[February 19 2015]
“It’s like, is it Scientology or is it heroin?” Bernhard Willhelm wonders from the center of his Beachwood Canyon home studio. The question, posed to distinguish one thriving Los Angeles subculture from the other, shows just how accurate the Bavarian-born designer’s understanding of his new home really is. Since moving his operation from Paris to LA in 2012, Bernhard and his team have happily embraced the city’s space, sunshine, and capacity for solitude. The new exhibition which runs until May 17th at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Design Center, Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger, is the result of Bernhard’s most recent thoughts in the Hollywood Hills. Here Bernhard and Jutta Kraus (his longtime collaborator and the co-founder) talk about the show and fashion today.
Interview Tierney Finster and photo Jonnie Chambers
TIERNEY FINSTER – Your new show at MOCA Pacific Design Center is called Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows the Danger Then Fashion Is the Danger. Tell me about that title.
BERNHARD WILLHELM – A title doesn’t mean anything. It’s the same as with a painting, it can be titled or untitled. It either adds something or…not. Our first thoughts were looking forward, so there was this idea of 3000. And the idea of a big moon or sun eclipse in the year 3000, which could mean a black hole. You can project something into a black hole or it can be something you don’t know. Fashion is a projection field. You can project in it whatever you want. Each person who reads the title might think something different about it and that’s absolutely fine.
TIERNEY FINSTER – And how would you describe what you’ve done there?
JUTTA KRAUS – It’s very complex. It’s the F/W 2015/16 collection, an installation, and a production.
BERNHARD WILLHELM – The show is not a retrospective. We wanted to show the new collection, which hasn’t even been presented in Paris. All the different components came in from different countries. An artist came from Spain; another Philip Wiegard came from Berlin. The clothes come from Japan and Belgium. It’s an installation around this collection, around that world. I always say it’s about doing an experiment. Hopefully, it creates a mood.
TIERNEY FINSTER – What kind of mood?
BERNHARD WILLHELM – I think the general mood of my generation is “Did we already pass the point of no return? Is it already too late for humanity to be saved?”
TIERNEY FINSTER – What does the show have to do with the overall state of fashion today?
BERNHARD WILLHELM – Fashion is taken much more seriously than it was five or ten years ago. Now, fashion can be in a museum. It also has to do with our story and how we operate. We gave our complete archive to museums. The biggest part of it is at the Antwerp Fashion Museum. We donated everything.
JUTTA KRAUS – Everything, even from Bernhard’s graduate collection.
BERNHARD WILLHELM – Now we work with different museums worldwide. It’s a sentiment that museums now collect fashion, even museums that don’t specialize in fashion.
TIERNEY FINSTER – The exhibition materials mention your interest in the “uniformity” of today’s consumer. What do you mean by that?
BERNHARD WILLHELM – It’s the uniformity against the individuality. It has a lot to do with our society and how people are educated as consumers at a very early age. You just have to go to a shop like American Girl, and the tastes are already ingrained in a child’s mind from a very early age.
JUTTA KRAUS – You just have to bring the child there.
TIERNEY FINSTER – Do you keep consumers in mind when designing a collection?
JUTTA KRAUS – We don’t. We look at the clothes more abstractly. The beginning is all about pattern and shape, nothing to do with looking at a certain style or reference.
BERNHARD WILLHELM – Other companies actually have people analyzing what they’re selling and to whom. We are not doing that.
TIERNEY FINSTER – So how do you approach creating a new collection?
BERNHARD WILLHELM – It’s always been a link between different fields of sexuality, fashion, art, “sign of our times” critics, and experimentation in shapes and patterns. We have curated a special way of how we create our patterns, which means you can still see my hand in them. All of the pieces go first through my hands and are then enlarged.
TIERNEY FINSTER – Why did you leave Paris?
JUTTA KRAUS – Our old building in Paris announced they were going to renew the roof. That was going to mean 6 months of working and noise. This happens all the time in Paris and it’s so annoying, and Bernhard is very sensitive about noise. We decided very quickly, “Why don’t we leave?”
BERNHARD WILLHELM – We did Antwerp 10 years and 10 years in Paris. Maybe after 10 years here, we will also have a change. 10 year cycles in life are good. I wanted to see America. As a European, it’s the most exotic place.
JUTTA KRAUS – America influences everything. It’s nice to really see that and live here.
TIERNEY FINSTER – What’s your LA lifestyle like?
BERNHARD WILLHELM – We’ve worked very hard. We did four collections a year for many, many years. It’s nice to organize our life more comfortably here. Now, we are in the Hollywood Hills with a nice view. I have a little cactus collection and I make clothes.
TIERNEY FINSTER – Now that you live in Hollywood, are there any particular celebrities you’d like to dress?
BERNHARD WILLHELM – My favorite would be Bruce Jenner. He’s a great question of gender. Gender is maybe becoming mainstream now, so it would be great to give a little outfit to that one. I actually have this OK! magazine with him on the cover here with me because I found it quite interesting.
TIERNEY FINSTER – So are you hoping Bruce Jenner becomes a trans fashion icon?
BERNHARD WILLHELM – I think he’s the first public person being open about this. It’s like how Ellen is America’s lesbian. In America, you only get accepted when you’re out in the media. It’s very limited. It’s very politically correct here. That’s what makes the Bruce Jenner conversation so interesting, because it’s sort of not politically correct. With his story, we’re suddenly talking about other things, other possibilities that don’t have anything to do with being a conformist. A person is expressing their personality through individuality.
TIERNEY FINSTER – Do you think LA will continue to grow more and more into a serious fashion city?
BERNHARD WILLHELM – There’s already important brands here, but if a few big brands come to LA and say they’re doing their own fashion week, it’s eventually possible. People will re-arrange and move here. And on February 20th Tom Ford is going to show here. If you have 5 or 10 of them, LA will be a new capital for fashion shows.