To Catch a Thief

Published December 4, 2015

The Threatened Swan, Jan Asselijn’s oil-painted masterpiece, was the first acquisition of the Nationale Kunstgalerij in Amsterdam—the museum that would eventually become the Rijksmuseum. Completed around 1650, the painting is thought to symbolize Dutch politician Johann De Witt, who would be assassinated in 1672. So when Victor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Amsterdam-based fashion house Victor & Rolf conceptualized their Fall/Winter 2015 couture collection as “wearable art,” The Threatened Swan was an obvious choice. They weren’t inspired by specific Dutch masters so much as the idea of the Rijksmuseum itself, the designers tell us, and by reimagining historic paintings as useful art objects so “the final dress was also a sculpture that can be hung on the wall.” The Threatened Swan, look 15, became the centerpiece of a collection that wholeheartedly embraces the idea of designer-as-artist, an idea that Victor & Rolf have continued to explore in their new short film and directorial debut, Nightwatch.

Nightwatch is something of an origin story for the Threatened Swan look in the designers’ July presentation. It honors their Dutch roots while embracing the constant conversation between different art forms. As the adage goes, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” Nightwatch depicts a fashionable grand theft in the eponymous Night Watch Gallery: A woman enters the grand Rijksmuseum space where The Threatened Swan hangs (as does Rembrandt’s The Night Watch). She stalks the perimeter, slowly approaching the painting. She reaches out for it, her fingers just barely grazing its surface. This gesture breaks the spell that transfixes her. She removes the painting from the wall and crushes the canvas, frame and all. The film leaps forward to a makeshift runway down the center of the gallery, model Valentijn de Hingh striding towards us with The Threatened Swan wrapped around her shoulders.

Though Nightwatch marks Horsting and Snoeren’s first foray into filmmaking, they explain it wasn’t too much of a leap. “In the end our work is all about storytelling,” they say. “A movie somehow comes closest to a fashion show, as the moving image is combined with music.” And as Amsterdam natives, their memories of the Rijksmuseum date back to boyhood visits at age 10, when the grand Rembrandt works first left their mark. Nightwatch opens a new chapter of their work, but it’s also a return to foundations.