Selbstverständlich. It may seem a difficult word on its face but its translation couldn’t be simpler. It is a German word meaning “natural” or “self-evident” and it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of contemporary Berlin style. Spend any time in Berlin and you’ll immediately note that Berliners have a dress code all their own. It is a sense of style rooted not in excess or glitz and ostentation, but instead in a playful sense of practicality. In keeping with the city’s infamous tagline, “Poor but sexy”, which may or may not continue to be true depending upon which economic reports you read, Berlin is one of the few cities where you would be well-advised to dress down before going out. Berliners, you see, don’t care much for trendy logos and blatant displays of wealth. In fact, such affectations will almost assuredly guarantee that the ill-advised tourist will be denied entry to some of the city’s hippest watering holes and nightspots. And yet, there is still a definitive Berlin style. Cool, unassuming, well-tailored, clean and undogmatic are just a few of the benchmarks of the style of Berlin. To American sensibilities, the look may seem a bit unfinished or uncharacteristically casual, to wit I simply say, when in Berlin do as the Berliners do. Here we introduce you to three designers whose designs epitomize the style of Berlin. Individually, each has a voice that rings out loud and clear in the chorus of designers whose work captures the stylish spirit that sets Berliners apart. Collectively, they represent a trio of perspectives that reflect the past, present and future of Berlin style.
Melinda Stokes –STOKX The quality that separates the work of Aussie-born, Berlin-based designer Melinda Stokes from that of her fellow compatriots in the world of design lies in her approach to it. For the disarmingly self-possessed Stokes, fashion is not as much about color or trend as it is about solving problems in the most stylish of ways. In fact, in some not particularly insignificant measure, Stokes’ uncluttered approach to design, in and of itself, speaks volumes about the style of Berliners. “The thing that I’ve always loved about Berlin is that the people here are really individuals,” the designer says plainly. “There is a clarity about a lot of Berlin design. It’s very much based on the individual and that means that Berliners are not as trend-oriented. They’ll [actually] question why someone even wants to look for a trend.” Like the denizens of her adopted home, Stokes doesn’t fuss about much with what’s in vogue at any given moment in time, but she does however labor intently over finding solutions to common fashion conundrums because for her that is the very essence of style. In her STOKX collection which debuted in 1998, Stokes decidedly focuses on form over flash. So much so, in fact, that it is hard to fully appreciate the necessity for, or the intricate structure of, one of her garments until you’ve had the pleasure of trying one on. Then and only then can the wearer fully comprehend how the garment turns expectation on its head by adding features that they had perhaps never considered prior. A pocket belt, for example, was born out of both Stokes’ personal disdain for handbags as well as her desire to answer the question of how a women could carry all the things she needed without being encumbered by a purse. Likewise, her staple Lieblings shirt, which boasts uncommon fluidity and reinforced pockets deep enough to carry a full bottle of wine, was an outgrowth of the designer’s desire to offer her male customers a more comfortable and practical shirt silhouette. Even men’s trousers from STOKX are cut asymmetrically in the seat to offer a wider range of movement than one might normally expect from a pair of pants. All of which points to the bald-faced fearlessness of Stokes’ designs.
“I’m really interested in reinventing the wheel,” Stokes offers with a hint of mischief in her voice. “For example, a lot men’s jackets haven’t changed since the beginning of the 20th century or even before that. Their basic shape is beautiful but in a lot of them you can’t move your arms any more than a penguin. There’s a certain idea that a jacket needs to look this way because people want to look like the picture. And what I want to put out there is that you don’t have to look like the picture because maybe if you let go of the picture what you can achieve is actually much better than the picture. So if you’ve got a lot more movement, then maybe the garment looks different.”
Since its inception, STOKX has been about selling difference and evolving the way we think, not only about what we wear, but also about the function that what we wear can have in our lives. Each and every new item from STOKX pays homage to its predecessor while simultaneously trailblazing the way for what is to follow. At its core, there’s something almost democratic about the whole process. “Through the collection one thing has always made the space for the next thing,” Stokes explains matter-of-factly. “So I started off with a pocket belt and then that turned into an apron. And then the apron turned into an adjustable skirt. And then, when the material that should have come for the skirts turned out to be raincoat material, I made raincoats.” “Along the way, I wanted to make everything adjustable so that I didn’t leave anybody out,” she continues. “If something is a size 1 or a size 2, sometimes, the way that fashion works, people can think there is something wrong with them rather than that the clothes have just been badly created. I like to try and make things inclusive.”
That said, though her line may lean heavily on notions of democracy, inclusiveness and even practicality, to call it “functional” is a bridge a bit too far for Stokes who still places a premium on style. “The word function is subjective,” she assesses. “When you use the word functional what pops into my mind is something that you might put on if you were going to climb Mt. Everest. But the thing is, most of us live in the city. What do we need there? “ “Yes I’m very inspired by function but I’m not ruled by it,” she adds. “It’s an important part of my design because if something has pockets it’s better than something that doesn’t have pockets. That’s easy. But I want to look nice and I want my customers to look nice. I just want to get on with it.” STOKX + Studio is located at Rosenthaler Str. 39, Haus Schwarzenberg, Hinterhaus 2. OG, 10178 Berlin-Mitte. www.stokx.de.
Carl Tillesen – Firma “Modern, urban, intelligent, classy [and] body conscious.” Those are the adjectives that Carl Tillesen, one-half of the dynamic design duo behind the powerhouse Berlin label, Firma, uses to describe the aesthetic of his collection, which has been making its mark in Berlin and beyond since its launch in 1994. Considered by many to be the be heirs apparent to legendary German designers like Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, Tilleson and his co-designer Daniela Biesenbach, create apparel that masterfully combines utility with sophisticated, understated styling – a pairing that Tilleson believes is imperative to success in the Berlin market. “Berliners seem to have a kind of instinct for hipness that has nothing to do with fashion knowledge. Or at least not the kind of knowledge you would gain from browsing glossy magazines or reading runway reports,” he explains. “If you want to make it in Berlin as a fashion designer, you have to make sure your clothes work not only on the runway, but also in everyday life. It’s when you wear it on the streets of Berlin that a garment meets its moment of truth.” According to the Berlin-based style star, this air of inherent pragmatism, which is somewhat unique in the fashion world, is ironically part and parcel of the unconventional undercurrent that defines Berlin as a destination. “People come to Berlin, because Berlin is one of the few places in the world, where you can live out your individuality without restrictions, without constantly feeling the adverse wind of the normal,” the designer offers echoing his colleagues. “It’s the only city where one is treated as though he was normal, although he obviously isn’t. This applies for international celebrities as well as for all the nameless others, and this applies for political opinions as well as for sexual preferences.” With this understanding in hand, the collections that arrive from Firma each season reflect and mesh the varied needs, wants and desires of modern life in one of Europe’s most exciting and daring capital cities. “It’s all about the NOW,” Tilleson says. “Our aim is to create clothes that are really state of the art and a reflexion of contemporary times. Our starting point for a new collection is always to ask ourselves which clothes we lack and which we would love to have. If we can’t find them elsewhere, we make them. It usually turns out that these are the items that make a lot of people very happy.” A favorite among creative types – architects, graphic designers, art dealers, musicians, artists, actors and the like – Firma’s designs rely as much on sublime tailoring as they do on the subtlest sense of whimsy. And like so much of Berlin design, the bells and whistles of a Firma garment are more likely to be found within rather than without.
“It’s a certain rhythm of sudden changes from highly concentrated and professional work on one side to really childish and silly play on the other side that brings out the best ideas,” says Tilleson in explanation of his current design process. As for the future of Berlin design, Tilleson sees both promise and challenges. “German fashion design has gone from imitation to innovation in an extremely short time span,” he explains. “It’s probably got something to do with the wall coming down. The garment industry used to be spread out all over the German province. Now all forces are joined in Berlin as the new, reunited capital.” “I guess it just happened too fast for Berlin,” he continues. “Suddenly there is this distinct design language – this new identity. Some people just don’t get it yet. They think German design being different from let’s say French or Italian design is a vice. We think it’s a virtue… and great fun!” Detractors aside, Tilleson and his Firma team are barrelling forward with a clear focus on the day when Berlin design gets its just due. “The biggest challenge for us is to create not only single items, but to define the whole style,” he offers. “We love to take that style beyond clothing. When we make our catalogues, when we designed the furniture for our two Berlin flagship stores or when we developed the Firma Men’s Skin Care line, we had a taste of it. Once you start dreaming of designing everything around and beyond fashion, there is no limit.” Firma is located at Mulackstrasse 1, 10119 Berlin-Mitte. www.firma.net.
Martin Niklas Wieser “It’s not a product which appeals to everyone,” Martin Niklas Weiser says flatly of his minimalist, futuristic designs which have, in short order, earned him a slew of monikers ranging from “talent to watch” to “rising star”, among other accolades. It’s “pure, complex, functional, classic, experimental” and “mostly for the people who understand the message,” he continues plainly, reflecting upon his most recent collection in which some might say the spirits of old and new Berlin collide. The journey from a tiny village of barely 300 people in South Tyrol to becoming one of the most buzzed about stars in the global constellation of up-and-coming designers has been a circuitous one for Berlin-based fashion wunderkind Wieser. He began his early studies in Dublin on scholarship and completed them just last year at Weissensee School of Art in Berlin. Along the way he honed both his skills and his own personal design aesthetic through his work with the Viennese label Fabrics Interseason, the diabolically original Paris-based designer Bernhard Willhelm and the groundbreaking New York-based menswear guru Tim Hamilton. Today, Wieser has emerged as one of the brightest new lights on the Berlin fashion scene in his own right thanks to the global perspective and critical thought imbued in his designs. Though, he may be one of the newest names on the Berlin fashion block, his knack for blurring the lines between art and fashion has catapulted him dab smack into the lime light. Wieser’s Fall/Winter 2013 collection is itself a huge testament to his unique design philosophy. A blaze of all white, vividly reimagined basics, the collection challenges conventional notions about the season (like “Thou shalt not wear white after Labor Day”) on their very face and proves itself even more contrary upon deeper evaluation. It is a contradictory variety of playfulness that Wieser clearly enjoys. “Fashion for me means exploring new ways to clothe oneself, pushing technologies and creating beautiful and useful things,” he says. “The Fall/Winter 2013/14 collection was inspired by classics like bomber jackets, jeans, t-shirts and tank tops. I wanted to create a collection with archetypical pieces. And then by producing all of those pieces in white and near to white colors, extinguish details and contrasts.” Mission accomplished.
Wieser’s collection not only achieves reinvention of the classics, it does so with artistic flourishes which he attributes, at least to some degree, to Germany’s rich artistic history. “Germany has long standing traditions and movements like Bauhaus or die Brücke,” the designer offers in support of his thesis. “Due to Germany’s history, art and design have often been highly politicized. I think that that background still plays a big role in today’s art and design scene but of course now it’s also influenced by global trends.” While Wieser says, as do many of his fellow Berlin-based designers, that “most Berliners are not very concerned about fashion trends”, he also acknowledges that Berlin is perhaps more eclectic in its tastes than the rest of Germany. “Berliners, and Germans in general, have a rather pragmatic understanding of fashion,” Wieser explains. “Characteristics like quality and functionality play an important role. Berlin however has a vast creative scene, which might care more about fashion than the average German.” Be that as it may, there’s nothing average about Martin Niklas Weiser or his designs, which seem destined to rouse the world of fashion one blazing revolution at a time. The Martin Niklas Wieser Studio is located at Oranienstrasse 190 – 10999 Berlin. www.martinniklaswieser.com.