A human Russian doll comes to life

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BY COUTURE show standards the setting was a relatively small room. But it was adequately grand, coated in gilt and hung with dripping chandeliers. On a pedestal at the centre of a square stage lay a single pair of shoes. Evidently no ordinary event. But then, this was couture Viktor & Rolf style.

Out stepped the famously doll-like model Maggie Rizer in a short frayed hessian slip - hardly traditional couturiers' fabric. She was followed by the two designers, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, dressed in matching head-to-toe black. They guided Rizer into the shoes on the pedestal, which then revolved, giving her the appearance of a miniature ballerina in a music box.

This was just the beginning. The Dutch design duo returned moments later, carrying an exquisite lace and crystal dress that they placed on Rizer, over the hessian sack-cloth slip, primping the bow at the neck and tweaking the hem. Rizer revolved while they fetched the next item - even more amazing - a diamante pepper-pot shaped dress. Once again it was placed on top of the previous layers. The audience gasped with delight at the Russian doll effect.

The next creation was another dress, as stiff as board and embellished with great gobbets of jewels. Then came a matching floor-length waistcoat. All the while, Viktor and Rolf fiddled with hooks,eyes and cuffs, primping and preening their model.

So it went on. A flounced baby-doll dress printed like 1960s bathroom wallpaper was soon obscured by an extravagant bejewelled coat. With each new addition, the proportions of the clothes became more bizarre. Bloated sleeves, shoulders likes shells, and the girth of a standard size 24 are not a traditional sight on the couture catwalk.

By the 10th and final layer - a giant canvas overcoat with 5ft-long sleeves - Rizer's head looked like a pin atop a mountain. She had been swallowed by the clothes. This was a clever feat of engineering, let alone dress making. It was also couture at its most irreverent. By thumbing their noses at the establishment, Viktor & Rolf pushed the boundaries of fashion and investigated new and exciting ways of making clothes. "We would like it to be a laboratory," Viktor has said of the couple's small atelier.

This, only their fourth show on the couture circuit, was a successful, if weird, experiment that may not sell a stitch. But that was not the idea. What Viktor and Rolf have in abundance is ideas and on planet fashion it may be only the concept that matters. This is, after all, the avant- garde two-some who once famously produced 250 perfume bottles that came empty of scent. Fashion junkies rushed to buy them none the less.