Wonder Women

by Gabriel Bell
"Who said that feminists don't wear cocktail dresses?" says Truus Spijkers, one half of the self-declared feminist and functionalist Dutch design duo Spijkers & Spijkers, as she defends her inalienable right to dress her models in dollish skirts and diaphanous tops. As always, her twin and partner, Riet, is right by her side. "We think it is important for girls to emphasize their female side, not deny it," she says.
Having wrested control of their own hemlines at an early age, the twins are quite practiced in this lacy version of women's lib. Says Riet, "We grew up making clothes. Our aunt was a seamstress and always helped us when we wanted to make clothes for ourselves." Long before they envisioned a future in fashion, the two were taking their designs seriously and dividing up corporate duties. "Even then," says Truus, "it was clear that Riet was the more technical one. She would sit with my aunt, determined to make a Colbert jacket."

We like to work with strong and clear geometric forms…we use them to create coupe and to emphasize the female body. This way we can show female forms in a strong and independent way, not just curvy and round.

Ironically, it was when the sisters decided to pursue a formal education in design that the young collaborators were first divided. "We both applied for the Art Academy in Arnhem, but they made it clear from the start that they could only accept one of us," says Riet. "They thought it would not be good for our personal development to accept us both—maybe they were right." While Truus made her way through the fashion department, Riet spent a year at the AKI Academy of Fine Art and Design, eventually enrolling in and graduating from Arnhem a year behind her sister.
While both found the time apart positive, winning awards as individual designers and honing their craft, Truus says, "I think it made it clear that we are stronger when we work together. We complement each other." Concerning their process, the more vocal twin explains, "Riet thinks in three dimensions and is very technical. I think more about style and color. We both make the designs for a new collection, then Riet starts pattern-making and I gather fabrics."
After school, the Spijkers launched their label in 1996, collected several more awards, earned the praise of the European press, and cultivated a loyal following on the Continent and in Japan based on their silken, Art-Deco-inspired dresses and separates. While their fabrics shimmer and cast lush, sensual tones over the body, well defined, almost rigid structures lie beneath their designs—a combination that creates a thoughtful, sexy image. "We like to work with strong and clear geometric forms," says Truus. "We use them to create coupe and to emphasize the female body. This way we can show female forms in a strong and independent way, not just curvy and round." High-waist dresses from spring/summer '06, for instance, combined shimmering, flowing materials with sharp-edged geometric block patterns paired with undone men's bowties around the neck. The sharp, often erotic line combined serious and sarcastic, lithe and bold compact, mobile packages.

Who said that feminists don't wear cocktail dresses?…We
think it is important for girls to emphasize their female side,
not deny it.

Again, this mix of soft materials with hard lines comes from an ongoing historical fixation. "We find the design and art of the 1920s very inspiring and beautiful," says Riet. "Artists really thought about shape, material, details, and function—things that we also find very important when we are making our designs." Truus echoes her sister. "This era was one of great renewal in art, fashion, and dance. Early steps toward women's emancipation were made during this period, too. Notions of the ideal woman began to transform."
But the Spijkers aren't just interested in broad-picture history in their work. Several of their collections are based on detailed, almost fetishistic explorations of specific historical instances and persons including Paul Gaugin's Tahitian mistress and Pablo Picasso's affair with Dora Maar. "In the back of our minds," says Truus, "we are always on the search for a theme and guidelines."
Perhaps the most esoteric and colorful is the motif of their recent autumn/winter '06/'07 collection, based on the work and life of Lizzie Ansingh, a Dutch painter of the early 20th century. "She was one of the Amsterdam Juffers, a wealthy independent thinker who did not live her life as a housewife," says Truus. In addition to more '20s splendor, the sisters have dropped buttons atop scandalous see-through tops and balanced sweet, cinched waists with confident shoulder constructions in tribute to Ansingh's peculiar mix of feminist and feminine themes. "The inspiration for her paintings," says Truus, "came mainly from the dolls in a dollhouse she kept in her studio. They were her muses, she thought that each had a soul." The sisters have animated the painter's collection, going so far as to echo the patterns seen on Ansingh's favorite doll, Piepje, with striking geometric Chinese puzzle-block designs.
"The persons that we know who wear our designs are strong, independent women," says Truus. In the case of this latest line, it seems there's nothing regressive about dressing like a living doll.
For more information, go to www.spijkersenspijkers.com.
Dutch twins Riet and Truus Spijkers recover the soul in the millennial girl wonder.