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The jacket is an homage to the Rochas pink-and-black-lace perfume box.

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The Shape of Jackets to Come


Published: November 30, 2003

Olivier Theyskens, a 26-year-old Belgian designer, is renowned for a kind of High Goth, Marie Antoinette meets Morticia Addams sensibility, and when he received a call from the house of Rochas in early 2002, he was a little surprised. Rochas was a lost fashion name, a company known mostly for the creation of the guepiere (a long-line girdle that smoothed the curves of women like Marlene Dietrich) and, more enduringly, for creating perfume that arrived in a pale pink box decorated in black lace. Although Rochas had made clothes since 1990, they were not distinctive. ''When they phoned to ask me if I was interested in the job,'' Theyskens (pronounced THIGH-skins) said, calling from his atelier in Paris, ''I remembered the perfume and its box. I have a passionate relationship with black lace. My grandmother, who is French, would collect black lace for me as a child. I would save it. And now I wonder if my interest started with her Rochas box. I think I have that box in my distant memory.''


The fashion world is full of moribund houses: companies that once flourished, usually from the efforts of a now-departed designer. Those houses can be revived. Fendi was reinvented by the success of a handbag called the baguette. And designers from Karl Lagerfeld (at Chanel) to Stella McCartney (at Chloe) have taken classic labels and modernized them. The most vivid example of reinvigoration is Gucci, which was nearly dead when Tom Ford took over 10 years ago. Ford created some beautiful clothes and accessories, but his strategy at Gucci, which has in many ways become the business model for the incredibly global fashion world, was to sell Gucci as a brand. Through extensive marketing, Ford sold an image: if you wore Gucci, you were embracing a world of sexy jet-set coolness.

With Rochas, Theyskens has chosen another, perhaps riskier, path. In his first full collection, for fall 2003, he re-established the house through the power of design. Theyskens is selling a new silhouette. His clothes are based on a different sense of proportion, which he has mixed with luxe elements, like lace and satin. Unlike many collections, these clothes are carefully designed rather than styled for presentation. A narrow oyster gray satin skirt is topped by a tiny jacket, a breeze of pink chiffon circling the skirt's hem; a lace ball gown is constructed like four tiers of capes, each one floating above the next; a traditional black suit is transformed by narrow sleeves and a furry fabric; a skirt of orange petals seems to melt into a snug jacket, fit for a matador. There are informing influences, of course: shades of the 50's and bits of the great Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga in Theyskens's use of volume. But Theyskens's work is startlingly original -- with one collection, he has created a Rochas identity, and he did it without advertising, without a global message. He invented a world through clothes.

''One of the first pieces I designed was a jacket,'' Theyskens recalled. ''I had a precise idea for Rochas and that was classic Parisienne chic. There was a delicateness I wanted to capture, but I wanted to make that contemporary.'' Unlike many designers who work from clothes they've found in flea markets or images culled from movies, Theyskens is inspired by music. He listened to Jacques Brel, Echo and the Bunnymen and a German singer named Maximilian Hecker (''His music is quite romantic'') when he was designing. ''I do not work on the body,'' he said. ''And I do not work from fabrics. I just draw. The music inspires me. It surrounds me -- you can hear music when you're talking, when you're cooking, when you're showering, and when I sit down to sketch, it is already a part of me. I find music is stronger than anything visual.''

Initially, Theyskens drew the signature jacket in profile. It was made of black lace and fit snugly over the body; a grosgrain ribbon was fitted under the bust. Theyskens commissioned the lace, instructing a man who works at Rochas to ''draw a very naive drawing, like he was a baby, and we made the lace from that sketch.'' The jacket is narrow. ''I don't like exposed little bellies like so many girls are showing now,'' he said. ''That is not elegant. But the girls are proud of their flat bellies, and I wanted the jacket to accentuate their slimness.''

The definitive detail of this piece, the quality that would make it emblematic of the entire collection, was a lace bustle that began between the shoulder blades and fanned out. The bustle is like a veil that has been tossed back, a kind of dark bridal moment. ''Most designers ignore the back of a jacket,'' Theyskens explained. ''To create this back requires craft: I love to work with size, to have something very snug and then it poufs out and away. That is like music, too -- soft, then loud. By doing this, it gives the jacket an attitude. I don't like posing, and with this jacket, you don't have to make a pose. The jacket does that for you. And that was my goal for Rochas: to create something authentic through the clothes. The rebuilding would not come through manipulation but through something like this jacket.''

The black jacket with its lace bustle was teamed with a narrow pink satin skirt with a frothy tutulike ruffle encircling the waist. It was Look No. 29 in the fall 2003 show. The jacket cost $3,500 and became a sensation. ''Women can wear the jacket with a white T-shirt and jeans,'' Theyskens said, although he prefers the jacket with its matching pencil-thin skirt. ''But only loose jeans. I don't like the very low jeans.''

Theyskens continued, ''The jacket was a marriage of my Belgian and French sides.'' As a child, growing up near Brussels, Theyskens knew he wanted to design clothes. His parents encouraged him. At 20, he dropped out of La Cambre, the Brussels art academy, and began his own collection. In 1998, when Madonna wore a stunning Theyskens ball gown made of yards of pearl gray tulle half covered by a kind of corsetted black satin robe to the Golden Globes, his name was established. Extraordinarily handsome, Theyskens's dark eyes and long black hair caused Vogue to characterize him as a ''dark prince of Belgian Goth.'' But that title is misleading. ''I've always been a little old-fashioned,'' he said. ''For one thing, I hate everything trendy. I hate everything techno.'' He lives in a small apartment in Paris surrounded by remnants of the past: real stuffed animals -- a giraffe's head, a peacock -- and shies away from anything that seems even vaguely mechanized. ''I have never, for example, liked a big shoulder,'' he said. ''A jacket with a big shoulder pad, which is very 80's, looks, to me, like a protest. I don't feel that, especially at Rochas. I have been attracted to a very feminine ideal.''

Theyskens did not design the collection with Cristobal Balenciaga in mind, but he is interested in the comparison. ''Balenciaga was a real searcher for perfection,'' Theyskens said. Balenciaga was famous for tearing a jacket apart a dozen times until he was satisfied with his work, and he closed his house in 1968 rather than compromise on quality. When he died four years later, Cecil Beaton said, Balenciaga had ''created the future for fashion.'' To a stunning degree, Beaton's prophecy has been realized by Theyskens.

''At Rochas, it comes down to having a new idea that is inspired by the past,'' Theyskens said. ''There is a bridge between generations, between what Balenciaga did and what I am doing, and that is very important. I did not see his work when I was designing, but now I've seen pictures and there's a similar sense of mood, of care in creation.'' He paused. ''It is inspiring to know that you are carrying on a particular tradition. I'm trying to define a way of dressing, which is what everyone has to do every day. I look at this jacket, and I hope it says enough. I want it to inspire someone when she wears it. That's the power of clothes -- it's not just advertising. Great design can really make you happy.''

Lynn Hirschberg is a contributing writer for the magazine. She last wrote about Tim Burton.

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