Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tripping the light fantastic: Viktor & Rolf flick the switch on Paris

Backstage at the first big production of Paris Fashion Week: Viktor & Rolf, aka Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, the Dutch design duo renowned for their elaborate, wildly-imaginative show productions. Working on the show as it turns out is Australian Kannon Rajah, who cut his teeth on Australian Fashion Week and now works out of New York for one of the world's biggest fashion show production companies, Bureau Betak.

For today's show, Rajah has taken care of the casting only but later in the week he'll be hands-on on some of the biggest productions. One of the models he's cast for this show is yes, white hot new Australian runway star Catherine McNeil.

I am now in an ante room, with a heap of other people, mainly photographers, standing
waiting to see the models. There are about 20 photographers.

The reason the models are taking so long, Rajah tells me, is because they are in fact being fitted with aluminium frames, on which lights and a sound system are to be suspended. Let's hope nothing short-circuits, otherwise this could prove a literal trial by fire for McNeil. First show in Paris, second week on the international modelling circuit and now a human lighting installation - you have to feel sorry for her.

Next to a makeup artist's bag sits a white cloth bear wearing a black mask. I wonder if it's a mascot - or an omen.

Unable to contain my curiosity, I take a peek through a curtain. And it's a bizarre sight. It is in fact hard to work out where the models arms and legs begin and where the aluminium structures end.

It's like the girls have morphed into clothes racks, and vice versa. About 25 of them are standing in their single outfits for the show. The garments have been fitted over the aluminium structures, which appear to be attached to the models via harnesses.

Lights protrude from structures over their heads. In several cases skirt panniers and other pieces of fabric have been stretched up to the corners of the light rigs like clothes on a washing line. One girl is wearing a blue and white floral tapestry coatdress, the edges of which pleated skirt have been fanned up at either side.

Another is in a black pencil skirt with an aluminium rod sticking up out of the back of her white blouse. To make the vision even more perverse - they are all wearing wooden Dutch clogs. Fashion versions of wooden Dutch clogs - with little heels and the "V&R" logo. Oi vei. I am reminded of leg calipers and the various aluminium accoutrements of the handicapped.

I weave my way through the metal mayhem to track down McNeil. She is wearing baggy black sarouel pants whose panniers have been strung up to both sides and a white shirt with exaggerated collars and cuffs.

The collar of the shirt has in fact been hoiked up around the side of her face and, courtesy of the alumnium rods, it has a kind of rectangular tent effect. I lift my tape recorder up near her face to grab some comments and am struck by the absurdity of the situation. It's like talking to someone whose head is trapped inside a cage.

So, when you signed up for modelling did you think this would be part of the deal?
Catherine McNeil: Ah no it's crazy, but I think it's going to look so cool.

What's it attached with?
It's around here [points to chest].

Is it light or heavy?
No it's quite heavy. It's just a balance thing.

Are you nervous?
Yeah - because if I fall I'm not getting back up.

You might take out a few people in the front row with you. Do you know which other shows you're doing yet?
Um, Valentino and Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior. And Lagerfeld and Balenciaga.

What do you think your mother would say if she could see you now?
God, I don't know. I think she'd laugh.

It's minutes to showtime. I want to see this one from start to finish.

The lights come up - make that light, at the far end of the runway, illuminating a Viktor & Rolf logo. Apart from that it's very dark. Then the first model emerges in a black cocktail suit, illuminated by her own lighting display - and with her own personal music playing.

Apart from the models' mobile music, you can hear a pin drop - and the sounds of the models' feet clomping along the ground-level runway in their clogs.

Actually they sound a little like horses' shoes clip-clopping down the street - and that's an apt analogy because most of them look like frightened horses as well.

One after the other these human merchandising units emerge and parade their wares.

The music wafts past like fragments from a dream sequence.

At one point I can make out Kylie Minogue's Confide In Me, on another occasion the voice of Annie Lennox and some 40s music.

There are lots of 3/4-length gaucho trousers with tartan shirts, that floral tapestry fabric used also in a voluminous lampshade skirt, some shiny black corset jackets, the duo's signature white shirts and a pretty ruffled tartan evening dress.

With so much of the fabric stretched and distorted over the frames however it's nearly impossible to see exactly what many of the garments look like.

Most attention however seems to be on the models themselves and just how they are coping. Many look like they are about to go down at any moment. More than one comes close. There are several rounds of applause.

Backstage I manage to grab a few comments from Snoeren:

So what on earth was the idea behind this show?
Snoeren: To turn every model into a fashion show of her own. To turn the fashion show into a look and to turn the clothes into a show. And really to get back to like let's say the core being of who we are and who we feel we are. So it felt like a self-portrait.

By the end of last week in Milan quite a strong theme of S&M and bondage had emerged. There was something quite nightmarish about those contraptions your models were wearing.
No it was not meant as bondage. I think that there was a paradox between something that very traditional and something more technical. But in the end it was really more about a walking fashion show.

And what was the collection supposed to be about?
It was a bit inspired by Dutch folklore. So that's why the clogs and the pleating and the prints.

Were they all production garments or just showpieces?
No, I mean haute couture is always very important to us.

I run out to grab the media shuttle bus to head to the next show: Belgian brand, AF Vandevorst. I sit down but something doesn't feel quite right. Hmmm, let's see, that would be the champagne flute someone is handing me - and the tray of canapes.

I suddenly twig that I'm not on the official media bus at all - but the L'Officiel bus, operated by the French fashion magazine. It was parked right behind the other one. How was I to know?

Backstage now at AF Vandevorst.

The venue is a beautiful 19th century mansion called Dosne-Thiers. The girls are sitting around with crimped hair and very pale makeup - save for the faux black long 'eyelashes' that have been hand-painted, like black tears - or A Clockwork Orange, take your pick - hanging down from their lower lids.

A model called Dominika is sitting on a chair in a Wednesday Addams-style pleated black dress with a white collar. A perky American tv reporter comes up to her.

"Hi - I'm from the Style Network, do you mind if we ask you some questions?" says the reporter.

"Sorry - I don't speak English" the girl replies in what sounds like a heavy Russian accent.

"Oh - OK, no matter" says the presenter. "Would you like one of our T-shirts then?"

Without giving the model a chance to reply, the reporter whips out some Style Network merch and thrusts it in the girl's lap. The model sits there looking disinterestedly at the T-shirt, with her head cowed.

There is something sad about this - like a monkey that has just been handed a dud banana at the zoo.

The collection is in earthen tones. Hanging on one rack is a fab pair of cafe-coloured baggy wool trousers that have been pulled up over the bust like a strapless jumpsuit, complete with fly at the bodice.

There are quite a few natural-coloured patchwork sheepskin garments, using short lambskin and a longer, combed-out wool to give a "fur" effect. There are going to be a lot of shaggy coats next winter, that's for sure.

There's no time for me to get out to see this show - I am stuck backstage. The girls go out one by one and then do a two-level tour of the venue, where the seats have been positioned.

Apart from the lambskin, quite a few garments have been made out of a cream wool fabric with tobbaco tartan. It has a blanket-like look.

One model is wearing a large piece of the fabric that looks like it has just been wrapped around her body, like an Indian blanket. The thought that you could just tie an actual blanket around yourself, without the designer price tag, does cross my mind.

There are cream lace leggings and blouses, a chunky grey wrapped maxi-cardigan and one knockout red cocktail dress with long sleeves and frills down the front of the bodice.

We're off again to Yohji Yamamoto. This time I make the official bus. It's straight to the Bourse - the Paris Stock Exchange - for a show which appears to have a Spanish theme. The music sounds very Flamenco and the nearly all-black, raven-like silhouettes are definitely Flamenco-nosed, with a series of quite beautiful, layered tiered ruffle skirts worn over black trousers and topped with streamlined black top coats, many boasting asymmetric panels at the back.

There are also some sensational black and also burgundy leather bomber jackets, in addition to a series of garments, ranging from knit dresses to woven trousers and jackets, in what appears to be a mock Louis Vuitton logo - but fashioned from the letters "YY". Geddit?

At one point a half dozen models emerge on the runway wearing voluminous black, tiered skirts with metal crinolines peeking through the fabric. They take positions, then stop.

Seconds later, the tiers of the crinolines start to revolve. Anyone who was at last season's Paris shows is instantly reminded of the far more spectacular mechanical dresses of the Hussein Chalayan show.

I go backstage to try to talk to Yamamoto but no luck. The closest I get is his Japanese executive assistant, who offers the following explanation for the show.

She notes, "It was about multiculturalism and irony".

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