Olivier Theyskens on embracing the slow process of crafting clothes and what luxury means to him.
There is a gray sky that blankets Paris when Olivier Theyskens waxes poetic about the years he spent living in New York.
“It’s easy to feel settled in a city,” the Belgian designer tells Vogue Philippines. “I had a great group of friends whom I loved and habits that were quickly formed.” While his neighborhood, the bustling West Village, was an oyster for excitement, Theyskens was compelled to return to Paris in 2016 after nearly five years. This time, to embark on a strong desire that has long been whispering to him.
The 45-year-old is no stranger to beauty and fashion. His life has been dictated by it. He first launched a wildly successful namesake line after dropping out of the prestigious La Cambre School of Visual Arts in 1997. When Madonna wore one of Theyskens’ early creations to the Oscars in 1998, he was launched into the international fashion crowd at the age of 21.
In 2002, he was then tasked to forge the avant-garde and romantic identity of Rochas, then Nina Ricci in 2007. Come 2010, Theyskens took over the design direction at Theory. Today, he is taking his thorough experience and preserving true luxury by helming the couture house Azzaro as its artistic director while reviving the same brand that brought him critical acclaim in the beginning: his very own.
“At some point, while I was in New York, I kept thinking to myself that it was something that I still wanted to do. I thought that it would be good before I turned 40,” he jokes. “That’s why I came back in 2016. I kept thinking about how successful it was when I first started my brand many years ago. It was a very strong moment. I know I still have a voice in the industry and I’m confident in what I do for the world.”
When Theyskens first debuted his collections in Paris in 1998, words like melancholic, dramatic, and gothic were all ascribed to his style. To a degree, this is certainly true. There was heavy use of leather, mannequin handpieces that sprawled on models’ faces, and use of ghost-pale makeup. “I was way more aggressive and literal,” he shares. “I think I’ve calmed down a bit as time went on.”
But, it’s not as if Theyskens shies away from melancholy. Or, even thinks it’s a bad thing. It is quite the opposite. While plenty of fashion teeters on escapism and fantasy, the designer does not turn a cheek to the deep and dark emotions that may be lingering beneath. Instead, he chooses to embrace them, recognize them, and turn them into something beautiful.
“It’s the proper perspective from a true melancholic. It isn’t suffering at all. It’s natural to consider the sad parts in life, to recognize the beauty in loss or the unpleasant,” he says. This affinity for finding the light in the dark has always been with him. “Now, on the runway,” Theyskens says. “I’ve always tried to show women who, say, don’t look like they would on the best days of their life. I want to show something that feels more robust. I’m sensitive to these things.”
Since his label returned to the runway in 2017, the echoes of Theyskens melancholic signature manifest in a romantic, glamorous tone. It is also evident that his many chameleonic years at other fashion houses remain with him. Remnants of his time at Rochas are seen in the corseted, slim silhouettes in his current which exude a sort of Old Hollywood glamour.
“I love the body,” he says. “And the sexiest way is not by showing off more skin, but through proportions. I create pieces that tend to elongate a woman’s body.” There’s the romance from Nina Ricci seen in the lady-like silhouettes and puffed shoulder sleeves. And the practicality of Theory arises in ensembles that are easily worn every day, though they are surely romanticized.
But, there’s something more behind the aesthetics of it all. Luxury, in its truest form, survives with Olivier Theyskens, both at Azzaro and with his line. In the current state of the industry, when marketed luxury gets diluted with actual luxury, he proves that he is of the latter. Though his label is considered ready-to-wear, the codes of couture beat on within it.
Theyskens rejects fast production. Partly because he’s hyper-aware of how fashion affects the environment. (This is why most of his fabrics are recycled and at the time of our interview, two assistants are picking apart foraged fabrics and placing them in a pile for reuse). And partly because the designer understands that mass production does not always equate to luxury. Instead, he embraces the slower process of crafting clothes that is reminiscent of the early days of couture. Everything from his small but nimble staff to the handmade fabrics feels like a whisper, rather than a shout.
“There’s a rarity in it all. People come to me not because they want a super famous label. They come to me because they love beautifully-made clothes,” he says. “My clients get in contact for made-to-measure clothes and understand that I have a heavy hand in the process. I create the fabrics before making the clothes. I make sure every cut is sharp and correct. When you understand that the person making your clothes is on it, you see the products so differently. There is a relationship built that cannot be found elsewhere.”
An intimate process like this goes against the grain of the fashion industry today. While this may be daunting, he stands firm in his model.
“I’ve experienced highs and lows in my career. I did collections in the nineties that were very successful, and then ones that were, according to the critics, not so successful. I’ve dealt with criticism my entire career,” he says. “My biggest concern today is creating something truthful and honest to myself. My work today is deeply personal, and I want to make sure everything I do stems from my creativity and my beliefs. I don’t want to grasp air. I want to make something that is contributing to a story. Everything I do will be thought-out and absolutely perfect.”
When asked how he knows when something reaches these criteria, he responds with utmost simplicity. “I can feel it.”
This article first appeared in Vogue Philippines October 2022 Issue.
Photographer: Mark Nicdao. Assistant Photographer: Olivier Renaty.