BG Conversation: the Olivier Theyskens’ Theory
Bergdorf Goodman Voice
Olivier Theyskens, 34, has been designing professionally for 14 years but drawing dresses since he was seven years old. The slim Belgian dropped out of fashion college to create his own line in 1997, but despite attracting such clients as Madonna, he suffered a fatal lack of financing. In 2002 he was appointed creative director of Rochas, where his spectacularly demi-couture creations attracted a who’s who clientele of movie stars and socialites. The year 2006 was a wild ride: first he won a CFDA award, then Rochas’ parent company Procter & Gamble shut the house down, and finally Theyskens landed on his feet at Nina Ricci, where he produced a series of enormously influential collections. When Ricci didn’t renew his contract, Theyskens took a break to think, then signed on with Andrew Rosen to create a collection for Theory, and shortly thereafter he was named the brand’s artistic director. Theyskens’ Theory debuts at Bergdorf Goodman this spring. Here he visits with Arianne Phillips, the Oscar-nominated costume designer who, with her client Madonna, was among Theyskens’ first boosters. On the phone was Glenn O’Brien.
Arianne Phillips: Hi Glenn, it’s Arianne. I am with Olivier in L.A..
Glenn O’Brien: Hi! I’m in Connecticut and it’s really, really cold here.
Olivier Theyskens: Ah hello! Here in L.A. it’s very warm. It’s great.
G: Well, it’s nice here even though it’s cold. We’ve got a fire going and a little champagne, so you have to say all the smart things.
O: That’s good because I had two Bloody Marys.
G: We’re on the same page then. You two have been friends for a long time?
A: I don’t even know the year we met.
O: We met in ’98.
G: Inez and Vinoodh had something to do with it?
A: Yes. I was doing a shoot with them of Madonna. She was promoting “Ray of Light” and they brought a couple of Olivier’s pieces from Paris and we were completely intrigued by them. Inez gave me his first collection book; it was like a newspaper.
O: I had a friend in Belgium that shot it. I had no budget, so we did it printed like a newspaper. I made only 50 of them, and I sent it to 50 people and Inez was one. And I received a fax from Inez on my birthday, the 4th of January, saying they liked the looks in this picture, and that picture, and that picture. So I packed the pieces up and sent them.
A: I had never worked with them before and they brought these with them. I guess they didn’t trust the stylist. (laughter) And I was completely intrigued by the intelligence of these things. It was just not like anything else, and shortly thereafter, I went to the press office representing Olivier in Paris and I struck up a friendship with his PR person.
O: We met then. You were staying in Paris at the Crillon.
A: We hung out. We all spent the night together—a whole bunch of us in the bed,
a big group of boys and girls.
G: How big was the bed?
A: (laughs) Well, it was the Crillon, so it was magnificent. When I met Olivier and the people that he knew I felt like I was meeting kindred spirits with this young, wonderful energy.
O: I was still in Brussels then, an hour and thirty minutes by train. I was just out of school. I had been doing these clothes on my own, in my little apartment, but I would come all the time to Paris. Then I made these pictures and I had a friend in the agency that eventually took my collection, and he sent the book to 50 people. It started just like that, when I sent the clothing for that shoot. That’s why I am very happy Arianne is here. She was really involved in the very beginning.
A: You were so young, but the fabrications were really forward. Remember the dress Madonna wore with the rubber texture corset? It showed really incredible intelligence. Madonna and I connected to what he was doing on a narrative level, because his clothes felt like they told a story. We went on an Olivier Theyskens binge and Madonna was wearing his clothes all the time, to the Oscars, to the San Remo Festival, and people were asking about Olivier. Polly Mellen was at Allure, and she came running up to me–
I didn’t really know her–and she said, “You’re so right about Olivier! A genius!” Being bum-rushed by Polly Mellen was a highlight in my life.
O: Polly is a fantastic person. She helped a lot.
A: I’m not really a part of the fashion industry but all the people that really embraced and supported Olivier, like Polly and Sally Singer, are people I really appreciate.
G: Were you a Madonna fan, Olivier?
O: I’m from the generation that was doing a lot of playback on her. Personally, I have never really been a fan type, idolizing a performer, but I always followed her evolution and appreciated her personality.
G: Did she wear your clothes in the way you kind of intended them to be worn?
O: She wore them amazingly. I remember that she made her hair black. That was very bold. So I felt like this is a person who can be told an idea and go for it totally, to the point of being an incarnation of that idea. That’s very rare. Not many people are able to change themselves and adapt to something like that. But also I like the person to stay true to themselves and use what I’ve done with their own perspective.
G: You’re young and working for big companies. Was that difficult?
O: Actually, I was young working for little companies. When I started working for Rochas, I was 25 but Rochas had nothing. It was an empty shell. We had to bring everything in. I had been doing my own collection with seven employees and when I did Rochas at the beginning we probably were eight, and at the end we were twenty, so it was a very little company, one little micro entity that was doing fashion in this ultra huge group that was more about perfume or chemicals. We stayed like we were, until the moment when it was not very constructive, and it was better that we did not continue with something we were not able to take care of.
A: Think of the imprint that you and Rochas made on fashion at that time.
O: You don’t have to be very big to make a big impression. I think that the work of a little team can be very intense, very focused and because the focus was very strong, the impression was bigger. It was an amazing experience, and all the people that were involved within that project were really well taken care of when it closed.
A: How long has it been since Nina Ricci?
O: I’ve had a little bit of time for myself. I think that the last show was March ‘09 or something like that. I had a year for me, and I had time to really think about myself and about what I was really willing to do. I felt I wanted to go back to something more personal and to what I am, a guy out of Belgium who travels a lot but doesn’t feel part of a very particular culture of clothing. I want to make a collection that I feel is right for today. I was willing to do something more democratic, making clothes at a more broad level. When I was explaining what I wanted to do to people in New York, they would say maybe you should visit the store of that brand Theory. You can see what they’re able to do with that price point and that quality. So I would go to the store and look at the clothes and it was striking. I had a chance to speak about that with Andrew Rosen, the CEO of Theory. I was just sharing ideas and he really appreciated them and proposed to support this project immediately. So we started making this collection. I had the idea to give a special name to the collection: Theyskens’ Theory. He brought the support of his staff to this project and I was very inspired by the people there and the capacity they have to do clothes. And I’ve also started working on the global brand, which is very interesting.
A: When I look at the collections, it feels like it has your DNA. I feel like we are coming back to what we need from you, that essential silhouette of the cool girl. And now your clothes are going to be accessible to a generation that maybe couldn’t afford them before. That is super exciting. One important thing about Olivier’s clothes is how beautifully tailored they are and how well they fit. The silhouette is so specific and it has really echoed through the last few years of what’s going on in fashion. So to be able to see Olivier work in a context that is accessible on a much broader level is great. Rochas was only available to a select amount of people— it was so coveted.
O: I was looking to do a collection at a more democratic price point, but where you are able to do super good quality clothing with designer ideas inside and make something special. To do that you need a lot of support from a really super good team. And this is what Andrew and the Theory staff made realistic. It’s about working with people who have knowledge and who enable me to spend a lot of time fitting and really working on the clothes and making them look the way I want. I work every day on fitting.
G: Has your creative process changed?
O: What changed is that I had the possibility to come back to the processes I was using when I started. I came back to being close to the pattern making and connected with the people who are sewing.
A: But you’re really working on construction.
O: Yes, I’m really involved in the process of the making, because everything is actually done there. A lot of people have asked if it was hard to adapt to this, supposing that I had to adapt to a new way of making the clothes, but actually it’s not adapting at all.
G: It must be interesting, after being basically a couturier, to see your clothes on a lot of people.
O: Yeah, it’s fantastic. Theyskens’ Theory suits the cool girls, and it speaks to more people. It’s an amazing change to be able to bring your ideas to a lot of people. I feel super lucky to be able to really build a story with them.
A: Has it made you re-think who the ideal Theyskens customer is?
O: I think about how I would dress if I were a cool girl.
A: You dress well as a cool boy.
O: I think that if I would be a cool girl, I would also have other clothes too, not only Theyskens’ Theory. But I would find in Theyskens’ Theory what I need. So I think about how I can bring in new ideas and also things that are hard to find right now. Strangely, I think it’s not that easy to find a perfect, really modern-looking blouse, or a perfect cool tank top. I like to be focused on that jewel. That’s why I like naming the collection Theyskens’ Theory, because I can work on generics and on design things also. I want the collection very balanced in its entire proposition, going from jackets to jeans and T-shirts, to simple knitwear or more intricate things, like beautifully cut silk pants. It’s proportion that makes the people see the point of view of the designer on the whole wardrobe and this is very important. It’s also the way I dress. I like to mix simple things with more special things. I would never put 10 special things on me at any moment.
A: You’re living between New York and Paris, right?
O: I’m a travel-holic. The first plane I took, I was probably 19. The minute I could start traveling, I really didn’t stop. This last weekend I went to the other side of earth for the weekend. I need to travel all the time now, actually.
A: Looking at your collection, it’s for that girl who’s really chic and she’s traveling. She can mix and match all those things and put them in a suitcase, and they’ll look good when she puts them on.
O: I want the clothes to have some ease, and you can throw them around. I like it, even if they aren’t perfectly ironed. It’s really also about the pleasure of cities. We are so global. When you travel, you see the energy that is evolving everywhere, and I try to fuse that into my work.
G: I love the name Theory, and it’s not only a good name, but it works well with your name attached.
O: The Theory name – the letters were so close to mine, like Theyskens’ Theory. Even the way it’s written looks similar. It’s a very strong name, and to be able to name it Theyskens’ Theory means something, it’s like my theory.
A: I mean I always think of it as ideas that are in process.
O: The attitude for clothes is really quite close to the one I had. I started in the same year as Theory, in ‘97. I was also bringing my collection from generics, like simple wool pants, super clean bias-cut shirting. It was a moment in fashion where we really wanted to stabilize and have things that were minimal and well cut, that would make you look better. I totally understand the rules of the brand. I was sharing this idea a little bit in the way I was doing my own collection—a lot of items with perfect tailoring, things done in a really clean way. The name Theory is great for that purpose. It’s really about integrity, the way the clothes have to be well done, with the right materials, with the right quality.
The Bergdorf Goodman Conversations are conducted and edited by Glenn O’Brien. BG