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Björk and Bernhard’s outer limits

With their hand-dyed, kaleidoscopic costumes, Björk and Bernhard Willhelm have taken fashion to the edge. For their first interview together, they talk about staging one of 2007’s most inspired collaborations

Taken from October 2007 issue of Dazed in celebration of her retrospective MOMA exhibition. Read the rest of our Björk archive here

Dazed is spending the day with Björk and Bernhard Willhelm in the Icelandic countryside, huddled together for warmth on the side of a dark lava-rock mountain, next to an ink-black lake and plump, green fields of moss. As the rain thrashes down and the wind roars across this alien landscape, it comes as no surprise that tourists come here in earnest search of trolls. Last year, Iceland’s most famous daughter made a new friend in this vibrantly colourful and equally outlandish German designer. Bernhard soon set to work creating a collection of outfits for Björk’s summer world tour, as well as costumes for her ten-strong, Icelandic, all-girl brass band, seen with her this year on stages from Glastonbury to San Francisco. He also created the colourful sculpture that appeared on the cover of this year’s Volta, with Björk encased in a giant psychedelic, polystyrene sarcophagus with large feet. If the two of them had been at school together, they would have been the mischievous ones sat next to each other, giggling at the back.

Björk hasn’t been photographed in Iceland since the early days of her career – when people “came here and tried to portray me as some kind of exotic Eskimo,” she laughs. “I was very naive then, but now I know a little better.” As the day draws to an end, the apocalyptic conditions have taken their toll, and plans are laid to relocate to the hot springs around the corner. But first, Dazed sits down with Björk and Bernhard for their first joint interview. Warming up over cups of tea on the tree-stump chairs around the dinner table in Björk’s seaside home, we look back to find out how Björk, one brass band, a maverick designer and Iceland’s raw, dramatic beauty combined to create one of 2007’s most intriguing collaborations.

Bernhard, have you spent much time in Iceland?

Bernhard Willhelm: I’ve only been once before, when I brought the tour clothes for the show here. It was Easter and we had an Easter-egg hunt. I missed the show, though – how was it?

Björk: I’ve always played here last, because it’s as good as it gets. But this is the first time I’ve started here, so it was almost like a rehearsal… You came to Amsterdam, though? 

Bernhard Willhelm: Yes, it was a beautiful concert. It was outside and Björk wore the pink, over-dyed kimono dress.

Björk: We went from the concert venue on a boat around the city… it was like something out of science fiction.

When did you first meet?

Björk: I think I bumped into you in New York.

Bernhard Willhelm: At that time, I was together with a guy from New York. He lived below threeASFOUR (NY-based fashion designers), and they knew Björk really well. We didn’t talk much, but Björk called me afterwards, and we decided to work together for the tour.

Björk, what was it about Bernhard that made you approach him?

Björk: I’m always wearing his clothes. I’m so surprised because I keep finding old cardigans of mine that have holes in, which turn out to be Bernhard’s – his clothes are quite timeless. With Volta, I was interested in mixing together 2007 and a tribal thing – but without it being ‘hippie hippie’. I was brought up by hippies so, being a punk, this was the ultimate taboo.

Bernhard Willhelm: What reminds me a bit of the hippie idea is the tie-dye, the hand-weaving… People don’t do these things now because it is too much work. The colours are all hand-dyed, or hand-woven like the sheep-wool piece. I used big shapes, a triangle for a cape, but where you see the body-shape underneath. So, it’s all very constructed, but it looks very free. My mother also made a big cape with pom poms… something she also made for my first collection.

Did you work on the ideas together?

Bernhard Willhelm: I have to consider certain things that she needs. It has to be possible to sing and perform in. We did maybe a hundred designs, Björk picked ten, and then we were left with seven for the show. 

Björk: We met, we didn’t see each other for a month or two, digested it – then we would fit, and fit again. It was all developed over a period of time until it fitted like a glove. 

Bernhard Willhelm: It takes time to make things really good. That’s what I miss when I do collections, because every four months you have to produce one. It’s really special to make something for just one person. 

“I was brought up by hippies so, being a punk, this was the ultimate taboo” – Björk

What are the perfect ingredients for a show costume?

Björk: A lot of tours I did just wearing the clothes I wear every day, but when I did the opera houses, I wore the swan things. They were very sculpted and formal – it was as posh as I will ever go. Now I go to a show and think, ‘The bass sounds great in this room,’ or, ‘This is a festival, people are going to be pissed out of their heads.’ I could never be so Las Vegas as to change lots of times! Well, never say never… but not now. Now we have done 20 shows, I have probably worn each dress two or three times. It makes each show a lot more unique. It changes when you are wearing a big gold dress, or a pink kimono. Glastonbury was fun, but then we played in Belgium between Marilyn Manson and Muse! It was late at night, and a lager-lout kind of thing.

Bernhard Willhelm: It’s funny to watch the audience because I think girls react in a different way to your music than boys! They’re all happy and dancing, while the boys all stand still.

Where did the brass band come from?

Björk: When I was making the album, I asked lots of people to tour with us. It was filling up, and I suddenly realised, ‘Oh my god, I am going to be with only boys for one and a half years!‘ I said I wanted all girl brass players from Iceland, but guess how many brass players there are? Thirteen! I needed ten! I told Bernhard about the girls and he was very excited.

Bernhard Willhelm: It’s all about a print that only shows up when you put a black light on it. So, we made these fluorescent O-shaped overalls that look a bit like an egg.

The band are all Icelandic, and today you were all out in the Icelandic landscape. Bernhard, is this something you were directly inspired by?

Bernhard Willhelm: Iceland is about nature you don’t see anywhere else in the world. It’s such a special island… the weather changes every five minutes, you never know what to wear. It’s the changing of different moods, the light… 

Björk: I haven’t shot anything here for a long time. When journalists came here and tried to portray me as some kind of exotic Eskimo I was very naive, but now I know a little better. I wanted to change all that ‘elfin from the middle ages’ idea of Icelanders. None of my friends are like this. Maybe that was the key for me on this album, to work with someone who could go back to this whole earthy nature thing, but do it with modern colours, so it’s honest but very 2007. So the pieces clash, but also complement each other.

Bernhard Willhelm: You know there are no trees in Iceland, so it looks a bit like the moon. People always need clichés. They think of Iceland and they probably think of Björk… You’re a national symbol in a way.

Björk: I used to walk 40 minutes through a landscape like this to school, every day. Last year, I saw some statistics – for the first time, there are now as many people living in cities as in the country. And the urban people – from London or New York or Paris or wherever – write all the media, write all the books, make all the movies. They think nature is backward, but it isn’t like that.

When was the first time you heard the music, to help you with the clothes?

Bernhard Willhelm: It was when Björk was in Paris and played me the track ‘Earth Intruders’. ‘Earth Intruders’ has this mood which is essential to the album. Then we met in London and I heard the things you had recorded in Jamaica. But there was no reggae.

Björk: It was a lot of elimination! No pot-smoking…

Bernhard Willhelm: That’s the good thing about Björk. She doesn’t do reggae in Jamaica, she does a ballad!

Björk: They have these small houses but they have these big speakers and it’s just blasting everywhere, and you become (mimics a wall around her), ‘No, never!’ There becomes a defence mechanism in your skin – ‘I won’t let that dub in!’ But Antony (Hegarty, Antony and the Johnsons) was there with me. We were these people from northern places with white skin and wearing black clothes, so it became more about that sort of ‘paradise’. I sang when I was there, I didn’t write… It was a very physical experience.

Bernhard Willhelm: It’s very different when it is warm and sunny.

Björk: Yeah! It’s like all your senses come out and say, ‘Hello!’ and it’s like, ‘Who are you?!’

Bernhard Willhelm: You know, Björk never wears shoes. It’s kind of funny because people ask me, ‘What is important to you?’ I always answer that it is important how a person touches the ground. When we did the photographs together today, I had to take my shoes off and I suddenly felt the ground, the lava stone and the moss. It was a special sensation. 

Björk: It’s just a habit I got into when I first started singing. Sometimes it annoys me how hippie it is. But when I try to wear shoes, after a minute I’m like, ‘Fuck this!’ Somebody I know who used to work at Vogue said they had to wear heels or they’d get fired!

Bernhard Willhelm: It’s a bit tragic that everything has to have a look. We are young, or we are old, or we are rich, or we are poor.

Björk: I think that’s a perfect thing to end on. 

Special thanks to Ragga, Bruno Michel and At Large Paris, Scott Rogers, Ed, Cees and The Brass Band, Andrea Helgadóttir at Photogenics using Smashbox, the staff at the Nordica Hotel in Reykjavik and the staff at the Grand Hotel in Reykjavik

Read the rest of our Björk archive here