Welcome to Forgotten Runway, a deep dive into some of the more niche presentations in fashion history—which still have an impact to this day. In this series, writer Kristen Bateman interviews the designers and people who made these productions happen, revealing what made each one so special.
Olivier Theyskens’s fall 1998 show perfectly encapsulated the ’90s New Wave Goth look. Exacting leather corset tops with incisive boning, ceremonious blood-red aorta embroidered into linens, and ghostly powdered faces with creeping mannequin hands attached to models’ heads and waists floated down the runway to a jarring soundtrack featuring famous women screaming—including Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer and Jodie Foster breathing heavily in The Silence of the Lambs. “I was still making everything myself,” says the designer from his Paris studio via Zoom on a recent afternoon. The sheer bodysuits and clear dresses that resembled couture plastic bags were the first indication the designer was going to be big. It was Theyskens’s first show in Paris, and ultimately, the one that would put the designer on the map, plunging him into the canon of great design legends—and later on, cementing his position as creative director for Rochas, Nina Ricci, and Theory.
For the designer and the industry at large, Olivier Theyskens’s fall 1998 show opened the gates to an incredibly distinct vision—one that still lives on. The best shows are a mix of emotion, newness, and, during the best of times, a little bit of discomfort. This presentation had all that and more.
Not only was the fall 1998 collection one of the designer's personal favorites, it also lives on as an epic tribute to the thriving subcultures of that time. Today, the same sort of Gothic look, with a heavy hint of patchwork and upcycling, is everywhere—and Theyskens helped define it for the Paris fashion scene back in the ’90s. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Theyskens’s fall 1998 collection is that he didn’t actually associate it with Gothic codes back then: “I had no clue back in that day what Gothic was,” he says with a laugh. “For me, Gothic was connected to churches and cathedrals. I was just naturally driven to finding the girl, making her beautiful, and sophisticated.”
The show—marking the designer’s second collection ever—took place in 1998 at an abandoned hôtel particulier on Avenue Winston Churchill in Paris. The year prior, Theyskens had shown his Gloomy Trips collection in a Belgian group show. (He was encouraged to put on a presentation in Paris by the French press representative Kuki de Salvertes, who is also associated with helping Raf Simons rise to fame.) Theyskens was living in Brussels, Belgium at the time, where he was an ex-student who recently dropped out of École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuels de la Cambre to start his own line. There, he was upcycling fabrics exclusively; mostly, traditional French textiles his grandmother gave him. “My family in France were very simple people who lived on a farm,” he says. “I always loved it as a child, because it was like experiencing living in the 19th century, with all these old linens in the bed.”
“These very early collections, especially spring 1998 and followed by fall 1998, I still consider them the real roots to my aesthetic,” Theyskens adds, as he holds up a bag of ink-y black French antique jet beads he kept from the collection, roughly 24 years later. “I’m connected to these collections because they were just purely what I wanted to do. I was driven by a form of energy that was almost unconscious. I was working like crazy and I wasn’t just thinking. like, ‘Oh, what will I do? What’s the color of the season?’ I was just doing all I could.’”
Back to the show: Cropped, flesh-baring, Victorian-shaped shrugs mixed with midnight-hued furs trailed the wooden floors, while models showed off clear bodysuits with blood-streaked hearts. Theyskens’s attention to shapes and craft was on full display through the wickedly structured corset coat dresses, which were finished with flashes of hooks and eyes down the front. Lace bodysuits and low-slung trousers had the appeal of something ancient coming together with newness; the high-pitched shoulders of one pink-and-red striped coat dress with matching boots delivered color with extreme madness.
The chill factor was all there—and really, was a major contributor to the show feeling so emotional—notably: the clawing mannequin hands. They covered models—most of whom were friends of the designer—as they walked. “In my sketches, I had realistic proportions and details. A lot of the sketches had these hands holding the face. It was a way for me to imagine that these girls had been manipulated or held,” Theyskens recalls.
That impending sense of discomfort was entirely intentional. “We used a lot of things that felt extremely oppressive,” he says. “From the reaction I got back then, a lot of people that were present, some of them felt not very well.” Despite all that (and the fact that nothing Theyskens designed was for sale yet), industry insiders visited him after the show for over a week, praising his work. The same week Theyskens hosted his fall 1998 runway show, Madonna wore one of his satin coat dresses to the Oscars, styled by Arianne Phillips, also causing the industry to take notice of the young, largely unheard-of designer from Belgium.
Adding to the distinct aesthetic of the collection was the stark makeup created by fellow Belgian makeup artist Peter Philips. “I met Peter when I did my very first presentation in Belgium, which was a multibrand show,” says Theyskens. “He had a little bit of a carte blanche. Looking at my sketches, he really wanted to do a Dangerous Liaisons, overpowered face. He would brush the eyelashes with packets of material, and there was this super-defined red lip.”
Immediately after the presentation, Theyskens broke down into tears. “The show was an absolute mess in a good way, which is always, I think, good for a first show,” he says. Although you can’t tell from the photos or the industry praise during the time, there wasn’t enough room for guests, so the backstage was transformed into a sitting area. “Literally, the girls were dressing up and changing outfits in front of guests in one of the rooms,” says Theyskens. “And somehow, apparently, it was absolutely genius.”
In many ways, it feels like Theyskens is coming full circle in 2022. For his spring 2023 show, which took place in September this year, the designer used archival fabrics and materials from his past collections—including fall 1998. “I’m now working much more now in the same way that I was working at my beginnings,” he says. “I’m doing everything here in small batches. I’m not shy to continue liking some of these shapes.” Theyskens is a collector of divinely beautiful objects, ancient textiles, and materials. That’s what we see in each of his collections: a collage of his uniquely dark, artisanal vision; beloved today, as fashion turns its eye toward a darker aesthetic.