An Interview with Bernhard Willhelm

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UntitledPhotography by Bernhard Willhelm

Bernhard Willhelm speaks to Donatien Grau about elegance, rule breaking and the importance of good company

Bernhard Willhelm’s work is uniquely respected in its edginess and interest in craftsmanship. After working with the likes of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, he started his own line in Paris in the early 2000s. Since then, his achievements have encompassed designing the cover for a Björk album, serving as artistic director of Capucci, engaging in a long-time collaboration with Nick Knight, creating a beauty line and continuing to design under his own name. In 2004, a monograph was devoted to his work. Today, Bernhard Willhelm lives and works in Los Angeles.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Fashion is an option. You can connect it to different objects, elegance being one of them. It is all about nuances, and the question is very much to define it. When you do, you do it for the rest of your life.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
Fashion has to do with humans, and with human history. The first time somebody decided to wear something, maybe in the Stone Age, it surely had something to do with being pragmatic, being protected, from a purely functional perspective. Then, throughout history, fashion evolved in time and space, in meaning and style. Now, I think fashion has lost a bit of this connection between history, time and space, because we are nowhere. It doesn’t matter anymore.

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Roland Barthes did?
It is a very theoretical question. If a piece of clothing is executed well, or not well, if it is finished or unfinished, there is always a discourse. But the question is whether this discourse interests somebody, and whether it is necessary for it to interest somebody, if fashion cannot be just clothes; if it has to be about liking, not liking, being functional or not functional, serving different roles and statuses, or if it’s just fashion. And it is the same thing with art.

"Probably fashion will never be politically correct: if it were, it would be purely functional" — Bernhard Willhelm

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
Probably fashion will never be politically correct: if it were, it would be purely functional. You cannot really make politics with fashion, but at least you could say that fashion fulfils certain roles in certain parts of our society. And yet, when you are in fashion, you have to deny that you do political fashion. Political movements, like punk, anarchy, subculture, the aristocracy, are expressed though fashion. But most of the time it just shows that different cultures and subcultures are co-existing.

How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style"?
There are unlimited possibilities in that relationship and, as a fashion designer, you have to define what the relationship is between the two. Every fashion designer in the world does it in a different way. That is the interesting thing about fashion: you can play by the rules, and not play by the roles. I try at least not to play by the rules, and eventually put this relationship under a different light.

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality ?
Is it enough to say: “I like it”? If students at school tell me a really stupid story about a collection, I often answer: “why don’t you just say: because I like it”? And then because they say that they like it, then they need to ask themselves why they like it, and eventually they have a story around it, and it can actually get quite intellectual. Eventually, if people know the story, they can find it really interesting.. But some others will just find the clothes beautiful, and that’s perfectly fine. Fashion is an open space. 100 years ago, people were just dress-makers, they didn’t have a status in society. Nobody would have said about a piece of clothing that it should be in a museum: it was not considered to be an important piece of craftsmanship and art. Now things have changed completely, because fashion got intellectualised: people collect it, and write about it as art. They have become aware of it.

You have worked within a sartorial approach, as much as with ready-to-wear. How do these different approaches go together?
I never did haute couture. In the traditional sense of the word, it is a state of the art: to be an haute couture designer, you need to have an atelier, with seamstresses, etc. But now couture has taken up another meaning, and signifies made-to-measure for a special person, handcrafted. Handcrafting is the crucial issue. We do ready-to-wear, which means that we put it out there, and then people order it, and finally you find it in the shops. In couture, there is a conversation between a customer and me, whereas, when I do prêt-à-porter, I don’t have anyone in front of me, it is much more abstract, I am designing for people away, in Japan and Australia, for instance – the two countries where I sell the most. I never see the product, I design for masses of people, or for a concept. Couture enables me to have a personal exchange with a customer. They tell you, really, what it’s about.

You have also been working as an art director, and collaborating with artists. How does these activities interact with your work as a designer?
I have been working with artists on how to get the message out there. You always find a better answer if you work with another creative person. Fashion is so much about collaboration with other creative people: a designer cannot do anything on his own, and collaborating with artists or photographers enables you to get something better, for both participants. My life has always been rich in creativity, with little money. You need to make decisions: I left Paris after ten years spent there and showing there. We were in Mexico for a while, and now we are in LA. French people tend to identify fashion with Paris, but it has so much to do with a global world. And that fuels our creativity. It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you get the right people to talk to.

In two weeks Donatien will interview the art director and editor Thomas Lenthal