hosted at the National Gallery of Victoria. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? I mean, by now every Australian fashion blogger and their dog have commented or reported on the exhibition. Most of my go-to fashionistas had already been, seen and posted about the exhibition before I got the chance to go this weekend past, and so I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, was just how much I wouldn’t enjoy the exhibition.
Now don’t get me wrong, there is no debating that the creations are breathtaking in their vision and construction. The genius of the design duo cannot be understated, and the way in which the garments are pieced together shows a real mastery of craftsmanship. I cracked a huge smile seeing the red carpet gown in person (a beautifully sculptural piece crafted from actual carpet), and I was honestly moved seeing pieces in person that I had viewed in magazines and being able to dissect them with my own eyes rather than through someone else’s lens.
However, as someone now in his thirty-first year on this planet, and as someone who is (reluctantly) being drawn into the minimalism movement, I had to stop and ask myself what the cost of these garments (and more over the cost of couture generally) actually is.
Fashion is a driving force and inspiration in my life. It has been a constant friend and aspiration from my earliest years as a closeted young man ripping pages out of Vogue at the town library, right through to my present as a public servant with largely unrealistic dreams of being ‘the next big blogger’. Fashion is equal parts escapism and religious faith for me – so it is important for me to note that the Fashion Artists exhibition made me uncomfortable. I tried to get myself in the mood, tried to talk myself into having a good time. But as I strolled through the exhibition snapping photos of the garments and the details that especially caught my eye, it all rang a little hollow and empty for me.
I think the reason, now that I have had time to reflect and consider my reaction, is that the designs of Viktor & Rolf are predominantly couture, and this is something that I more and more view less as art and more as waste.
I am someone who is undergoing something of a change-of-tune where it comes to fashion, and seeing these spectacular pieces in person made me uncomfortable because it forced me to ask myself whether blurring the lines between art (a philosophical endeavour) and fashion (a practical endeavour) has been taken too far to a point of being farcical. Houses like Viktor & Rolf and Maison Margiela, and individuals like Lady Gaga and Daphne Guinness – have tricked us into believing that there is a value in couture, the argument of art for arts’ sake.
And faced with the beauty of the rhinestone garment, or the engineering genius of any of their work with tulle, I can almost agree that yes, making something beautiful is reason enough.
But then I pause and think again, and I realise that I am standing in a room full of spectacular garments that have likely only ever been worn once, by the model they were crafted for. Maybe they were featured in magazines, and maybe some zany celeb wore them for a music video. But largely, these garments were made, displayed, and then… stored. These pieces are designed to show the vision of the designers, and to display just what feats of engineering and construction can be achieved; but after they have served that purpose they’re not actually used again.
And the realist in me finds that a fairly bitter pill to swallow in our contemporary age of fast fashion, sweatshop labour, and unprecedented waste of fabric and clothing products when around the world people struggle to feed and clothe themselves.
Don’t worry, I know that I am sounding like the worst sort of church-lady, my hypocrisy made worse by the fact that a significant proportion of my wardrobe is made up of fast-fashion pieces. But I can’t very well sit here and tell you that the exhibition was phenomenal or life changing, when in reality I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth. These pieces are stunning, I don’t deny that, and as far as exhibitions go I believe that this surpasses most fashion exhibitions I have ever seen (save only the Vivienne Westwood retrospective at the NGA); but that doesn’t change the fact that this exhibition has kick-started some sort of existential crisis for me and brought into question everything that I love about fashion.
And as stupid and a misplaced as it is, I sort of resent Viktor & Rolf for that.