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Olivier Theyskens can watch the new home of the Whitney Museum being built as he works. On a warm spring day last week, the designer was facing out from the steel and glass conference room in the Theory Meatpacking District headquarters and tapping the glass with a finger. Theyskens indicated the frame of the museum taking form a few blocks south on Gansevoort Street, near the alternate atelier where he works on the collections for Theory that also carry his name. It’s fitting then that Theyskens will be an honorary cochair for the annual Whitney Art Party on Wednesday at Skylight Soho. (That Theory has pledged support for the annual party surely has something to do with it as well.) Funds raised will go toward the Whitney’s Independent Study program. Theyskens took some time from finishing up his resort collection to speak with WWD about his involvement with the museum and his takes on fashion, art and where the two intersect.
WWD: Are there any new artists in particular that you’re interested in right now?
Olivier Theyskens: That’s where I think it’s great to be involved with an institution like the Whitney. For me, it’s very hard — I never feel like I’m experienced enough to spot one particular person as a great new artist. I feel like [the Whitney Museum] is a great tool, it’s so strong and instrumental in the profile of new artists, and the way they support [them]. So I think it’s good that we are able to help an institution that is finding out who will count in the future — who I as an individual would not be able to spot.
WWD: You have the reputation as an artist in your own right with your designs.
O.T.: I think the relationship is very tenuous, between fashion and art. Many designers have built relationships with artists, which is not something I personally did. But it’s true, sometimes you see artists working for a designer or a brand on some specific project or taking care of their environment and making an amazing store. You have great partnerships happening and popping up between the art scene and the fashion scene. I think also that you have designers that have methodology that can be sort of artistic. Personally, I have had sometimes moments where I thought my idea behind the idea of a collection — the concept maybe — something that we don’t see at the end on the catwalk, I think the way it was, the genesis in my mind, was probably artistic, an artistic approach. But I still keep, you know, sort of distance between what is fashion and what is art.
WWD: Well, Julien Claessens [whose Assouline book “Olivier Theyskens: The Other Side of the Picture” is a collection of backstage photographs from various Theyskens shows] refers to you as a “conceptual artist,” rather than fashion designer.
O.T.: Because he doesn’t see me working every day! [laughs] If he saw me working every day the dream would just go like, ‘Pfft!’ No, I think it’s important to keep the way you see things highly sensitive to beauty, to concepts, to, you know, things that are not necessarily so concrete: at the end it makes a chemical, a bit of magic…but it has to be like spice. Sometimes I feel something more intense and I feel there is probably an increase of talent input, suddenly, a good thing going on, and suddenly the level of design gets elevated. So I try to be sensitive to these kind of things.
WWD: There seem to be two arguments: one being that fashion is art, reflecting changes in contemporary culture, the other that it’s a creative business, and that’s it.
O.T.: Well, art is the way people see things, and I think it’s great when individuals can find in fashion something they truly believe is artistic. And I think sometimes you have artists who are not conscious of how artistic they are….To me, I’m the kind of person who never really likes to put a fence between things. But as a person who is in women’s fashion, as someone who is a part of a company like Theory, supporting an event connected with art doesn’t mean we’re artists. It means we’re a brand, a fashion brand, and we’re proud to support an event on the arts scene.