Olivier Theyskens, sometimes known as the “Gothic Prince” of fashion, is back in a big way and now his work is on display at Antwerp’s fashion museum, MoMu. The Belgian designer’s career was launched when he was a just 20-year old unknown after Madonna selected one of his dresses, catapulting him to fashion fame. Now his home country has mounted a career retrospective, “She Walks in Beauty”, at the Antwerp fashion museum, which will run until March 18, 2018. The retrospective comes on the heels of another big moment for Theyskens: costume design for the new movie, Blade Runner 2049.
The dark, romantic designs of Theyskens are presented in chronological order, often displayed alongside a literary quote that inspires Theyskens. The first display begins with the line “She walks in beauty, like the night,” from Lord Byron’s 1813 poem. This was the marker for his Autumn/Winter collection, 1997-1998. The dresses in this section are in dark colors and deep blacks, highlighted with varied textures like lace and satin. The crinoline dresses are often paired with modern coats, which shows how Theyskens was able to keep his thoroughly historical dresses anchored in the contemporary world.
This was also the era which found Theyskens thrust into the spotlight after Madonna selected two of his dresses during her Ray of Light / Frozen tour in 1998. Madonna lent first dress, a striking yellow dress with 500 hooks and eyes, to the museum for the exhibition. She wore it at the VH1 Fashion Awards in 1998. Madonna also wore a memorable black-coated jersey dress on her Ray of Light tour, which she wore during her performance of Frozen.
Theyskens’ career seemed to move at the speed of light itself. He worked for Paris maisons, Rochas and Nina Ricci, then moved to Theory, a ready-to-wear label based in New York City, and is now relaunching his own brand, Olivier Theyskens NOW.
There are many standout dresses in the exhibition, including a voluminous 35-meter-long embroidered wedding gown that Theyskens created on commission for for socialite Nell Diamond’s nuptials.
Although Theyskens is a Belgian designer, his cues are all very French. One section of the exhibit shows off a collection about his life which he says was “inspired by my Normandy roots and those flat lands, the girls of the village in French tartan and little boots.”
This can be seen in everything from the colors he used (muddy browns and crisp greens) during the Nina Ricci years to the tiny, whimsical birds he placed on a shoe. These pieces from the Ricci era show the designer drawing the outdoors inside for a fall collection.
Theyskens’ reliance on romantic poetry and literature also encompasses this line from Edgar Allen Poe: “There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.” It is perhaps this line that describes how Theyskens blends the past with the present to create something that is perfectly suitable for the quirks of the human body. The designer’s drawings are also on display, showing how he transforms his first sketches into finished designs.
Theyskens is a young 40. He emerged almost a fully-formed designer at age 20, and with 20 years of varied experience under his belt, everyone is wondering what the prince of darkness has up his velvet sleeve during his latest act.