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Viktor and Rolf on Art, Commerce and Superstition

The design duo talks art and new directions with WWD.

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren

Who knew Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren were so superstitious? Whenever the Amsterdam-based Viktor & Rolf designers fly, they always touch pinkie to pinkie, in a handshake of sorts, each time they land. “It started out a very, very, very long time ago as a full-hand high-five,” explains Horsting. “Now, it’s become like this.” They demonstrate for clarification. “And if we travel separately,” adds Snoeren, “we always text each other when we land.” Horsting chimes back in: “We’re very superstitious.”

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The designers tell this story when, seated in the 35th-floor lobby of New York’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Wednesday morning, a visitor asks them about the ad campaign they’re shooting that day with longtime collaborators Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. It’s for a new fragrance with L’Oréal — their fourth with the company, after Flowerbomb, Antidote and Eau Mega — and that’s about all they’ll let slip.

“It’s bad luck to talk about things in advance,” remarks Horsting, delving into another case-in-point anecdote of how, at a party the night before their spring 2003 show, they told someone about their worst fear: losing control. “The next day, the whole show, the production, the organization, went totally out of hand,” he says. “Afterward, we realized that we strongly believe that once you express something, it’s the start of making it a reality. This is why we’re very cautious about expressing things before.”

In other words, thank you for asking, but no comment on this upcoming fragrance launch. They will say that, of all the possible brand extensions, beauty is a category on which they place much weight. Even before they launched ready-to-wear in 2000, Horsting and Snoeren had ambitions of doing a scent. “Perfume is an integral part of fashion, it’s an important part of the dream and fantasy of fashion,” says Horsting. “The directness is appealing to us. With a collection, it’s always a chain [of events] — you have a show, shops buy it, they don’t all buy the same and the show image may not be exactly the same as what you encounter in the store. With perfumes, you don’t have that. It is what it is. It’s a very direct experience.”

It’s also become one of the more successful endeavors for the designers. According to The NPD Group, Flowerbomb was the number-one fragrance in fine department stores for 2009, and, as of September, for 2010 as well. “Our big ambition is to do something that is both creative and commercially viable,” Horsting says. “Flowerbomb proves you can do that.” Not bad for a pair whose first foray into the market was the 1997 launch of Viktor and Rolf Le Parfum, a fake scent in a sealed bottle. “Well, there was no real career in fashion for us yet, but we had a lot of big ambition,” Horsting explains of the art stunt, while Snoeren adds that “we didn’t know how to realize [the fragrance] in the real world, so we thought, let’s fake it.”

While Horsting and Snoeren continue to flex those witty and conceptual muscles, they’re long past the days of struggling to ground their flights of fancy with something more wearable — a point underscored by the 2008 acquisition of the firm by Renzo Rosso’s Staff International. Since then, the designers have beefed up their men’s wear presence with a return to the runway this year.

“We noticed it’s really helping,” says Snoeren, noting that next month the men’s presentation will be much bigger than their previous showroom outings. They’re also working on a new store in Paris — “it makes a lot of sense now because we’ve always considered Paris to be our fashion home,” Horsting remarks — but declines to disclose any details, except to say that it won’t be “upside down” like the Milan flagship.

“It’s been quite a revolution behind the scenes,” says Snoeren of joining the Rosso roster, which includes Maison Martin Margiela. “It’s very product-oriented now, making sure the price quality is right, everything is well-positioned…. Because it’s not about having a great idea for collections; it’s really about how to translate this into something that’s very salable and commercial.”

When they do indulge in runway showpieces — spring’s gigantic, stiffly sleeved and cuffed gown, for example — Snoeren notes that “strangely enough, they’re always sold.” The buyers? The museum set. Horsting recalls a humorous incident before their 2008 retrospective at London’s Barbican Art Gallery in which they weren’t allowed to touch their own designs. There was one in particular, the multicollared finale from their Tilda Swinton-inspired fall 2003 show, owned by the Kyoto Costume Institute, that the designers had hoped to resteam. “We said, we have to touch it,” he says. “But no, for [the curator], it was set in stone. It was a strange paradox for us.”

This weekend, the duo is getting a larger dose of museum world — they’re attending Art Basel in Miami. It’s their second time at the show; last year, they hosted an event at The Webster boutique. “It was such a great combination of beach and art,” says Snoeren, “…that we decided to pop over and spend the weekend there,” finishes Horsting. They start tonight, with both a dinner at The Webster headlined by Swinton and a Visionaire party to celebrate the publication’s Fairytale issue, to which the designers contributed a story. (Their own 2009 book of fairytales “Sprookjes” will be translated into English next year.)

And while the two note that business will be on the brain — “we did say to each other, this weekend we’re going to focus on summer 2012,” says Horsting — they’re also going for the art. The Dutchmen are fans of Justin Cooper and Rita Ackermann, and hope to swing by the NADA Art Fair at the Deauville Beach Resort.

Asked whether the designers, who toured New York’s Andrea Rosen Gallery yesterday, are there to scout for a future art-fashion collaboration, they respond later, via e-mail, “We are our own art fashion collaboration all in one.”