“I know you’ve heard this before,” says Viktor&Rolf: Fashion Artists exhibition co-curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot, “but you wouldn’t wear it.”

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, the duo behind the globally renowned haute-couture brand, feign shock. “You wouldn’t?” says Hosting.

It’s an understatement to say the assembled gowns and outfits currently on show at the NGV until February aren’t street-ready.

Take, for instance, the Russian Doll collection. Eight outfits designed to be layered on top of one another, from a simple jute and satin dress, to various combinations of lace, sequins, crystals and taffeta, to a completely overwhelming, shapeless, sack-like gown. By layer eight the model is wearing about 70 kilograms of fabric.

Loriot, wearing a denim jacket he boasts was designed just for him by the duo, met Horsting and Snoeren in a Paris restaurant through mutual friend Rufus Wainwright. He had recently curated the NGV’s The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition, and he was a key part of making this current show happen.

For some it might be an odd fit for the National Gallery of Victoria to team up with the world of high fashion. But the designers, who have worked together for 25 years, consider themselves artists first.

“The art world just responded really well to our work,” says Snoeren. “Well,” he clarifies, “the art world responded. The fashion world didn’t at all.”

It wasn’t until much later that the commercial side of the Viktor&Rolf brand grew to what it is now. They’ve designed collections for H&M, and their Flowerbomb perfume is available to buy from a pink cart immediately as you leave the exhibition. While you wouldn’t wear the pieces in the show, the duo has designed plenty of commercially available pieces that you would. They’ve been treading that fine border between art and commerce ever since.

You don’t need an understanding of the world of haute couture to appreciate Fashion Artists, which is hugely enjoyable. For a start, it’s all dryly funny and odd. Their 2010 collection Cutting Edge Couture, a response to the global financial crisis, is made from material that appears to have been hacked into with a chainsaw.

The overarching theme of “wearable art” is never more literally interpreted than in a collection of gowns made from broken gold picture frames and cut-ups of Renaissance paintings. More successfully, the piece Van Gogh Girls works as a response to Van Gogh in a completely different context without being so literal as to incorporate his work.

Then there are the dolls. Scattered throughout the show there are handmade porcelain dolls wearing perfect scale replicas of some of Viktor&Rolf’s designs. They’re a perfectly macabre addition to a show already laced with irony. If you’re in doubt the addition of the dolls is meant to be funny and creepy, proceed to the final piece in the exhibition; a miniature catwalk on which a robotic porcelain doll walks, waves and turns.

It’s bits like this that lift the show beyond being a collection of gowns. As Horsting and Snoeren have said, they always begin with a conceptual framework. Ending on a note that’s both self-referential and that satirises the fashion industry brings the whole thing together.

Viktor&Rolf: Fashion Artists shows at NGV until February 26.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Viktor&Rolf: Fashion Artists.

ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/viktorandrolf/