13 June 2009

We Have Something[S] In Common

Interview by : Tom Littlewood

Vice: Hi Bernhard, and thanks for seeing us. You must be incredibly busy with your latest show.

Bernhard Willhelm: Yeah, but Vice is actually one of my favorite magazines, I always read it on the toilet.

Good. That is where it’s meant to be read. So I noticed you cutting out tiny little paper people a minute ago. Are you losing it?

Oh, you know, it’s really stressful right now. It’s our first show in Berlin and it’s kind of a voluntary thing. We want to show our stuff because Germans really don’t know what we’re doing. I mean, I left Germany when I was 18.

Yeah, why was that?

It just happened. I think it was a cultural thing. There are a lot of things about Germany and German culture that I don’t like.

Go on…

Well, I think everyone here is playing it so safe. Every time I come here, I realize just how many insecurities the people have. They have less belief and balls than you can imagine. I decided I didn’t want to play it safe, and so I never really settled down.

So you’ve been on the road and working for over ten years now. It seems that it’s been quite an intense decade.

Ha, ten years. Who would have thought it? Now I am looking to do less. I’ve been constantly in the middle of it. I mean, it’s my own fault, and you shouldn’t be lazy, but of course you shouldn’t drive yourself mad either.

What’s changed in the fashion world during your time in it?

It’s the same bullshit when you’re trying to get things done and make a new collection. There’s always less money, you know, so it’s like doing things with less. That’s the motto. But it’s also good because not everything is given to you on a golden plate. When things are tough you have to find different solutions, and it’s the best stuff that comes out of these new solutions.

But do you find it difficult to constantly come up with something original? It’s expected that you’ll always have something really new to show, and that must bring some pressure with it.

Fashion is a wide field, from Vice to Vogue, and I look at it as a professional. You can’t make everyone happy. You have to make decisions. When you don’t make decisions, it’s not a strong way of designing things. It’s so important to have a strong collection that stands out from everything else—including my own previous work.

A lot of the time you see a progression in a designer’s work and it’s so obvious that you could have predicted it four or five seasons earlier. But every time you bring out something new, it seems as if you’ve consciously tried to leave yourself behind somehow.

People say there’s no real line in what we’re doing and that we jump from one side to the other, but that’s what attracts me. It’s an exploration and a challenge not to stand still.

It’s chaotic.

I just accept the chaos in my life. It really is a question of character. It’s your decision to accept who you are.

Do you pay attention to what other designers are doing around you?

No. That’s overrated—the influence of your surroundings in the actual designs. I think the best collections come from getting up in the morning, sitting at your desk, and starting to work. That’s my Protestant work ethic. I mean, my mum still calls me in the mornings and says, “So, what are you doing?” You can’t be forgiven for being lazy.

Can you tell me a bit about how you ended up in school at the Antwerp Academy in the 90s with Raf Simons and Ann Demeulemeester? Back then you were all being branded as this revolutionary new wave of designers.

It wasn’t like that at all. When I started, there was this feeling that the school could become big, because previously it really was just a shitty Flemish college. The lecture rooms had rain coming in through the ceilings. It just happened that I was assisting Dirk Bikkembergs so I spent time there and hung out with these guys in a little gang. I was actually enrolled at a technical college in Berlin, but I moved to Antwerp because of these friends and the young professors they had there. Then the whole Belgian thing took off, and now you can get any designer label in a tiny town in the middle of the countryside. I left then, because it was over.

I wanted to ask about your training. You started out working for Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood.

Yeah, Andreas, Vivienne’s husband, is actually here helping me with the show.

Is there anything in particular that you got from those designers?

Yeah, sure, the most important lesson being how not to do it. It was a bizarre story for the daughter of a London taxi driver from Hoxton Square to suddenly become a fashion superstar. I was lucky to be a part of that. I still have a lot of friends and respect for the people I worked with back then because they are still doing things. The fashion industry tends to have a very short-term memory. When people start, they usually do two or three seasons and then it’s over.

So why have you lasted so long?

It took me a long time to realize that not everybody will like what you’re doing when it’s so extreme, but once you have your little niche it makes the job much easier. It’s still tough, though. I do six collections a year, and it’s never-ending.

Can you describe what you mean by “niche”?

I mean that people will appreciate your work and eventually support it. It’s always a short-term solution, so you have to constantly find a new audience while trying to keep the original fans happy enough to stay with you.

Do you have a certain character in mind when you design your clothes? Your models are always very individual. Take Sagat, the French porn star, for example…

Well, I just like porn stars. This time I’ve got a new guy from Dresden in the show. What I realize is that a lot of people don’t have a relationship to their body at all, and for a porn star, his body is his machine. He has to perform, and that’s something I can appreciate. It’s important as a designer that you can feel your body and know what’s going on. Most people just try and change their bodies with clothes, but I like this exhibitionist side to life as well. I’m bored with people being shy. It’s difficult because many people don’t know what to do with their bodies.

But porn stars are very aware of their bodies.

Sagat was special because he created his own image. It’s kind of like how Pamela Anderson created herself as the teenage boy’s wet dream. I find it interesting to see how these people created themselves to fulfill other people’s fantasies.

Would you ever go more in the thin-guy Dior direction?

No, those guys are all too skinny. It’s just something I don’t want to touch. I’m so bored of guys in white shirts and black jackets. My last men’s collection was a renaissance work. I wanted to look back at how clothes used to be made. First came the body, and then we made clothes to fit it. I had to learn how to cut again. It took me ten years to learn that. Man was different back then, and woman too.

When I think of your collections, it’s always the guys’ stuff that springs to mind as your signature style. Is menswear your primary focus?

I guess it just turned out like that. We started with women because that’s where the money was, and I do love designing clothes for women because there’s so much more fantasy involved. Then I made the decision after five years that I also wanted to wear something. But now it’s very difficult, because of financial restrictions. I always say this will be the last collection I do. You see, one collection finances the next. When you get in the costs, you can see whether it was a good collection by looking at how much you spent. Simple as that.

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