Fashion: Ray Of Light

Olivier Theyskens is the latest Belgian to join the fashion elite. And after designing an Oscar-night dress for Madonna, the 22 year old is already famous enough to be shunning publicity, writes Rebecca Lowthorpe. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Justin Smith
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Olivier Theyskens (pronounced "tay-skens") has the sort of typically grand name that sits well among fashion's nobility. At just 22 years old, the Belgian designer based in Brussels has already scooped accolades usually reserved for time-honoured big names, the most prestigious of which came last year when Madonna called on him to design her Oscar-night outfit - a dramatic black satin coat dress (left) - seen by 87 million viewers worldwide. But with just three shows under his belt, he seems to feel he has earned himself the right to be mysterious.

"'Ee likes to be, 'ow do I say eet? A secret?" says his press attache in Paris. So, not only is a chat over the phone with the reclusive designer "forbidden", but even a portrait of the young turk is also strictly interdit. (For the record, he has the brooding good looks of a waif-like rock star.) Maybe his fast fame has terrified him into hiding; or perhaps he feels his coverage in the media has reached saturation point. After all, Theyskens, while patently not one for courting the press personally, has had his extraordinary clothes showcased in the world's hard-core fashion publications, from i-D and Dazed & Confused to the glossiest of glossies Harper's Bazaar.

But in a fashion climate where modern minimalism reigns supreme, there is something undeniably exciting about his work which quite possibly warrants the blaze of admiration offered up by fashion aficionados at the mere mention of his name.

Minutes after his first collection, held in a crumbling chateau in Paris, there was talk of his "star quality". A clever concoction of vintage heavy linen table-cloths and monogrammed napkins were sewn (by his own fair hands no less) into structured corsets and bustle-backed draped skirts - a sort of industrial romanticism with more than a few references to Victoriana. Even then, last March, a macabre element was evident in the form of a nude bodysuit embroidered with a blood-red heart and sprawling capillaries, which was sent out on the runway to the sound of an amplified heartbeat. (Post-show, androgynous American rock star Marilyn Manson wanted to buy it, but it didn't fit him.)

In his second show, Theyskens took the morbid theme one step further when, in a bleak warehouse on the outskirts of Paris, he issued Gothic black satin coat dresses, fit for the bride of Frankenstein, and of course for Madonna on Oscar night.

Apart from more sinister moments, when models' pale necks dripped with stuffed black nightingales (kooky and spooky), Theyskens appeared to have squirreled his inspirations out of his grandmother's attic. Coats and jackets were done up antique-style with hooks and eyes, shoulders were high and rounded, and Edwardian capes with exaggerated necklines that reached the jaw were delicately sprinkled with jet beads. Among the vintage-boutique-come-Morticia-Addams attire there was a shot at something more gentle, optimistic even: chiffon blouses and full peasant skirts with handkerchief hems in emerald, fuchsia and sunflower yellow gave a commercial spin to his more austere lines.

"It was a very strong and very original collection," says Josephine Turner of A la Mode, who bought the brightest pieces for her prestigious Knightsbridge store and has made a name for herself showcasing young international design talent, including Antonio Berardi and, in his early days, John Galliano. "Theyskens' pieces don't all look as if they come from the Belgian school, in that dark, Gothic way. He is very modern, creating intricate designs with some considerable talent. The construction is superb: inside-out they're like haute couture."

The Belgian school to which Turner refers includes other recent hotshots Veronique Branquinho, An Vandevorst and Filip Arickx (who design under the AF Vandevorst label), Raf Simons and Bernhard Willhelm - all of whom hail from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium's equivalent to London's Central Saint Martins. These new names recently joined the stellar triumvirate of Belgian designers - Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela - whose sombre deconstructed aesthetic turned fashion on its head in the late Eighties.

However, with his leaning towards a futuristic Gothic aesthetic and predilection for dramatic shapes in dark colours, some of Theyskens' work could reasonably be seen as coming from the same dour if beautiful mindset as his contemporaries. What sets him apart, however, is his tailoring, so strict and extreme it is more reminiscent of Alexander McQueen's than anyone further afield.

Whatever, Theyskens, despite his complete disregard for kissy-kissy fashion protocol, can seemingly do nothing wrong. Instead, he clearly intends to exploit any mystique that has by now sprung up in his wake. And who can blame him? After all, Martin Margiela, the godfather of Belgian fashion, has been producing his own label for almost 10 years without ever having allowed a face-to-face interview or his portrait to be published. His avoidance of publicity has never done him any harm. So, for the time being at least, Olivier Theyskens is not available for comment

Above: Madonna takes Theyskens (and her brother Christopher) to the Oscars in 1998

Right Frock coat, pounds 1,500

Stylist's assistant Holly Wood

Make-up Dina for Max Factor at Industry

Model Ruth Taylor at Premier

Clockwise from top left Chiffon check shirt, pounds 135; circle skirt, pounds 500. Jacket, pounds 495; wide trousers, pounds 300. Chiffon vest, to order; knitted hipster leggings, pounds 205. Leather trousers with skirt worn as top, pounds 560. All by Olivier Theyskens available from A la Mode, 36 Hans Crescent, London SW1. Enquiries 0171-584 2133