Olivier Theyskens: Designer, Theyskens’ Theory

Everyone has to start somewhere.  For example, Barneys New York founder Barney Pressman funded his first store in 1923 with the $500 he raised by pawning his wife’s engagement ring.  In this column, we talk with the fashion industry’s luminaries about how they got their businesses off the ground.  In other words: the Big Bang, or how it all began.

Our inaugural subject: Olivier Theyskens, whose widely-anticipated Theyskens’ Theory collection is available now at Barneys. We caught up with him as he was getting ready to showcase his next collection at New York’s upcoming Fashion Week.

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Barneys New York: Tell us about the earliest days of your business.  How did you get up and running?

Olivier Theyskens: I left school mid-term in 1997, and started making clothes on my own.  I would work night and day on these items that I made entirely by myself.  It was impossible to produce them on a larger scale as I didn’t have any organization around me yet, and I had to decline many order requests – even from Barneys! – during my two first seasons.  Thanks to the media support and strong editorials appearing at that time about my garments, I was able to visit factories with these stories and ask them for help to start the brand project.  And by the summer of ’99, I was able to produce and deliver to stores, all while remaining a totally independent designer.

BNY: Any funny or poignant stories?

OT: At that time, I could barely speak English — and being totally in my world, I was also very naive. When I had an important magazine on the phone, when I was told to “please hold,” I systematically hung up the phone as I thought the receptionist was asking me to call back later.  I had no cell phone and with no driver’s license, I always need friends to drive me everywhere.

BNY:  Who helped you along the way?

OT:  I was lucky to always have an amazing support from my parents and family.  Also, faithful buyers, editors, and professionals in production and communications really helped me along the way.  I don’t work with some of them anymore — they were there at the beginning only — but I still feel very grateful to them, because without their attention, I would not have been able to do what I am doing now.

BNY:  When did you know that you’d “arrived”?

OT: I always feel I can go further and do better, but I remember one of my very early shows, I had all the most important people of the fashion world attending.  Yet it was strange feeling to have such a great audience and feel like if I had “arrived,” when I still had so much more to show and accomplish in the future.

– Lesley M. M. Blume

Photo credit: Patrick Demarchelier