The odd couple: The wacky world of Viktor & Rolf

From fashionistas' favourite to high-street hit, Susannah Frankel charts the rise and rise of the quirky Dutch duo who've got designs on your (and everyone else's) wardrobe
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The Independent Online

Commuters travelling through London's busiest high streets may well have witnessed a well-mannered queue of fashion followers waiting patiently outside the doors of the Swedish retail giant H&M this Thursday morning. Following the immensely high profile launch of capsule collections for the chain courtesy first of Karl Lagerfeld (this sold out in a matter of minutes in 2004) and Stella McCartney (also a hit, in 2005) it was now the turn of the Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, known in fashion circles simply as Viktor & Rolf, to collaborate with the store.

According to the powers that be at H&M, clothing sold like hotcakes throughout the day and was duly replenished - a beige and black trench coat with a heart-shaped buckle and black pea coat (both priced £79.99) have so far been among the best-sellers. The Viktor & Rolf for H&M wedding dress, meanwhile - a snip at the original cost of £219.99 - is, perhaps predictably, already for sale on eBay. To "buy it now", brides-to-be will be asked to part with no less than £1,200 - and the figure is rising. But then this is perhaps a small price to pay given that, in 2004, the pair outfitted the wedding party for the televised nuptials of Prince Johan Friso of the Netherlands to Mabel Wisse Smit, the bride in a duchesse satin gown festooned with more than 250 bows and trailing a 10-foot train.

"We kind of have a fetish for wedding dresses," Rolf Snoeren told the American trade paper Women's Wear Daily when the H&M link-up was first announced. "You can't imagine a piece of clothing that is more exclusive or symbolic."

Despite the fact that Viktor & Rolf are nowhere near as well-known as their predecessors, their latest move would have been difficult to miss. If the ultra-glamorous press campaign shot by the superstar photographers Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin were not enough, TV advertising throughout this week will have ensured that Viktor & Rolf have by now become Holland's most famous export. And this would please the pair, often-dubbed the Gilbert & George of fashion, no end.

Despite their left-field status - they rose to fame curating determinedly postmodern exhibitions in galleries across Europe and stage highly conceptual off-schedule couture shows - they insist: "We want to grow and progress, to get a more immediate dialogue with our audience, and to make clothes people want to wear."

Horsting and Snoeren were both born in the Netherlands in 1969 and met while studying fashion at the Academy of Arts in Arnhem, graduating in 1992. They moved to Paris - Horsting's father drove them in his car piled with their worldly possessions - and took up residence in a tiny apartment there. Their first collection, which comprised oversized coats and ballgowns crafted out of old shirts and a giant trouser suit with elongated crotch and sleeves, won them the prestigious Hyeres fashion talent contest in 1993.

"We just thought, let's go to Paris and be fashion designers," they have since said. "It was all so open back then, which was scary but also invigorating."

Viktor & Rolf spent the early Nineties serving apprenticeships with the Belgian designer Martin Margiela and with Jean Colonna by day and creating their own garments after hours. If time and budget decreed that they didn't have time for the latter, they made the most of that fact, on one memorable occasion putting up fly-posters of a photocopied magazine all over the French fashion capital, the cover of which announced: Viktor & Rolf on strike!" It was a characteristically brave - even arrogant - move and one that served them well.

Given the extremity of their designs and the conceptual approach that underpinned any viewpoint, however, Viktor & Rolf were at this point a little too high-brow to win the hearts of the fashion mainstream. They found themselves courted by the art establishment instead. In 1997 they moved back to Amsterdam and took up residence in a town house. The Torch Gallery ran a series of Viktor & Rolf shows, the most famous of which featured an entire collection created in miniature along with an ad campaign and limited edition fragrance. The 250 bottles sold immediately and this despite the fact that they were empty of scent. "We thought if we can't create this world for real, then let's do it in miniature," they told The Independent not long afterwards, "so that we can feel like kings in our own little world".

Viktor & Rolf's first bona fide couture show was held in Paris a little over a year later. However, it wasn't until their sensationally titled 1998 Atomic Bomb collection, staged off-schedule in a suitably down-at-heel venue in the French fashion capital and featuring garments stuffed to resemble giant mushroom explosions, that fashion finally fell in love with Viktor & Rolf. The mushroom cloud dress, in particular made the pages of Time magazine, named picture of the week. There followed the Russian Doll collection -the model Maggie Rizer was dressed by Viktor & Rolf in the full glare of the spotlight in no less than 10 haute couture outfits, piled one on top of the other, until she was positively gasping under the weight of them all. Then, in March 2000, Viktor & Rolf branched out into the rather more accessible ready-to-wear, highlighting any new-found commerciality by dedicating their collection to America, and cutting the clothes entirely in red, white and blue. Overnight, the designers made the move from creators of extraordinary one-off garments aimed squarely at the fashion insider to global recognition. "For us, it was a symbol of globalisation and our wish to make the Viktor & Rolf label a major force," they told me at the time.

From there on in, Viktor & Rolf have never looked back. As well as women's and men's wear, there are now Viktor & Rolf fragrances - Flowerbomb for her, Antidote for him - a Milan flagship store - featuring upside-down chandeliers and window displays - and lingerie. Despite now being an internationally recognised brand, and with a signature that relies heavily on the staples of bourgeois French fashion to boot, their twice-yearly women's wear shows continue to make the more traditional catwalk presentation seem about as interesting as a weekly shop at Tesco.

Viktor & Rolf are also among the greatest showmen the fashion world has ever seen. For spring/ summer 2001 they appeared in their own finale, dressed as 1930s matinee idols and tap-dancing to the big band sounds of "Putting on the Ritz" and "Singin' in the Rain". Next, they painted the world's most fêted models black from head-to-toe - hair, faces, limbs and clothes were all daubed with the inky hue. For spring/ summer 2003, more models danced round their handbags in frilly dresses covered in flowers beneath a disco ball in a Paris nightclub.

Safe in the knowledge that the odd celebrity appearance is always a good thing where guaranteeing media attention is concerned, meanwhile, Viktor & Rolf have, in the past few years, enlisted the services of everyone from Tilda Swinton to Tori Amos and, most recently, Rufus Wainwright who provided the soundtrack for their spring/summer 2007 collection shown in Paris last month. "Somewhere over the rainbow," he crooned.

In the end, though, the secret of Viktor & Rolf's success lies firmly with the clothes.

"For us, couture is the most sublime form of fashion, where artistry and concept can interact freely" they explain. "This is our history, the reason we love fashion and how we started. We like to refer to classics and to give them a twist. Everyone can easily identify with the trench coat or the little black dress or the tuxedo. Some might find these bourgeois but we see these as iconic pieces of the perfect wardrobe."

And so a Viktor & Rolf white shirt might possess a collar layered like the leaves of an antiquarian book; a blouse may come complete with not just one pussy-bow but positively weighed down with them; a little black dress might be dipped in silver as a reference to the Dutch tradition of coating baby's shoes in silver to preserve them for posterity.

It would be all too easy to dismiss Viktor & Rolf as self-knowing marketeers. Their at times ironic approach towards the industry they work in belies the unbridled romance that lies at the core of their aesthetic, however.

"All the women's clothes have hearts, and all the men's clothes have arrows," Snoeren told Women's Wear Daily when the collaboration with H&M was first announced. There could be few more direct ways to communicate a little touch of escapism.