The house that Viktor and Rolf built

PUBLISHED: 13:02 17 July 2008 | UPDATED: 17:24 16 August 2010

PERFECTLY FORMED: The House of Viktor & Rolf.

PERFECTLY FORMED: The House of Viktor & Rolf.

VIKTOR & Rolf may not be as well known as Dior or Chanel but when they graduated from Arnhem Academy of Art in Holland

VIKTOR & Rolf may not be as well known as Dior or Chanel but when they graduated from Arnhem Academy of Art in Holland in 1992, they were determined to move to Paris and make a name for themselves by hook or by crook, writes Edward Marytn.

By 1996 they were getting desperate and tried a publicity stunt 'Viktor & Rolf on strike', including ideas like bottled perfume that couldn't be opened, and a trouser suit with one leg missing...

Finally, in 1998 they achieved their first couture collection and filmed a curious audience watching models climb a steep plinth and suddenly throw their jewellery to the floor, where it shattered to astonished applause.

This was performance art coupled with haut couture, the intelligentsia loved it, and they have never looked back since.

The Barbican have staged a wonderful retrospective of their work, The House of Viktor & Rolf, aided and abetted by the artistes themselves, the centrepiece of which is an enormous dolls' house filled with 7cm tall mannequins dressed in all their best creations.

Surrounding this are rooms with life-size models wearing the same clothes and backed up with filmed sequences from the actual fashion shows, with the real models dressed in the originals.

This creates a dynamic vision, not only of their work, but also of the world of fashion since the 1950s.

They admit to an admiration for the masters of the post-war fashion world, and they have borrowed many ideas which enhance their own work, whilst putting them firmly in the place of re-creators rather than true innovators.

The Russian doll collection of 1999 used only one model, dressed in a skimpy jute mini-dress, then the designers themselves appear and dress her in another and another costume, until she has seven layers, the last being a giant cape covering everything from the ears down.

'Marketable day clothes for women' they claim, but the Black Light collection contains an evening suit with a ruff so large that the model peered over it like a Formula One driver in the cockpit of a racing car.

By 2001 the models had become like alpine cattle, hung with hundreds of small bells announcing their arrival.

Bedtime Story 2005 featured Tori Amos performing at a grand piano in a dressing gown, and Lily Cole appears in a quilted bed-jacket, with pillows wired into the neck.

As somebody once said "You've never seen anything like it in your life".

Whatever your take on women's high fashion, this is a definitive look at two men who have devoted their lives to creating new and exciting apparel and entertaining their public at the same time. Don't miss it.

* The House of Viktor & Rolf is at the Barbican Art Gallery in Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS until September 21. Tickets are from £6 to £8, call the box office on 0845 1207550.

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