the exotic world of bernhard willhelm
Bask in the wisdom of fashion's favourite rebel.
Foto: Nick Haymes
Bernhard Willhelm is a far more softly spoken and considered human than you'd expect if you were judging by his clothes alone. Speaking to him from his home in L.A, Bernhard imparts the wisdom of fifteen years in the fashion business through a strong German accent and punctuates his stories with drôle insights. Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in the faint wake of the Antwerp Six, he's worked his sartorial magic while living in Germany, Belgium, Japan, Italy and America and as a result has an almost unparalleled library of experience.
In an ever-quickening industry where designers are bound to relentless production cycles, Bernhard is something of an anomaly. Opting for a comparatively reasonably paced and creatively varied life, he creates on his own terms, in his own time, and the result is an output of exceptional clothing, accessories, images and art which capture the fun and spirit with which they're created. His Instagram account is testament to a life spent gathering inspiration in the sun, at the gym, amongst nature and surrounded by the 'exotic' friends who feature frequently in his work.
Bernhard Willhelm is a truly modern designer: a classically-skilled dressmaker pushing his craft forward into a brand new future in an inclusive environment where anything goes. It's a weird and wonderful world and we want to go there!
i-D: Your work is consistently interesting and you seem possibly more creatively liberated than many designers focussing on making commercially-viable collections.
Bernhard Willhelm: It's maybe lucky that I didn't grow too big immediately. I have been working for fifteen years and when you get a kind of confidence that you are able to survive, you don't question why you are doing it anymore. At the beginning, of course you say, 'Am I able to do this? Why am I doing this?' Now I'm in a different stage. Because I know my clients, I don't necessarily have to do a fashion show anymore, I can do any other type of presentation. It loosens it up a little bit more. The whole thing that's prevalent right now between high fashion and low fashion, as well as the kind of unisex approach, I've been doing it for 15 years. Suddenly it's become such an important issue. For me at the moment, it's all about continuing.
How have you enjoyed living in L.A. for the past two years?
I decided I wanted to be in California but I've kept the company in Paris and the collection is produced in Japan and Belgium. It is a global business but I can work from home for the moment. I have my own label though, which is something that is very unusual. It's not very dependent on too many people, which allows a certain freedom maybe. Fashion is a very repetitive and restrictive business; every 6 months you have to deliver no matter what, but within that period I want to be free.
What are the main changes you've experienced working in the industry over the years?
I spent ten years sewing in Paris. In the beginning of the 90s and 2000s, young designers would come to Paris. By the end of the 2000s it was not really possible anymore because by that stage everybody just wanted luxury brands. Now there's been a bit of change again back to a different mood: a new, younger mood. We are all tired of the big groups running everything. If you look at the clothes in a department store, you can tell they're made in the same factory. I think there's a demand now for things which are more creative, more unisex. I mean, isn't it crazy now that we're having an 80s and 90s revival.
What do you think of the 90s?
It's difficult to say, but I think about rave, Björk, I think about grunge, this kind of thing. I guess I think of the basics.
We've spoken briefly about designers referencing or copying the ideas of others, is this an issue for you?
It's funny what's going on in the shows in Paris. Martin Margiela introduced this kind of exact reproduction of garments that were about appreciating the work. This is definitely not the case anymore if we're thinking about trends. I think there's a line between appreciation and making a copy and it also depends on how it's done and the concept of the collection. I think it's appropriate at least to give credit to the original designer. Fashion is an eternal cycle of things from the past.
That's what so great about it - making something old modern again. I like to think people are fairly savvy and recognise where something originated.
If you think in pragmatic terms, like a German, you have to change the seven points of copyright if you want to think legally. I own a pair of Rick Owens glasses and I own the original pair from Porsche designs. Apparently they changed the seven points of copyright but if you look at it at it now, it's exactly the same kind of glasses. Legal issues are a little bit ridiculous.
I imagine designers make mood boards and possibly just lose track of where the idea came from perhaps. It's such a murky area.
I always think that the industry needs a mood board because they need some orientation. But I mean I don't really think that a true creative spirit needs a mood board. That's what I told all my students when I was teaching in Vienna: it's good to have a reference, put them in your book, look at them, then close your book and start designing. The problem right now is that there are too many references, especially on your laptop. 100 years ago, I don't think they'd have mood boards or moods, certainly not reference pictures. Sometimes I get extremely bored by it.
Do you think that it's becoming more difficult for designers to be unique and original due to the sheer number of people operating in the industry?
I cannot speak for all the designers but you have to find the balance between what you actually want to do creatively and what is important for the clients. Each pattern of each designer is different. Maybe that pattern was for a certain time, then you have to adapt it because fashion goes out of fashion and fashion is always changing. It's a little game where ideas are in constant flow.
It must be very frustrating when you see someone copying something you've done before though?
It depends by whom it's done. If it's another designer or student, never mind. If it's H&M and Zara, I do mind because they have all the money in the world to pay for a designer. I find it ethically challenging. I know they're working on it but imitation is like admitting a weakness. What can I say? Hopefully they are having sexual intercourse and having an orgasm.
Ha. Good point, it's about priorities. Speaking of priorities, your campaigns and look books are always outstanding. They feel informed by the L.A. culture.
I really enjoy that in America there's such a good mix of races. They're more exotic. I'm from Germany, from a very small town called Ulm. It's not very exotic; rather the opposite. Paris is a very institutional city: the upper class, the lower class, the bourgeoisie and the working class. It's a very old system where no one mingles in a good way. In L.A. we lie in the sun and it keeps the mood up.
What are you currently inspired by in terms of your design?
Right now I like to not think about anything. I like to take a piece of fabric and see where it goes - work on the straight grain or use the 'cut and slash' technique introduced by Vivienne Westwood. This is what I'm doing right now, using calico and a small model and just finding shapes. Then I make it into a pattern. Maybe we can make fashion new.
That sounds amazing and I'm sure less simple than it sounds.
I think you need 15 years to learn how to do it properly. Then you have to convince yourself you want to do it for another 15 years. I'm good friends with the Vivienne Westwood family and I think it's good that some people get old in fashion but they still have an important voice. Once you reach 60, you have more to tell. That's what I like about it, if you can continue to create and tell a story.
You were Creative Director at the Italian house Capucci for some time?
Yes, a little fling for three years. In the end, the company went bankrupt. It was very old world couture. He tried to modernise it but at the same time it doesn't exist anymore. I don't know, is a need necessary in order for someone to make something? All these questions arise when you design for a house. Maybe couture has died.
Would you consider becoming Creative Director for another house if invited?
It depends. If you work for a big house, it is a lot of work. I wouldn't say you're a slave but you are responsible for a very big team of people. If it makes you happy you should do it, but you shouldn't do it for the money or for the glamour.
Do you still find inspiration by going out to the clubs?
Not as much as I used to. I try to have my walk and my shake in the morning now. LA isn't so focussed on clubbing. I did a lot of clubbing in my life. Now it's more about just living and music.
Text Briony Wright
Photography Nick Haymes