WALL STREET JOURNAL | CHRISTINA BINKLEY
Often heralded as one of the greatest designers of his generation, Olivier Theyskens has seen his wispily layered clothes enshrined at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and worn to the Oscars by Madonna. It's hard to fly higher than that in fashion. And he's only 33.
Yet Mr. Theyskens (pronounced TAY-skenz) has had a hard time keeping jobs. At French brands Rochas and Nina Ricci, Mr. Theyskens' collections won rave reviews but failed to sell well enough to satisfy retailers or investors. He became fashion's version of "My So-Called Life"—the TV show that was simultaneously applauded and canceled.
Unemployed for the past year, Mr. Theyskens has collaborated on a book with an old friend, portrait photographer Julien Claessens. Due to be published Feb. 11—the kickoff of New York fashion week—by Assouline, the $120 book has an enticing title: "The Other Side of the Picture."
But this is no tell-all rant, airing the Belgian designer's side of the art vs. commerce controversy. It's a photography book covering his short but highflying career. All art, with just a touch of commerce.
Mr. Claessens, the photographer, studied art, not journalism, but there is reportage in the way he captures moments backstage at a fashion show. If anything, I wish he and Mr. Theyskens had included more shots of the Mr. Theyskens and his assistants at work, and fewer of models' eerily made-up faces and hairdos. The book's magic is in moments such as the tangle of arms as a dress is being donned, or perhaps doffed. Without comment, there are the emaciated bodies of models and muses, such as the corseted boniness of Hana Soukupova backstage at Rochas. There's also the mundane act of sewing, the designer needle in hand.
The book isn't an attempt to bask in the past, he says. "I'm not at all nostalgic," Mr. Theyskens said recently from Paris. He sounded remarkably grounded for someone who once posed for a portrait in "lingerie borrowed from the photographer's girlfriend," according to the introduction by Vogue news editor Sally Singer.
Since departing Nina Ricci last March, Mr. Theyskens says, he hasn't kept up with fashion magazines or parties—even during Paris fashion week last October. "Actually, I was thinking, oh, you should see on the Net what was going on," he says. "But I didn't. It makes me think that normal people—99% of the people—don't run to the Net to see what's happening [on the runways]."
Mr. Theyskens is a boyish wisp of a man who wears his dark hair very long. He famously dropped out of art school at the age of 20. He was hired a few years later as designer of Rochas, where he dressed Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst and won the International Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for his haunting, feminine designs. Mr. Theyskens insisted on designing his own fabrics: Some silk prints were reminiscent of watercolor paintings. He often used materials in new ways, for instance, attaching floaty strands of ostrich feathers to silk dresses.
Dresses 'Like Sculptures'
Mr. Claessens says he sees the designer as a pure artist. "Olivier Theyskens' work goes beyond creating clothes and a collection. Prints are like paintings, dresses are like sculptures," Mr. Claessens says. "I see it at the same level as the work of some conceptual artists or grand movie makers."
Yet some retailers criticized the Rochas collection for being high-priced. Critics gushed, then gasped, as owner Procter & Gamble PG -0.58% shuttered Rochas's fashion line in 2006, saying fashion wasn't "a core competency" of the company. The line was revived in 2008 with new investment partners and a new designer, Marco Zanini.
A year later, Mr. Theyskens landed at Nina Ricci. Again, reviewers gushed and retailers griped. Some ethereal silk blouses cost more than $2,000. His muses were rail-thin.
'I Can't Give It Away'
"He cut for somebody that was tall and very thin. It didn't fit women who could afford clothes of that caliber," says Karen Daskas, owner of the Tender Birmingham boutique near Detroit. There, the designer's final collection for Nina Ricci has been marked down to 60% off. "I can't give it away," she says. "And we try it on everybody."
Mr. Theyskens was shown the door after showing his fall 2009 collection in Paris—and Nina Ricci hired a new designer.
Mr. Theyskens says the criticism that his clothes sold poorly because they cost too much is "legend" but untrue. He also says the production department controlled fit issues using "strict measurement scales supposedly corresponding to the sector."
Is it fair to blame an artist for a brand's lack of commercial success when there are so many factors at play? Perhaps Mr. Theyskens should have paid more attention to the fit of his clothes. But fashion investment consultant Robert Burke believes that what Mr. Theyskens needs is a business partner who can help add wearable, more affordable clothes to his runway demi-couture. That model is working for Alexander McQueen, whose wild runway shows do for his brand image what his wearable precollections do for his sales.
"In the stable of fashion designers who are available [to be hired] now, Olivier Theyskens would be at the top of the list," says Mr. Burke.
Mr. Theyskens' experience with the two design houses says much about the fashion business today. It's reminiscent of the music industry, where record labels once gave artists like Bob Dylan or Pink Floyd years to build an audience. These days, pop artists are either overnight sensations or they're in search of a new label. In fashion, investors also often rotate through designers in search of a magic spark. Alessandra Facchinetti was given only one season at Valentino before a third set of designers in two years was brought in. There was a similar revolving door at Gianfranco Ferre.
As Mr. Theyskens searches for a new label, he says he has been creating imaginary collections in his notebooks. Three or four are completely ready to go—down to the chosen fabrics, plans, "everything."
When asked about the idea of creating his own label, he says, "Oh God. … That's for sure, I have always thought [about] it." Still, he notes, 2009 wasn't a bad year to be on the sidelines, with its economic tumult and dire straits.
When the subject is his artistic oeuvre, Mr. Theyskens seems unflappable. He says, "I know I can be proud of what I have been doing. So voilà. I don't know what I can say more."