Essay by KateThomson

Kaleidoscope of colorful fashion


'Colors: Viktor & Rolf KCI' at the Mori Art Museum
Special to the Japan Times

Viktor & Rolf are internationally renowned as the Gilbert and George of the fashion world for presenting conceptual work as sophisticated art performances in haute couture and pret-a-porter shows. Take their installation of their Spring/Summer 1996 collection in a contemporary art gallery in Paris October 1995. Titled "L'Appearance du vide" as a reaction against the fickle focus on supermodels of the fashion industry, golden dresses hung in the air like empty shells while the black clothes were cast like shadows or discarded second skins on the floor. The models were only present in the form of their names projected on the walls and whispered through speakers.

"Jacket Autumn/Winter 2003" by Viktor and Rolf, collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute

They explain the consistent success of their collaboration with the sum 1+1=3. For the "Colors: Viktor & Rolf KCI" exhibition, which opened at the Mori Art Museum last week, the Kyoto Costume Institute (KCI) invited the Dutch fashion-design duo to co-curate, with their chief curator, Fukai Akiko, a study of the perception and relevance of color over the last 400 years.

In this exhibition, they integrate their own work, influenced by the history of art, fashion and society, with over 80 pieces selected from the KCI collection of over 11,000 Western-style dresses from 17th-century to the present

The exhibition is split into five rooms with distinct atmospheres created through theatrical staging and lighting to articulate the complex psychology of color. It follows the themes of the video installations of Viktor & Rolf's previous fashion shows: Black, Multicolor, Blue, Red & Yellow, and White.

The sculptural effect of layers of jackets in Viktor & Rolf's opening piece hints at layers of perception like a modern Russian doll. This represents life cycles in the progression from white to black through beige.

The darkness of the black room makes it difficult to see the gorgeous pieces, like the sculpted 1957 Christian Dior Coat. But black is the absence of light, and the virtual black hole complements the theme of the video installation. The overall effect is gothic revival; black was the preferred color of the 1950s anti-establishment Beat generation, as the 1970s punk movement and the dedicated followers of Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, who became known as the karasu-zoku (the crows).

Once your eyes get used to the gloom there is a great deal of elegance, seduction and a wealth of history to be seen in this room that documents the evolution of modernism and feminism, beginning with the 1875 bustle titled "Day Dress," which recalls the popularity of Queen Viktoria who stayed in mourning for Prince Albert from 1861. Then there is the 1810 "French Riding Suit" in the style that became known as "Amazone" with its tailored jacket adapted from menswear. It seems to state the desire to extend the range of activities that women were allowed to take part in, although they were still pinioned to the ground by the cumbersome crinoline skirt. What follows is the 1930 "Day Dress" of Coco Chanel, a career woman who knew clothes needed to be practical as well as elegant and established the "little black dress."

The multicolor room in "Colors" at the Mori Art Museum 2004 PHOTO COURTESY MORI ART MUSEUM

From the body conscious '80s we get Azzedine Alaia's body-hugging 1984 "Dress," which uses modern stretch materials, as well as Jean-Paul Gautier's 1987 "Jacket, Brassiere, Pants." The latter turns the corsets that had previously restrained women into expressions of new freedom to be energetic, independent and feminine.

In Medieval times "motley" (multicolor) was worn by clowns and entertainers, and signified insincerity, frivolity and lack of social status. The 19th-century discovery of a wide variety of cheaper synthetic dyes democratized the use of rich, clear color. Now motley reflects opportunity and a party atmosphere.

The Multicolor section opens with Viktor & Rolf's 1998 "Harlequin Jacket, Pants" representing the build-up to the Millennium, a festive optimism countered by Nostradamus' apocalyptic pessimism. The top of the garment is inflated to illustrate the buoyant atmosphere as well as, ironically, the atomic mushroom cloud.

The influences of Surrealism and Pop Art are clear in eccentric, pyschadelic pieces charting social revolutions, and advances in synthetic materials and screen printing.

The Blue section is by far the most interesting artistically for the video of Viktor & Rolf's "Long Live the Immaterial" show. The chromakey technique for superimposing images on to a blue ground is used to evoke the ethereal spirituality of blue.

While the models traverse the catwalk, live images of them are projected on to a screen replacing the scintillating blue clothes with videos of sea and sky, cities and deserts.

Following the sense of well-being created by this suffusion of blue, the negative and positive associations of ambivalent red in the Red & Yellow section are a distinct shock. But then the eyes and psyche readjust to the rich exuberance of this room which focuses on the 18th century and the relationship between color and international trade.

In the final room, white obviously symbolizes purity and innocence. White light contains all the colors before they are broken up in the spectrum. Viktor & Rolf's sense of volume in multiple layers indicates the assimilation of the past by taking us back to their opening piece, "Jacket."

All the pieces from different eras suggest optimistic hopes for the future, and "Colors" claims artistic lineage and social relevance for fashion. Viktor & Rolf feel their clothes are expressions of ideas rather than design whims pandering to the trends and caprices of the fashion market.

This exhibition of beautifully designed and crafted garments researches primal and intellectual interpretations of color. It shows that good contemporary design is a barometer of how far artistic experiments have been incorporated into public consciousness, reflecting common fears, fascinations and desires.

"Colors" runs until Dec. 5 at the Mori Art Museum, Roppongi Hills 53F; admission 1,500 yen. For more information, see

The Japan Times: Sept. 1, 2004
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