PARIS — A fast pace, many deadlines and fierce competition.
That’s how Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren describe today’s designer ready-to-wear business, and their rationale for halting the Viktor & Rolf women’s and men’s collections, leaving them to concentrate on couture, fragrances and special projects.
“Creatively restricting,” they concurred about rtw, citing “artistic and creative motives” for the shutdown, which will be effective following the fall 2015 season.
Italian industrialist Renzo Rosso, whose group OTB SpA holds a majority stake in Viktor & Rolf, called it “a strategic decision to position the Viktor & Rolf brand in the highest luxury segment of fashion.”
Sometimes described as the Gilbert and George of fashion, the Dutch design duo is to skip the runway during Paris Fashion Week next month, and present their final women’s rtw collection by appointment. The Viktor & Rolf flagship here on Rue Saint Honoré — its walls, floors, stairs and fixtures wallpapered in gray felt — is to go dark in early 2016.
The development echoed last fall’s bombshell when French designer Jean Paul Gaultier said he would stop rtw after a 38-year career to focus on high fashions and the perfume business it fuels, along with special projects.
“A strange coincidence,” Paris-based industry consultant Jean-Jacques Picart told WWD. “It confirms that the rhythm and the pressure of a worldwide fashion industry are too strong. Some designers are well surrounded by an appropriate staff and can face that pressure, while some others are not.”
The Viktor & Rolf retrenchment also signaled that midsize fashion players are often vulnerable without a cash-cow leather goods business and global store network — and in the face of luxury megabrands, hot contemporary chains and fast-fashion behemoths.
“One has to acknowledge the fact that there is no reason at all to end a successful ready-to-wear line that both retailers and consumers buy,” noted Picart, who has recently been vocal about a “saturation” of brands and collections. “Manufacturers’ brands such as Sandro, Maje and H&M are delivering more and more attractive collections every month.”
As a consequence, Picart predicted that “big name” rtw players are going to become “more and more sophisticated and special.”
Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs a namesake executive search and consulting firm in Paris, noted that Apple now ranks as one of China’s most desirable luxury brands, raising the bar even higher for fashion players.
“Expressing the zeitgeist through the best of innovation, the best design and excellence in execution are what make brands desirable,” she said.
One market source speculated that the V&R rtw business was probably loss-making, noting: “It’s difficult to keep a business alive without a profitable accessories and footwear division. The most successful brands also have a significant accessories business, for example Saint Laurent and Valentino or Céline. Keeping couture alive may also help fuel the fragrance business.”
Prized for their conceptual approach to fashion and reverence for glamour, Horsting and Snoeren began staging fashion performances in Paris in the Nineties, coming to prominence in 1993 by winning a grand prize at the International Festival of Fashion and Photography in Hyères, France.
Two of fashion’s consummate showmen, Snoeren and Horsting have incorporated elements such as fog, black light and makeup, pyrotechnics and cinematic blue light technology into their shows.
Childhood friends, they started collaborating after graduating from the Netherlands’ Arnhem Academy, initially taking an art-based approach that didn’t always garner much attention. They were once so frustrated with the lack of notice they received from the press that the designers staged a strike in lieu of a collection — plastering Paris with posters announcing the fact.
They started showing during Paris Couture Week in 1998, mounting spectacles featuring clothes shaped like atomic-bomb clouds, decorated with foot-deep ruffles or covered in thousands of bells. For their Russian Doll collection in 1999, the designers dressed tiny Maggie Rizer rotating on a turntable in nine layers of crystal-studded finery, creating a sensation.
In an interview in 2000, when the Groninger Museum hosted a major exhibition devoted to their oeuvre, Snoeren held out hope that people would see “fashion as a lot more than a jacket on a hanger in a store. I think there’s a lot more to it. It’s a broader phenomenon than just buying clothes.”
In subsequent years, they layered on more serious business components, launching women’s rtw in 2000, men’s wear in 2003 and an array of signature fragrances with L’Oréal, ignited by the hit Flowerbomb, introduced in 2005. They followed up with scents including Eau Mega, Antidote, Spicebomb and most recently Bonbon, housed in a striking bow-shaped bottle.
When the latter scent was unveiled in January 2014 at a Viktor & Rolf couture show featuring dancers walking en pointe in flesh-toned latex dresses, L’Oréal estimated Flowerbomb to be among the top 16 prestige women’s fragrances worldwide.
“We are confident that our strong collaboration with Viktor & Rolf will continue to see the launch of many successful fragrances,” a L’Oréal spokeswoman said on Tuesday.
In 2006, they teamed with H&M for a onetime collection hinged on wedding dresses that unleashed pandemonium in stores.
When Rosso’s OTB acquired Viktor & Rolf in 2008, revenues were about 10 million euros, or $12.2 million at current exchange rates, and the plan was to expand the product offering in rtw and pursue brand extensions via licensing, much as OTB did with Maison Martin Margiela.
At the time of the deal, Snoeren said he hoped the partnership would release him and Horsting from excessive business pressures, leaving them free to focus on design.
“What we noticed working with L’Oréal is that a good business partner can bring opportunities that we ourselves could never realize,” he said at the time. “We want to achieve the same thing with the ready-to-wear.”
The designers’ frustrations with the endless deadlines of fashion were voiced loud and clear on their fall 2008 runway, with clothes declaring in protruding 3-D letters: “No.”
The duo returned to couture after a 13-year absence in 2013, but has been playing to a smaller audience. Their most recent collection was devoted to floral babydoll dresses that exploded with 3-D embroideries hoisted on giant straw hats.
Today, Viktor & Rolf ships its rtw collections for men and women to about 100 specialty stores, and has an eyewear license with Japan’s Murai, plus a sublicense to Paget for European markets.
In December 2013, when the designers christened their 5,400-square-foot Paris store, it was to set a template for future expansion, with the designers calling it the first of “at least five” Viktor & Rolf stores to come and listing New York, London, Tokyo and Los Angeles among initial priorities.
Yet on Tuesday, the designers sounded sanguine about the end of their dalliance with rtw and retail.
“By letting go of it, we gain more time and freedom,” Horsting and Snoeren said. “We feel a strong need to refocus on our artistic roots. We have always used fashion to communicate — it is our primary means of artistic expression.
“We are extremely excited to push the boundaries of our vision in new, unexpected territories,” they added.