Christopher Michael: I’ve read in some of your previous interviews that you’ve been sketching since quite a young age… Have you kept all of those drawings from the very beginning? Do you think you would ever be open to putting those images into a book?
Olivier Theyskens: I have a huge amount of drawings from when I was young. I have two trunks full of drawings, from..well, ever! Anything and everything. There are a little fashion drawings and other kinds of drawings as well.. I never had a professor for drawing, the only time I went to school, my mother brought me, and the professor brought a mannequin of a beautiful woman’s face and told me, “draw that.” So I drew it and I only had done the contouring, you know the eyes and everything, and then she came and took a pen and made a big line in the middle of the face and said, “You have to make this disappear with shadowing and everything.” I remember I was too sensitive and shocked by the act of making that mark in the face, I cried and we never went back. Actually it’s funny because my Grandpa, when he passed away, my parents discovered that he had put a lot of my drawings in a bank. I always had a big amount of drawings in my room and little by little they ended up in the trash. As a child I didn’t really think it was a big deal, but I now have a lot of those drawings that my grandfather kept and another huge amount that I kept on my own. It’s a huge mess; there are no dates on them or anything… I should really take the time to organize them. I think what’s interesting with those old ones is that you see the change throughout and the evolution. The funny thing is when you look at old stuff you remember the moment it was created. I don’t always remember the year but I remember doing it, or showing it; there are always memories connected to each piece. I think that a book of drawings is a great idea, but I’m not sure that I would be so interested in doing a book of my old drawings, necessarily.
CM: I really appreciate the fact that you seem to operate in your own realm in terms of being aware but not really paying so much attention to what other people are doing when you are creating your own designs..
OT: I tend to reject things that remind me of the work of others, if I do a drawing and I have the thought that it resembles something already done I never keep it. I don’t like it at all when it’s clearly inspired by someone else or is clearly the idea of another person. So I have to be aware of what is already done as well. Sometimes I have a strong feeling about what someone is doing, like “oh that person is right, this is really what girls are looking for,” and at those times, it’s very hard to not re-project that vision into your own work. To say to yourself, “ok, I can still bring something else,”…that part is not easy sometimes. It depends on where you put the creativity. If it is a really inspired collection you should be able to do it without copying anybody else’s idea or inspirations.
CM: You said that you don’t have a muse and it made me wonder if perhaps you are your own muse?
OT: This is a question that everyone asks and I understand that everyone is wondering. Someone who creates women’s fashion and these ideas should probably have a muse or an example, a perfect version of it all. It’s true, but I like a lot of strong female characters. I like to look at pictures of models, and great actresses; I like all people actually, family people, a lot of women, a lot of girls and all that, but I don’t have just one muse in particular. I have been discussing a little bit, the subject of myself as my own muse. I could say for example, I can imagine what it is like to be that person, to be that woman, and how I would like to be dressed. It’s not really a muse, but I don’t need to see the girl right in front of me to imagine what she will look like… I feel it. But I would not say I am my own muse (laughs). I have an imagination the way a film maker has an idea of how he wants the actress to be. I think in the movies there are a lot of people who are looking for something they imagined, they had a scenario or an idea but they don’t have a particular muse that the actress is supposed to imitate or try to look like. I feel as though I’m more like that. I like the models and how they look, and they are great to show a collection, but at the same time you want to also give them something different.
CM: How has the past year been in terms of your process with the book? What has the journey been like through 2009?
OT: The book has been a very great thing for me and a great story because I know, and I think Julien knows, that it’s a unique project. We were never thinking when we met (I was 17) that we’d do this. After a few years he did pictures sometimes but we had never thought that I’d be doing what I’m doing now and that he would come to shows making a lot of materials that would ultimately end up becoming a book. He kept everything; he has all of the negatives, etc. The work that the book was edited down from spanned over 15 years so obviously we didn’t end up using everything. He was a really close friend of mine that would come to the shows all the time, not necessarily for pictures, and a few times he was starting a process with his new camera and asked me if he could take pictures and I was like, “sure, but don’t bother the professionals please,”‘ and I would not even see the images he was doing. It was an interesting subject for him to go further and see more. Then little by little he started coming to all of the shows with his camera. When we look back on it now, it’s quite amazing. Backstage is such a strange place, there is so much happening. He’s always looked at it in his own way, trying to find what was interesting for him, and I think that is what makes the book special, that it’s not a vision of images we usually see from fashion. He came to me with the idea and I said, ” ok, show me an example of what you would like to do,” and he came to me with a little book, only 10 examples… it was a little book with no chronology, the pictures all together, all black and white and only a few color shots at the end. I thought it was so beautiful I decided to show it to an editor and see what they thought, so I went to Assouline and they ended up loving the idea. Like me, they thought there was something with the color pictures, that we should see where we could go with the images in color. So I told him that I’d like him to continue shooting in color and let it evolve and see what we can do. Eventually the moment to do it arrived. I told him at the last show, “Make good pictures because I think we are there, so try and make it the best so we could end with a good session!” I had never really interfered in Julien’s work. We had been doing things together and I always had a lot of respect for him, I’m usually the person who makes a lot of the decisions, but I’m very open to respecting someone else’s own creativity and I could give my opinion but in the end it was very much him who made the final choices.
CM: And you guys have known each other since school right?
OT: Yes, he was in photography and I was in fashion design but I did not stay long. I went away quickly and we just kept in touch. We remained good friends. Actually, every time I wanted to make some sort of photo material, I always asked him to help or to give me his advice. He is a person that is very rare. We don’t have enough people today that are really individual, going their own way. The people who allow themselves to forget sometimes what fashion is doing and they do what is really pure and modern and purely beautiful. He does a lot of his own work. When you see a portrait of his, you end up really questioning yourself, is it beauty?, is it ugly?, it’s very attractive…yet very strange. He likes models and takes portraits of people that he is fascinated by. He can make a picture of a strange guy or of a girl who is beautiful but has a very interesting face that you don’t always understand. In many ways, there is a bit of tragedy also in his work. He is strangely seeking something that is questionable I find…He is so sensitive that it can take months before he finds somebody he wants to do a portrait of. What he did for the backstage worked fine because it’s every 6 months, but for his own work he’s very step by step, and into taking his time. He needs to almost fall in love or something, it’s very bizarre. He’s a perfectionist. In photography, it’s not fashion. People are not wearing pictures, so photography can be more elitist sometimes, also. There is not only one way of doing it. I think that’s the problem for many fashion photographers these days, you have legendary photographers that are famous for 10 pictures, and the famous photographers now days have to do a shooting every 2 days. It’s very hard. You need clever assistants who can find you new lights, which doesn’t make it so easy to be a perfectionist now. I think the mass production in the industry made photoshop such a useful tool. So many shootings today, you can see the result on the screen right away and even if it’s not so perfect, you can just correct it afterward. You don’t shoot anymore a “moment de grâce” or find this magical moment where everything was perfect and you captured it. There is so much to be done that it’s become useful though, and also to make diversity, to change the color and all of that. If we were still relying only on the camera, we would not be able to do so many pictures that look different from one another.
CM: What was it like doing the French Vogue with Mario Sorrenti?
OT: Ahh yes yes yes, this is a person I really love. It was easy, what was good is that it was a place where we had a very natural light. There was this window in the ceiling, and we were there around midday so it was a really nice, strong source of light. Mario is heterosexual, but when he shoots his model he’s also a very sensual person, everyone feels that. You see it in the pictures, the models, you know they were charmed a little bit and when you see his work you understand. Even when I see Natasha Poly photographed by Sorrenti these days, there is such sex appeal. Even though I’m a boy, I could feel his charm, feel what being in front of his camera is like. You don’t have that all the time, but there is a chemistry between a model and a photographer. It can be a distance, or an appeal, or just a clever feeling but there is always a link…
CM: If you look at the people who come out of Belgium, from you to Dries, photographers like Willy Vanderperre, stylists like Olivier Rizzo… What is it about this small country that seems to produce so much talent?
OT: For me, the connection with France is important for some of my fashion roots… we are very close (Belgium and France). I remember always going between France or England when I was a child. I always thought Belgium was a place “near the other places.” It’s very much a mix of cultures. On the TV you would see things that are produced by other countries, or music from other countries; it was rare to get your own culture that was made by your own country, which is probably why a lot of Belgians tend to travel a lot. They are very open and yet, still they have their own roots. You can make serious work together with Belgians also. I find that we tend to be very hard workers. In the end, actually, it seems that I have a lot of Belgians around me. Even if I’m not attached to the fact that they are Belgian, every time I think wow, they really work well. It’s strange, in Belgium if you ask someone to repair something you know they will do it well. If they are charged with a project, it will get done. In France it can sometimes be a different story.
CM: What was it like to have such success so young?
OT: Well even when I was in school, it was known that I wanted to be a designer who is known. I wanted the top things. I remember that there were no students that wanted that; even if they did, they would not dare to say it. However, I was thinking at the time it would take 15 years, because it was not common at that time to do a show. It was becoming slightly boring around that period… there was not enough new things and I had a feeling there was space for new things. When I started I had to do a lot by myself, I think it’s not the key to success but it’s important to know all of these aspects. Even I think it’s great to know the time it takes to do something, because I’m not slow, I’m quite quick, but I know what I’m asking a person to do when I ask them to do something for me, even to make a pattern or to sew. You have to take the time to imagine a collection, to draw it and to follow it and make it real. You appear to be living with that craziness, only when the collection is done and it’s shown, you retire back to the peaceful side.