Talking to the Dutch fashion designer duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren is a particularly theatrical exercise, part surrealist comedy and part Sprockets. At any moment I expect Mike Myers, the black-clad star of Saturday Night Live's Euro-parody, to burst in and say, "Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance!"
It is the designers' first visit to Toronto. They are here to inspect the location for their upcoming exhibition at the Luminato Festival, featuring a collection of handmade porcelain dolls dressed in tiny Viktor & Rolf couture outfits."Do you like Toronto?" I ask Snoeren, by way of denting the ice.
"Oh yes," he says. "It reminds me of Amsterdam." He is staring out the window onto a city that is about as much like Amsterdam as a banana is like a giraffe. He speaks with deadpan earnestness, but it still feels like the Dutch equivalent of leg-pulling.
Sly humour and absurdity have been hallmarks of Horsting and Snoeren's work since they began collaborating in 1993. There was the time they painted their catwalk models black, and dressed them in all-black clothes; or the "NO" collection, with that word sewn onto the outfits and painted on the models' faces; or the perfume bottle they designed, which wouldn't open.
In other words, they like to play, although it's a particularly adult kind of play, with a sinister, knowing edge. And where better to explore this tension than through dolls, which are both the innocent playthings of children through history and the blank-faced monsters at the centre of countless horror films?
"There is something very sadistic about them," Horsting says of the porcelain figures they commissioned a traditional Belgian craftsman to make, each one requiring months of work. "They're dolls, so it suggests play, but they're so delicate and beautiful that you're not supposed to touch them." The two men seamlessly stitch their droll conversation together, with one ending a sentence the other has begun. Snoeren picks up: "I had dolls when I was a child, Barbies. I did very cruel things to them. The nice thing about these porcelain dolls is that they're almost menacing." They look at each other, pleased with this idea.
Snoeren and Horsting are, quite deliberately, very much alike: Natty is the word that comes to mind. They were born in the same year (1969) and now sport identical cropped hair and 1970s accountant glasses. There are ways to tell them apart: Horsting wears a vintage tie with safety pins on it and speaks slightly better English; Snoeren, somewhat more impish, is wearing a polka-dot hoodie and patterned jeans.
They claim never to disagree and are both, as you might expect, detail men. Not just when it comes to the couture (which is worn on red carpets by actresses like Jessica Alba and Julianne Moore), but also the dolls they'll be bringing to Toronto. Each doll is 70 cm high – "too big to be cute," says Horsting – and is designed to resemble a particular model in Viktor & Rolf's catwalk shows, down to their makeup, clothes and hairstyles.
"The heads are baked five times to get the makeup right," says Snoeren. "And all the wigs are made from human hair."
But not the model's own? Horsting pauses as if considering this idea for next year. "That would be great."
The dolls travel in special crates, or, as Snoeren says, "They have their own homes." Their tiny costumes are made in the same atelier where Viktor & Rolf's couture lines are created, each one sewn by hand. The miniatures wardrobes are much more difficult to fashion, because the patterns need to be specially cut, the fastenings and embellishments made by hand.
In a way, Viktor & Rolf's success is improbable. Their designs, theatrical and challenging, hark back to a different era, more Fassbinder than Target. They feel the world becoming increasingly commercial around them, and less welcoming to their provocative aesthetic. "It's something we don't like," Snoeren says.
So, while they can, they mix the macabre and the absurd, and sell it to an adoring public. Their two successful perfumes, Flowerbomb and Spicebomb, are packaged in pretty glass bottles designed to look like hand grenades. Isn't that a bit provocative, given the world we live in?
For the first time, the deadpan mask slips and Horsting says, passionately, "No, because people realize it's a very positive play and twist on the idea of a grenade."
"It's a weapon of beauty," says Snoeren.
"It's a positive weapon," says Horsting. "Like a new kind of flower power."
Okay, so clearly they do agree on everything. They also both love the controversial Daniel Libeskind addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, where the dolls will be on show. In 2008, when the porcelain figures were presented at London's Barbican Centre, they were arranged in a giant dollhouse. In Toronto, they will be displayed in a catwalk setting near the museum's entrance, and free of charge to view.
There is something eerie about the idea of these dozens of exquisite porcelain dolls, with their five-times-baked heads, gazing sightlessly into the museum when no one's around. Do Viktor and Rolf ever wonder what they get up to at night?
They look at each other, then at me. Perhaps the thought has already occurred to them. Horsting says, "We don't like to think about it."
Dolls by Viktor & Rolf is a free installation at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, June 9 to 30, as part of Luminato..