Olivier Theyskens's Theory of relativity: High standards at a lower price

SEASON OF CHANGE: After attracting attention (if not sales) during his tenures at Rochas and Nina Ricci, Olivier Theyskens is back in the fashion world with a spring collection for Theory, above.
SEASON OF CHANGE: After attracting attention (if not sales) during his tenures at Rochas and Nina Ricci, Olivier Theyskens is back in the fashion world with a spring collection for Theory, above. (Theory - Theory)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010


The designer Olivier Theyskens was once a highly touted wunderkind in Paris's high fashion circles. He attracted Madonna with his darkly romantic -- and vaguely unsettling -- signature collection and then dazzled editors with his work for Rochas and Nina Ricci. Throughout his tenure at both venerable houses, he displayed little interest in the commercial side of the fashion business. He pursued beauty at its loftiest level. So what if that meant his ready-to-wear evening gowns regularly cost more than $20,000 and the customers didn't even get to brag about their multiple fittings in a couture salon?

Well, what happened is that while pieces from both labels were featured in a multitude of glossy style magazines, few women bought the exquisite clothes. And Theyskens was soon out of a job. Twice.

But for spring 2011, he has returned to the fashion world under the umbrella of Theory, the mid-priced department store line that is known for its well-fitting -- if one does not happen to have noticeable hips -- trousers, its urbane attitude and its ability to please many customers while exciting very few of them.

This may be Theyskens's wisest move yet; it's certainly a coup for Theory. And it makes one chuckle at the way in which the high-end fashion industry has defined itself as an art form distinguished by both creativity and quality -- and thus worth its vertiginous prices. All fashion has a healthy padding of profit, but there was also the idea that tucked into that expanse was a lush creativity that simply could not blossom at lower price points. Artists needed resources and resources cost money. It seemed logical enough.

Theyskens's new gig takes the wind out of that fashion philosophy, maybe once and for all.

Unlike acclaimed designers who dabbled in disposable fashion for companies such as H&M, Theyskens didn't water down his sensibility into a capsule collection meant to give customers access to his name while still preserving the integrity of a more highfalutin brand. Theyskens' Theory -- as the collection is called -- is his point of view. It retains the vaguely Gothic tone of his signature line. It has the romance of Rochas. And it has the sportswear mentality and melancholy of Nina Ricci.

It also fits comfortably with the broader Theory brand. It is designed with longevity -- not fads -- in mind. No, there are no glorious fantasy ball gowns but, frankly, the only time those ever saw daylight -- or twilight -- was when they were borrowed by a starlet or other boldface name.

Theyskens, who is Belgian by birth, now divides his time between Paris and New York. And he was on hand this month, on the rooftop of Theory's Meatpacking District headquarters, to introduce his full-blown collection of about 100 pieces that includes ready-to-wear, shoes, bags and jewelry.

The jackets have notches cut out of the back of the collars, as if they were too constricting and the wearer, growing irritated with the constant struggle to be comfortable, just took a pair of scissors to them. The trousers sit on the hips and are full and fluid. Blouses have extra-wide buttonless cuffs and are constructed so that the front can be smoothly tucked into a pair of trousers while the tail hangs out. As for pricing, a purple, double-layered slip dress will cost about $690. That's not cheap, but it's far more commercially viable than the $4,000 dresses he was making for the French labels.

After leaving Nina Ricci, Theyskens said he felt disengaged from the luxury business. He wanted to create something for all the young women "who want to buy my clothes" but could not. He also admitted that he's not one to revel -- at least not now -- in disposable fashion. "I don't like things that are cheap," says Theyskens, whose long black hair hangs just past his shoulders and whose manner is soft-spoken but firm.

Theory has allowed him to obsess about fit -- he works on the patterns himself -- and he's also been able to use some of the same fabric mills that he'd grown accustomed to. (With a large company like Theory behind him, he has the cost benefits of volume, even as he crafts a relatively niche product.)

The result are clothes that seem perfectly well-made but do not cost a fortune.

Which leaves one to wonder: In fashion, why does cost seem to be only tangentially related to quality -- both in execution and imagination? It may be that the industry has reached a leveling-off point at which improvements in garments are so incremental that they're not worth the added cost, unless one is willing to drift into the realm of couture or the world of Chado Ralph Rucci where even a cotton poplin dress can set one back several thousand dollars -- but looks like it's worth a million bucks.

One of the problems that plagued New York's Fashion Week was that so many of the garments on the runway could easily be knocked off, save for a few labels such as Proenza Schouler and Rodarte, where fabrics were exquisitely crafted; Michael Kors, where fabrics were beautifully manipulated; and Calvin Klein, where silhouettes were balanced down to the millimeter. Most everything else could be re-created for much less than designer prices.

Theyskens doesn't just prove that a lovely sweater can be had for $300 instead of $800. The savvy shopper already knows that. He proves that his estimable creativity doesn't suffer when a dress can cost $600 instead of $6,000. There's nothing grasping, insecure or painfully derivative in the clothes. They are interesting -- and that's saying a lot this season. Theyskens shows that creativity can blossom at every level of fashion. And when it doesn't, that's not a failure of a company's financial investment, it's a failure of a designer's imagination.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company