BONAVERI

An interview with Olivier Theyskens

Tribe female mannequins for an exhibition of Olivier Theysken's work in Antwerp.

In early 2018 Bonaveri had the honour of working with Belgian fashion Designer, Olivier Theyskens. Here he talks to Caterina Lunghi about his exhibition at MOMU Antwerp in which he used many of Bonaveri's Tribe female mannequins.

Written by Caterina Lunghi | 24 April 2020

She walks in beauty

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

Lord Byron, 1814

Darkly romantic, this is how famous journalist Suzy Menkes has defined him.

Olivier Theyskens, Belgian fashion designer with Paris as his second hometown, fell in love with Bonaveri mannequin collection while he was planning his own exhibition, “She Walks in Beauty,” at the MoMu fashion museum in Antwerp, in Belgium, two years ago.

Born in Brussels in 1977, Olivier started his own label at the age of 20; then he became Artistic Director for the historical maisons, Rochas first and then Nina Ricci; a jump to the US for the American-wear label, Theory, and in September 2016 his return to Paris to re-launch his eponymous current label.

A gifted child in drawing with a keen sense for detail, he declared he wanted to be a couturier when he was only 7 years old! We reached Olivier over the phone in his studio in Paris – tucked inside the historical landmark Hotel de Bourrienne – one early January morning, feeling and enjoying his sincere passions not only for couture but for mannequin bodies and their world of movement and postures.

She walks in beauty”, what a fascinating title for your exhibition, that sounds like it is leading us to another world and feelings.

The title comes from a poem by Lord Byron.

You like him and poetry?

I like poetry for sure, I like the universe of poems, from Baudelaire to Lord Byron. I wanted to have some quotes in the exhibition from the world of poetry to give more atmosphere, something reminiscent of strong words that make people think.

“She walks in beauty” is a poem that speaks about an extremely beautiful widow dressed in black.  I thought it was a good fit and also when I sketch collections a lot of times I sketch figures that are in movement like they are walking…

And you in the rooms of MoMu were replicating this idea of movement.

Well, I think that the very important thing in the exhibition, which was a monograph, was to give a feeling of who the Theysken girl was. Her posture and physique had to link to my shows.

It was essential to transcribe something that was coherent with what I have done through the years, so the choice of the mannequins was extremely important. We started the process of the exhibition probably more than a year before its opening. I wasn’t finding the right attitude to present my work, then I happened to understand there was a new collection coming at Bonaveri, called Tribe, that was just what I was looking for.

I saw the first prototypes; we were very lucky because we could use them to shoot the images for the exhibition catalogue. We had to start working on the book six months before the exhibition itself and I had the possibility of playing around with the mannequins’ positions: we had five shapes and five postures that I could mix to recreate new positions to shoot the photos.

You loved the Bonaveri Tribe* at first sight.

The Tribe silhouettes, the postures were very Theyskens, because they really look like real girls. I understood from Bonaveri that their poses were inspired by models’ attitudes and gestures when they are backstage at fashion shows.

As I was saying, I could experiment with these new mannequins earlier for the catalogue. I could mix them: for example, I could use the bust of number one, a leg of number three, one arm from another… and make new postures with new and different attitudes.

An employee of the museum who was there on the shoot started writing down how I used each silhouette, each mannequin, how I combined the parts…

The goal of the book was to give the feeling the clothes were shot on alive models. And this complex combining really gave the feeling that you had real girls wearing the clothes.

I have in front of me the images you are talking about; I’ve never seen mannequin shots looking so real and caught in such natural and romantic poses.

What it was particularly interesting for me was that the proportions were so right for all the looks that I was shooting. Exactly the fit that I experienced when I did the shows back in the years in couture. It was exactly how I could see a model wearing the clothes, exactly the same attitude and the same fit.

The idea of the exhibition was to show my career and how I have worked in different houses. So the exhibition started with my own brand I did for five years, it followed with Rochas, then with Nina Ricci, then Theory and finishing with my current years.

There was something quite natural, slightly distant at same time that allowed me to do dramatic compositions, and also with the light I was able to create a more atmospheric presentation; I added wigs to the mannequins for the feeling of style and finishing touches. So the final effect was absolutely beautiful.

Absolutely beautiful. Beauty is not easy to define.

The concept of beauty is extremely subjective, one person is more touched and moved than another by something a person has defined as beautiful, and I am that kind of person, but there are different contemplative aesthetics. I am a person who is moved by things that I find beautiful, especially with women. I don’t have a criteria saying that you have to be like that or like this, it’s more about a situation in life that brings things that are emotional and connected with beauty.

When I design, I also want to do beautiful clothes, and beautiful designs and I want to bring a dimension to the girl and to her personality with emotions. Sometimes it can be only positive, or it can be something more fragile, or more dramatic or it could be something pure and absolutely ethereal. But it’s very important for me that it touches the world of delicacy and the world of beauty.

And this is the Theyskens girl.

It’s something very personal, it’s an impression I have. I have been collecting impressions for all my life. I have inside me feelings and emotions. I don’t like to be very strict and mono-directional, I want to be more subtle and hard to catch. There is a mystery, there is a question, which is hard to read exactly. You won’t ever be able to label one of my collections, saying the girl is sexy, or the girl is like this or like that… because I am very much more into the attitude, the dark and the light of the character together.

Going back to your beginnings, you also had also some experience in theatre.

I designed some costumes. Right after school I launched my brand, I did my collection for five years before I moved to Paris. The moment I took the job with Rochas, I had a proposition to collaborate on an opera at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. It was a transitional moment, I was about to leave Belgium for Paris and start with Rochas. At that time, it was a very very difficult schedule but I managed to do everything, and I was able to work with the beautiful opera “I due Foscari” by Giuseppe Verdi, for which we designed lots of costumes, like 280, because the opera chorus had several costume changes and there were many characters and a lot of very complicated pieces. I loved working on stage and the Théâtre Royal del la Monnaie has an incredible production atelier. I was working there with designers like Christian Lacroix. It was a great experience.

A Belgian in Paris.

Well, I grew up in Brussels but my mother is French, from Normandy, a region one hour and a half by car from Paris in the countryside. I used to come many times to France when I was a kid and I always say that my French side is very important. I feel half Belgian half French. I physically moved from Brussels in 2001 and I have always felt at home here in Paris. Obviously I have a little bit of Belgian typology, I have a little bit of an accent from Belgium, my attitude is probably a little bit Belgian too, and obviously I visit often my family in Belgium.

I always feel that the French side of myself is very important, especially when it comes to the world of aesthetics, the world of fashion, the world of nature … I definitely feel that has been a strong part of me.

In the French side of my family there were more women: my mother has three sisters. When I was a small child, the French side of my family was very strong in the feminine side and always inspired me.

Last but not least, have you ever been to visit Bonaveri near Bologna?

No, I have never been. I wish one day I would be able to design a mannequin with them. I did design mannequins two times; once when I was working with Nina Ricci and then some for Theory when I was in the US, producing them with a Los Angeles based company. I would really love to be able to work someday with Bonaveri to create a line.

I am a sculptor, I will carve and create the body. I use my hands and I can create bodies with the right proportions. I have worked on the body for so many years, it’s on my blood, it’s there. It’s my kind of thing and it’s about proportions. It’s the classic discipline and training that I have been working for so many years.

*Bonaveri Tribe Collection is composed of a series of mannequins rather than a single character, each with its own identity – unlike traditional collection that explores a single character in multiple poses. Here Bonaveri collaborated with Tribe female mannequins.

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