Since the 1980s, The University of Applied Arts Vienna invited big fashion names like Vivienne Westwood, Helmut Lang, Victor & Rolf or more recently Raf Simons and Veronique Branquinho to share their knowledge with Vienna’s fashion students. Last year Bernhard Willhelm was named to be Branquinho’s follower and turned prude but lovely Vienna upside down with his unconventional take on fashion.
DD: What is your role as head of the Modeklasse Vienna?
Bernhard Willhelm: The main aim is to get the students to a point where they are capable to create and develop their own collections. You need a certain level of creativity mixed with the right technical knowledge. It is so important to know how to make garments with your hands and don’t just send them to someone else who sews them for you. In the first four years the students work on projects which I develop with my team and in the last year they are free to do whatever they want. They all work independent and I act like their consultant. As I have my own label in Paris I just come to Vienna once a month for a week to give them feedback. I want to show my students in how many different contexts and ways fashion can work. I want them to try out things and see the outcome- sometimes it will be amazing, sometimes it won’t but you always learn from it.
DD: The overall look of the collections changed quite noticeable since you took over from Veronique Branquinho…
Bernhard Willhelm: I know everyone says that as before everything was black and simple and now the students try out to work with more colours. We show what the students come up with. I just guide and help them. I try not to interfere with their personal style. I sometimes don’t like it but let them explain it to me and also from time to time learn something through discussing their ideas. That’s why I really like the job. I see things that have nothing to do with my label and get to experience fashion trough different eyes.
DD: Every year your students have to collaborate with different artists or put their garments in different contexts. Why is it so important for you to let them do that?
Bernhard Willhelm: It is not important for me that they see fashion as art. It is more important to show them how to work in a space or in cooperation with artists. Last year the students collaborated with Andreas Kronthaler and exhibited the results in a gallery. This year they had to make clothes for a performance of the Vienna based art group Gelitin which was called “Mode statt Hode” (fashion instead of testicles). I want them to think outside the box and just experiment. Putting fashion into different contexts is really crucial for me. Everyone has seen the typical odd runway show but if you put clothes into a space you need to think about how these clothes which then actually become objects work in that room, relate to that room and are seen in context with pieces of other artists. Fashion should work room-spanning.
DD: So fashion becomes art?
Bernhard Willhelm: Fashion is an artistic expression but will never work without the right craftsmanship. It’s the same in every area of the art world: As a painter you need to know your techniques and the material you work with. When it comes to fashion sewing is quintessential. Fashion can work in an artistic environment. When it interacts with the viewer, the room, the techniques and this special something that you can not put into words - when everything works together, I would say that’s when fashion becomes art.
DD: The slogans of this year’s show are quite catchy (Will Fashion marry me; Chicken Fashion with Dip, Dirty Fashion Remix Vol. 2). How did you come up with them? What is the idea behind them?
Bernhard Willhelm: I am really obsessed with slogans right now. I just love them. You can make people think different about something or make them curious about it in a few words. And I am also bored to death by typical fashion show posters with a picture of a model or whatever, so we decided to use the slogans. It was as simple as that.
DD: What projects for the final fashion show did your students work on this year?
Bernhard Willhelm: Every year had to work with a certain colour and number that hold the different designs together. So for example the second year had to work around the theme Number 2 on Blue Elastic. Garments in the same colour show a unity but at the same time every piece is different. I want my students to realize that everybody has her or his own vision and maybe get inspired by the work of their fellow students. In one way or the other different objects can work together perfectly fine and create a tension between them. I normally don’t interfere with the silhouettes they create, as it is their vision.
DD: Is there anything you learned from your students?
Bernhard Willhelm: I learned to be patient. Every student needs help in a different way but what they all need it patience. At the beginning I expected way too much from them. That’s better now. I know that sometimes they just need time. Often you have to be really strict but in the end of the day you always need to laugh.
Text by Alexandra Bondi de Antoni