In the S/S 12 issue of Bon Magazine, writer Anja Aronowsky Cronberg investigated the origins of what appear to be “African” textiles. Specifically the brightly coloured wax prints that can be found everywhere from markets in Ghana to Dalston in London and even my local shop in Seven Sisters, where they’re made up into the most awesome Church going ensembles you’ll ever see. Cronberg discussed our collective vision of Africana and the fact that we think represents an “African” aesthetic actually comes from Holland. In the town of Helmond, since 1846, the Dutch textiles company Vlisco has been exporting Real Dutch Wax fabrics. It’s a tale of a strange cultural assimilation, caused by colonial occupation and trade routes. The batik technique came from Indonesia, formerly known as the Dutch East Indies, when was then industrialised back in Holland. The fabric was then exported to the Gold Coast in West Africa (present-day Ghana) and was made popular there. From then on end, Vlisco began to cater to the West African market, incorporating local tastes like incorporated leaders’ faces into designs. With cheap Chinese copies flooding the market, you’re likely to see any number of kitsch motifs like mobile phones or pop culture icons worked into the cloth.
This was the first thing that came to mind when I went to visit Viktor & Rolf preparing their haute couture collection in Paris in a temporary atelier, before their show on Thursday. Giant babydoll dresses literally exploded with that familiar “African” wax print (I did point out, like a number of other reviewers, the “Flowerbomb” reference but the duo were unaware of the irony). All the fabrics were specially created by Vlisco using one singular flower motif which then build up in colour as the silhouettes progress. Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren said they wanted an upbeat and cheerful collection. That seems like a facile explanation, especially when you delve into the origins of the fabric and consider the eerie use of the Rosemary Baby’s lullaby in the show soundtrack. By choosing to use this Real Dutch Wax cloth, Horsting and Snoeren strengthen that original Dutch connection but also seek to elevate what we see as a “cheap” cloth to new heights. It follows on from similar mono-focus haute couture collections centered around printed tattoo latex and red carpet dresses. This approach feels singular and relevant as we constantly try and define the parameters of haute couture. How does it become more “real” or “modern” or “new”? Horsting and Snoeren’s answer is to use fabrics that almost have a day-to-day familiarity for us and completely flip their context.
Snoeren and Horsting’s penchant for the surreal and a play on proportions and perceptions,really comes into its own as smocking is enlarged on dresses that are inspired by baby’s dresses. Petticoats are layered up to extremes, reminiscent of that brilliant S/S 10 hole-filled tulle collection. The prints build up in colour and also transform from 2-D surface to 3-D . They appear to grow from the fabric, picked out by cut-out flowers lifted up by an invisible force of nature. Even the black outline of the wax cloth lifts off in an outward direction. It was lovely to see Horsting and Snoeren’s transplanted Amsterdam atelier at work in Paris, piecing these delicate ensembles together. On the head, stalks of wheat, elongated by carbon fibres are woven into mad feats of millinery. They reference fellow Dutchman Vincent van Gogh and his Wheat Fields series. “I put my heart and soul in my work and have lost my mind in the process,” is a van Gogh quote used in the press release and is an appropriate summation of how Horsting and Snoeren approached this collection.
Some might see the show as a pointless exercise – one that serves no purpose other than theatrical indulgence. As a counterpoint though to their increasingly commercial ready to wear, this is Horsting and Horsting having complete carte blanche to push their atelier to an extreme. And for me extremity in any form in fashion is definitely something to be commended. As it turns out, art collector Han Nefkens has bought three of the dresses already and they will be donated to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. That’s a purpose in itself as these growing bucolic silhouettes can be seen as an artform. As for wearers? V&R’s last red carpet haute couture collection was wittily worn…errrm, on the red carpet. Someone will have the chutzpah to do the same.