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Poetic in his power

Times Staff Writer

“Pretty,” “sexy” and “edgy” are all standard words one uses in the moments after a runway show to sum up a collection. But it’s the rare designer who elicits reactions like “melancholy,” “poetic” and “ethereal.”

Olivier Theyskens is that designer.

He burst onto the scene a decade ago, an art school dropout who didn’t even have one collection under his belt when he dressed Madonna for the 1998 Academy Awards in a black satin coat dress with hook-and-eye closures. Now, he’s heading up Nina Ricci, basking in the glow of his second hit collection for the house, and planning a trip to L.A., where he’ll reprise his spring runway show for a charity lunch on Tuesday.

Then, there’s a trunk show, and maybe a real estate scouting trip -- Nina Ricci is looking to open a store in L.A. And even after many trips here for celebrity fittings, he still hasn’t found a favorite hotel. “I went to the Chateau Marmont, but I didn’t stay. I don’t know what it was -- maybe I had chosen a ghostly room.”

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Two weeks ago in Paris, several designers showed under the tent at the Tuileries, but Theyskens was the only one to leave the back flap open, letting his models float onto the runway from the outdoors like woodland nymphs. Their hair was flocked with feathers, and their pants and silk tops were tinged with the colors of morning light. They wore blankets tossed casually over their shoulders, or rumpled jackets split up the back, as if they had taken one too many spins on the dance floor the night before.

“I thought about girls in the early morning, coming back from a ball in the 1930s or a modern-day music festival or rave party,” Theyskens says afterward in his Paris showroom. “They are a little bit sad and drained. Alone.”

Poetic indeed.

Between his moody clothes and his unsettling Christ-like visage, you’d expect Theyskens to be a difficult conversation. When he takes his bow on the runway, he looks as if he wants to disappear. But when you meet him, he’s easygoing, and you find yourself startled to be chatting about the childhood eczema that made him insecure (“I never felt beautiful”), his love of yoga (“Sometimes when I’m working on the bottom of a dress, I’ll do a little stretch”) and his disdain for Champagne (“There’s too much of it in Paris”).

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Just 30 years old, he’s already had a lifetime of career highs and lows. He launched his collection out of his apartment in Brussels, and photographed it himself for a catalog he mailed out to editors. The art/fashion photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin showed it to Madonna, and all of a sudden Theyskens was being hailed as the next big thing. Six months later, he was in Paris presenting his first runway show of gowns made from his grandmother’s old lace tablecloths and tea towels.

Back then, his raven hair was even longer than it is now, and he took his runway bow in black thigh-high boots. It’s no wonder the press dubbed him the “Goth wunderkind.” He still has a penchant for eyeliner.

His timing was perfect. There was a hunger for young talent in the late 1990s, when Gucci and other luxury brands’ homogenous approach to fashion was becoming the norm. Miles away from Tom Ford’s slickly marketed sexiness, Theyskens’ clothes were in the same all-black spirit as those of Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela and other Belgian minimalists who came before him. But there was a fairy-tale quality to his work, too, even as he sent models out with taxidermied canaries on the tops of their shoes. “I wanted the birds to look like they fell out of the nest,” he told the Independent of London.

It was a precursor to what he would do at Rochas, the musty old brand he was soon hired to revitalize. His first collection for fall 2003 was a glorious fashion moment, with buzzing wasps projected on a screen above the runway and hive-shaped purses, a subtle tribute to Marcel Rochas’ trademark corseted wasp waist.

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But that’s where the references ended, because what Theyskens did was introduce an entirely new silhouette. His jacket -- with a lace bustle that began between the shoulder blades -- made headlines. And it revived an interest in volume in the back of clothing that has trickled down to every segment of the market. Why are you wearing a pleated-back coat this fall? Because of Theyskens.

“He’s been so influential in his quiet way,” says Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, where Theyskens has a trunk show in Beverly Hills on Wednesday. The store is also co-hosting the Couture Cares Revlon/UCLA Breast Center benefit, which is being held at designer Kelly Wearstler’s house in Beverly Hills.

With that first Rochas show and others -- the chimney sweep collection, where he ironed wrinkles into soot-colored suits, the Monet collection of floor-sweeping gowns inspired by the Waterlilies paintings -- Theyskens ushered in the era of demi-couture. Some gowns from the Monet collection cost as much as $20,000.

Which didn’t make for quick profits. Theyskens, like so many young designers today, was subject to the whims of big business, in his case parent company Proctor & Gamble. It closed down the unprofitable fashion wing of Rochas in July 2006, choosing to produce only the profitable fragrances.

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The designer easily landed on his feet. In fact, he had been mulling a move to Ricci already, he told me. But the future is still uncertain. The house’s parent company is the Spanish fragrance giant Puig Group, which also owns Carolina Herrera. It has helped develop that label, but failed with another, Paco Rabanne. Still, Theyskens is optimistic, pointing to the launch of jewelry and shoes for spring.

Besides, Ricci is a brand without a lot of design DNA, save for the distinctive winged Lalique L’Air du Temps bottle (Theyskens did it over in black for this holiday season). “I looked back through the years, and every designer did their own thing. I did what I felt was right, and it ended up being something totally Nina Ricci -- eternally young, very fragile and a bit lady.”

Theyskens’ ideal woman is “sensitive to every little thing,” he says. His celebrity muse is Reese Witherspoon, who wore his striking yellow cocktail dress to the Golden Globes in January.

“I was in Paris at the Rochas store, and I was so in awe of the detail, the handiwork, the way he structured a gown,” Witherspoon says. “He is so conscious of a woman’s body, but his clothes are also transporting. He did a whole collection based on blackbirds, and it was so fairy tale, it reminded me of Southern Gothic.”

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Theyskens came to L.A. with his swatches a few months before the Golden Globes, and the two of them sat on her living room floor with her dogs, his fabrics and his daydreams. She loved the yellow silk because it was so happy and joyful. He fitted her with a muslin, before the final dress, and the way he stitched it “was not conventional,” she says. “The stitches were diagonal across the body, these beautiful lines that wrap around you.”

The spring collection, like everything Theyskens does, is rooted in the past. But the fabrics and techniques are quite modern. A pleated ball gown is titanium iodized, making it glow like a moonbeam, but inside the corsetry is reminiscent of old-world couture. A pearl gray leather jacket is lined in marbleized silk, like an antique book jacket.

“I don’t know if melancholy is part of my personality because I am actually very happy,” Theyskens says. “But at the same time, I want girls to have some emotion so that they are human. And things that are sad can sometimes be very beautiful, like nature and weather and light.”

Theyskens has been sketching dresses since he was a child in Brussels. “I was always the child who was giving his drawings to everybody, hoping they would love me more.” He started art school at 17 but was bored by his studies. He had accumulated vintage fabrics from his grandmother, who collected them from flea markets, and eventually made so many clothes, he had a collection.

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Buyers were interested from the start, and Theyskens was thrown onto a lifeless treadmill, working until 3 a.m., answering faxes and filling orders. When opportunity struck at Rochas, it was the way back to creative freedom. “I had been managing my own business for five years, and it was crazy. The choice was go to a house, or stay forever as a young designer.”

And if one thing’s for sure, Theyskens is not content to stay still. A self-described travelholic, he will go to Australia for four days or Tokyo for three. “I’m just happy to move,” he says.

Which is why it seems right that he’s landed at Ricci, where the house’s emblem is a winged dove, forever ready to take flight.

booth.moore@latimes.com

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