Amid the chaos of Paris Fashion Week, one designer showed his Spring 2023 in a quiet Parisian courtyard. It was charming, almost a French cliché, with resident cat Mignonette slinking about. The clothes were on mannequins to let viewers peruse the garments in a 360 degrees manner and without the usual chaos associated with high-profile fashion brands. For the press, buyers, and clients in attendance, it was a welcome respite and even an antidote to today’s maddening fashion cycles.
The designer Olivier Theyskens is also quiet and gentle in his persona. His design acumen and artistry, however, are not. The Belgian-born designer first made waves by dressing Madonna in goth-inspired dramatic gowns. He worked for major French houses Rochas and Nina Ricci and then applied his signature style to the American mass market brand Theory. These days his approach to his designs and brand has taken a turn.
“I wanted to bring my POV regarding craft but keep it modern,” he said in an interview over Zoom following his latest collection debut. “Something I want to express, especially in the collection, is attention to detail.” The designer was referring to the patchwork dresses core to the collection for the past three seasons by design.
“I used to make big changes between collections, but with this concept, I wanted to work on it to explore and improve it, so I needed time,” he offered, adding, “It was a fantasy to do a triptych and deploy in three collections something that makes a story.”
The designer also had a pragmatic reason for showing this way. “We were just out of Covid, so it was practical to do it this way,” he said. Practicality also came into play with the designers’ approach to sustainability. The patchwork dresses were made from fabric swatch cards in great abundance in any design studio. After meticulously removing them from the packaging and sorting them by color and weight, the designer assembled them like an art collage to become a new textile.
“My studio is more like an atelier. I mainly do the patchwork myself. I have a team with the technical abilities to make these high-quality handmade clothing to help finish details,” he said.
“I work instinctively to bring the fabrics together. I create a balance and tonality and assemble them first like a traditional quilt blanket,” he added, recalling trips to small American towns in Missouri and Pennsylvania, where he discovered antique versions.
“The hardcore step is cutting them on the bias into new material. After being treated, I drape and shape the dress and cut it on the body. It’s instinctive, but it takes time,” explained Theyskens.
The designer stops short of calling it Haute Couture, displaying a deep regard for the institution. “I cannot repeat the exact dress because the swatches are unique, so in that sense, it’s Couture. The qualities and colors are so unique and different, almost like works of art which I love,” he continued noting that a friend in the museum field called the designer’s technique ‘undomesticated couture.’ For example, a signature of Theysken’s work is the hook and eye, which are hand-sewn in a beautiful Couture manner.
The patchwork gowns caught the eye of the Met Museum, which acquired one for its permanent collection. “It was the one that I connected with and resonated with the American sensibility and the prairie,” he said, adding, “Patchwork was something I thought I would do when I was retired.”
He quickly points out that his tailoring still prevails, and his team is very involved in its creation. “This collection is 100 percent made in my atelier. To compare the tailoring to the factory made even the good factories I was using, it is more special. There is a charm to what I am doing now,” he said of made-to-measure business. Thus far, he isn’t rushing back into the global wholesale business, which ceased with Covid.
“My anxiety and stress levels regarding logistics, deadlines and production is at a reasonable level where they should be. The focus is on my will to achieve the designs and do it the best way we can. We are very proud of what we do. We’ve never been involved this much in every step ever before.”
Theyskens isn’t one to stand on a soapbox, but it isn’t lost on him that his home-crafted, slow-batch collections may be the direction society and consumerism need to move in, not the excess consumption and production of the mega brands.
“Globally, the notion is what we should achieve and create as people must move and evolve. This isn’t to say my little world will impact that, but we share that feeling in our team. The fashion world is expanding globally, but it’s a big machine that has to restart, and it’s been using more than ‘gasoline.'”
For Theyskens being sustainable is about keeping his company healthy. “It’s complicated as a small entrepreneur when you have unexpected costs. I try daily to ensure we are steady and safe; I feel we are ok.”
The manner of working, he says, takes him back to his earlier days when he was starting his career. He recently started teaching at IFM (Institut Français de la Mode) and currently guiding 18 students on their thesis collections.
“When you are at school, you don’t know how the career will go. You can work for a large industrial brand in one path. Though I think to show students as an experienced designer that you can do something like this, it’s exciting and positive to see this way is possible too.”