He may be 40 years old but he could easily pass for 30. Olivier Theyskens has all the passion and enthusiasm as when he first started out. Fascinated by fashion since childhood, he left La Cambre school of art after two years to create his own collections. Very quickly, his gothic and romantic aesthetic and his perceptive, high quality couture stood out. He became artistic director of Rochas, then Nina Ricci and Theory, exploring the different ends of fashion, but always creating with the same intensity. Three years ago, he went back to working on his own brand, expressing his creative freedom over the seasons, with a luminous, melancholy feel. We met him in his studio, in the Hôtel de Bourrienne, a jewel of 18th century architecture now listed as an Historic Monument.
MONNIER Frères: Let's go back to the beginning - what was it that attracted you to fashion?
Olivier Theyskens: Since childhood, I have always felt that there is nothing more fascinating than a beautiful dress. From a very young age, I was attracted by theatricality and costumes, and I observed how the people around me dressed. There were no fashion experts in my family, but my mum often sewed clothes and when I was little, I was immersed in this world of couture. Slowly but surely, fashion became a vocation.
M.F.: You left art school early to launch your own label directly, how did that come about?
O.T.: I started studying fashion at La Cambre school of art in Brussels when I was 17, but two years later I decided to cut my studies short. I began sewing clothes myself, then over time it became a collection.
M.F.: You were artistic director of Rochas, Nina Ricci, then Theory. Then three years ago, you went freelance again: how did this transition to entrepreneurship take place?
O.T.: In any project, whether as part of an emerging structure or on behalf of an existing company, to me there is always an entrepreneurial approach. I therefore felt it was a natural step to launch my collections in 2017. I had already had some experience of entrepreneurship when I first started out, but it's true that the context is completely different now, and the road I have travelled has made me see things from a new perspective.
M.F.: People call you the "gothic prince" of fashion, and your aesthetic is often described as dark and romantic. Are you happy with this or would you like to be seen differently?
O.T.: All that matters to me is how the people who choose my clothes and accessories feel about them. And I don't actually think they feel the way I am perceived as a designer. It's true that I love things that are emotional and often this more emotive expression gives my work an almost romantic touch. Because I'm very free, sometimes I also like to bring a slightly sharper or darker edge.
M.F.: Would you say you are a melancholy being in your approach to the world and to life?
O.T.: I often describe myself as a melancholy person, but it's actually a form of happiness. I am very happy, even when I feel a vague sense of melancholy or when I fall into a state of contemplation. When I'm on a plane, for instance, I definitely won't watch a comedy, I tend to look for a film that will elicit strong and sometimes even dramatic emotions. It's a natural tendency and it's part of my balance.
M.F.: Since 1998 (and Madonna) you have had many close ties with celebrities; lots of actresses wear your pieces on the red carpet. Just recently, Jennifer Aniston wore one of your designs. How did you come into contact with these different personalities?
O.T.: Celebrities - whether actresses or public figures - have opinions, tastes and preferences just like everyone else and I am always very touched when they like my work. Some discover it during photo shoots for magazines when they are asked to wear one of my designs, and an affinity grows from there. Sometimes, over time, you get the opportunity to design a piece specifically for a person, as part of a specific event, but there aren't really any rules in the entertainment industry. I‘m very lucky to have the opportunity to design for and be appreciated by artists with strong personalities.
M.F.: Showcasing your work like this is important for advertising, isn't it? It lets you build your reputation through celebrities and social media...
O.T.: Yes, of course. I do think it is very important, but I try not to be one of those designers who works for specific people, instead I try to make pieces for a large audience and design for a diverse range of individuals. What fascinates me the most is the affinity that is created with them.
M.F.: How would you describe your vision of femininity?
O.T.: As a designer, I think about the body on a daily basis, and anything that fuels my creativity from this point of view is hugely important to me. I observe the people I meet, I am affected by the music I hear... And all of these things combined are what defines a certain idea of femininity or masculinity. I think that we first experience it through our daily lives.
M.F.: Do you design on your own or do you like to be surrounded by others during your creative process?
O.T.: I always make changes when I'm in operating mode. When I was a child, I always designed by myself and I knew how to manage this solitary creation. Then I decided I wanted to introduce the people around me into this very personal process. It took me years to realise that it was great to design alongside someone else working on the project. Nowadays, I have people around me. But I feel very free so sometimes I still design things by myself... As part of my developing brand, I really want my team to be like a small family
M.F.: Fashion is constantly changing and it seems to be increasingly coming under fire: in terms of cultural appropriation, greenwashing, lack of sincerity when it comes to political and societal commitments, etc. What is your take on this development?
O.T.: Every new phase in fashion is useful and I enjoy experiencing these major episodes of change. A society will start to stall if it doesn't evolve in its way of seeing things. I have always felt that we have huge responsibility in fashion because we exist for everyone. Aside from that, I am a creative person and still an artist of sorts, so I don't attempt any scientific explanation of my work. It's all about being daring, showing that things don’t have to be polished, or preened, and managing to shake up mentalities.
M.F.: You seem to have made a choice not to share much about your personal life on Instagram. Were you quick to make a distinction between your public and private life? Have you deliberately decided to stay focused on your designs?
O.T.: I think Instagram is an opportunity to share things we like or want to show. It probably says a lot about me that I am far more interested in sharing my work than in my private life... but basically I have never felt the need to show off my personal life or to use my personal life for a work-related goal.
M.F.: What’s the back story when it comes to your accessories?
O.T.: My accessories are very much linked to the clothes, they are an integral part of my outfits. Even just in the design process, I can quickly sense what type of accessory I want to create to complete a look or give meaning to what I'm designing. To me, accessories are essential, they’re part of my signature. Whenever I'm designing, I really want to find the right shape for a shoe, to come up with that additional element that matches the tone of the collection.
M.F.: Do you have any plans to start making bags?
O.T.: I've always been fascinated by luggage and bags because, for me, they're objects that can stand alone and not necessarily worn on a part of the body. It's something I can't wait to start doing for my brand, but I'm taking a little time before launching my line.
M.F.: Are you affected or bothered by the hectic pace of fashion nowadays? Do you feel like you have enough time to create?
O.T.: Experience has taught me that the most time-consuming thing is making decisions. When you want to be precise and meticulous, you constantly have to re-evaluate what you are doing and you spend lots of time eliminating and streamlining. I want my brand to be very precise and often I have to go against my exponential tendencies
M.F.: What has the most impact on your creativity today?
O.T.: I'd say I'm like a sponge, the best thing is to let natural developments come to you. People often say that it's important to adapt, but I actually think that adaptation can mean letting go, relying on your instinct, watching how things affect us and accepting the way we feel about them. My job is in the moment, which is what enables us to constantly express our desires or feelings, and ultimately allows us to continue to evolve.