Partager l'article

In Olivier Theyskens’ studio: meeting with an inspired fashion designer

Olivier Theyskens recently presented his Spring-Summer 2021 ready-to-wear collection digitally for his eponymous brand. Paying homage to Mylène Farmer, the pieces in this collection – lavaliere shirts, long black dresses with volume, corsets, houndstooth jackets and pants – illustrate the technical virtuosity of this Belgian designer and are in perfect harmony with the neo-romantic style and the sensual silhouettes that have made his signature style. Earlier in July, the designer also designed his first collection for Azzaro, following his appointment as the house’s artistic director in February 2020. At 43, the Belgian designer is a busy man.  

A former student of La Cambre in Brussels, the couturier already has a vast career behind him, taking on the artistic direction of Rochas and Nina Ricci and then recruited, in 2010, by Andrew Rosen to relaunch the Theory brand. A former stylist at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, he also designed the costumes for an opera by Verdi. His creations have been worn and mediatized by stars such as Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Mylène Farmer.

Behind a glass front, in his new atelier nestled in a courtyard in the 3rd arrondissement, a cheerful playlist is on, overlaid by the sound of sewing machines. Sitting on a white sofa, coffee in hand, all dressed in black, his long black hair in a ponytail, the designer welcomes us into a sober and soothing universe, typical of what you would imagine coming from him.

We met with Olivier Theyskens just before the announcement of a second lockdown in France to talk about his latest collections, his creative vision, his inspirations, and his view on the evolution of the industry in these uncertain times.

Olivier Theyskens

Acumen: How is this period going for you?

Olivier Theyskens: If only we could be in post-COVID … Who knows when we will be able to say that we have finally entered the post-COVID period! We realize today to what extent a phenomenon that started on the other side of the world impacts us so quickly. All sectors are affected. As a creative person, I have a nice role: I can always imagine what will happen next. We are expected to have ideas and continue to contribute something positive.


I was rather under the impression that the creative sector was more affected by the pandemic than other areas, wasn’t it?

Economically and in the fashion industry, yes, definitely. Through my work, I saw that the first to be affected by the pandemic were the factories in Lombardy that supplied us. A lot of people in Italy quickly became ill. The factories had to close while we continued to work normally in Paris, unaware of what was going to happen. We were entering Paris Fashion Week, the guests were crowded in front of the catwalks, the parties were taking place. We were still naïve.

Olivier Theyskens

How did you experience the presentation of your Spring-Summer 2021 collection for your brand, at the beginning of October?

We simply showed pictures. Everything went very well and I had very good feedback. But in terms of experience, it’s still strange. Normally, there’s adrenaline and a lot of pressure from the event, the public, and the community that’s gathered. However, for this collection, I worked very hard for a moment that lasted only ten minutes. The stressful moments took place before the shooting. Everything was done by our small team in our Parisian studio. We wanted everything to be perfect, but this presentation was much calmer than a fashion show.


Was there less stress?

It was more that the stress couldn’t be released after a runway show. Normally, after a fashion show, you want to go for a drink to relieve the stress, but in this case, we just sent the pictures by email, and that was it. Even if we want it to be perfect and we want to create emotion, 2D doesn’t provide what the real thing can offer in terms of emotions. When you look at the photos of a real fashion show in front of an audience, you can imagine yourself in the place of the audience. It’s pretty dull and different when there is no audience.


Can you tell us how Mylène Farmer inspired you? 

During the confinement in March, I plunged back into my adolescence and rediscovered the love I had for Mylène Farmer and her world. At the time, I wasn’t trying to analyze it, but rediscovering my memories allowed me to understand how much she contributed to forging the adult I have become.


Since you relaunched your brand, how has your approach evolved?   

My style evolves all the time. Between the time I stopped creating my own collections in 2002 and my relaunch in 2016, there was a long interval. Creatively, it was a kind of a way to reposition myself, through a search for identity, a link with the past in parallel with a quest for contemporaneity. We were really like a start-up, and we were starting to move away from that mode of operation. But with the arrival of the health crisis, I feel like a start-up, now more than ever. Over the years, we have adopted a particular model that suits me well and which has allowed me to adapt quickly to any situation. I feel very free, as expressed by my collection. We did everything ourselves in the atelier with a lot of passion and humor. We refocused and concentrated on what we could do without moving. So we used deadstocks, i.e. stocks of materials left over from old productions.

Olivier Theyskens

How did you experience the first quarantine?

It’s horrible to say, but for me it came at the right time. We had just finished an intense period, and the confinement arrived like a forced vacation that did me no harm. I had worked a lot, I was tired and needed to refocus. My new collaboration with Azzaro was beginning and I needed time for myself to reflect and take a breather.


Speaking of, how did your start at Azzaro go while working remotely with your teams?

It’s not the first time I’ve taken on the artistic direction of a company. Every start is very special, it’s a special moment, and this one was obviously even more so. It’s difficult for the teams to find a way to adapt to a new artistic director and allow him to work. Because of the confinement, I had a lot of time to communicate with the teams, and even without seeing each other, we made strong connections between all the different phone calls, emails and meetings. The need to always have to find solutions further strengthened our bonds. We were able to move forward despite difficult circumstances. As some of the staff working in the atelier are older, we were careful in protecting them, for example, sending them sewing machines to work from home, which has not always been easy.


How did you experience the presentation of your first collection with Azzaro?

As we presented a video clip, I finally thought it was nice not to have that overly extravagant side of a physical fashion show. The world of fashion can be like an ogre who wants to see everything, know everything, and then suddenly move on to something else. We would rather start a lasting story that will develop over time. So starting this way, in a calmer setting, has actually been very good. We have a lot of potential to create and come back with new ideas. Under these circumstances, we can also explore things that have never been created. Even if the period is far from ideal, it can also be interesting.

Olivier Theyskens

How do you see the fashion environment changing after this pandemic?

A lot of people say that the fashion world needed to change. In my opinion, it’s a bit like that all the time. I see a growing desire, almost nostalgic, to show beautiful things in emotionally charged places, like a fashion show. We will have to wait a little longer for that. Wholesale is going through a period of great difficulty at all levels: distribution, boutiques, shopping centers, but also the pressure of communication. Everything is being shaken up and turned upside down. Many people are afraid at the moment. Fashion is particularly suffering. It’s difficult to make a judgment. There seems to be a loss of authenticity. There is an expectation for “real” things, whether positive, negative, melancholic, colorful or dark. There is a feeling that everything is policed to adapt to the way social media, communication and marketing work, and this makes us lose sight of pure creativity.


Are there some things you don’t like in the fashion industry right now?

It’s very difficult to say because it’s not a sector where interpersonal connections are exemplary, as it’s the case in many structures. However, these connections are very important. A fashion show is a big collective work. Everyone comes together and works together. If a semblance of normality did not return, we would lose a lot, because there is real cohesion and stimulation when everyone is on board for a month, from one city to another. In a creative world like fashion, collective emulation is important to grasp things, discuss during the different stages, choose materials, colors, and decide on the cut. Forced distancing is a test. It is as if we were on our small islands working as best we could, but the emotional ties are distending.


Are physical runway shows over?

The desire to return to them is there. We have to wait and see if it will be possible. Paradoxically, I have seen physical shows during this pandemic where the entire front row was glued to their phones instead of concentrating on watching the runway. At some point, you have to ask yourself the right questions and find out if you really want a return to physical runway shows. When a show takes place, it takes place now: it’s not going to happen again in ten minutes.