They call him “wacko,” “weirdo” or the “nutty designer” but in real life he’s an observer, a reader and a thinker. His catwalks are freak shows with a hell of a folkloric style. In his last project in St. Petersburg he selected porn models as male characters for his clothes. Bernhard Willhelm started out with Jutta Kraus (they met in the Fachhochschule Trier, in Germany) and they still work together, complementing each other. Willhelm works more on the idea — sending plans to his staff with the list of things to buy and where to get them — while Jutta concentrates on logistics. She says: “Two heads are always better than one, but Bernhard by far has the stronger. He’s just brimming with ideas. I have to rein him in at times; he occasionally takes on too much.” What direction the line will take next is never known. Willhelm and Kraus are absolutely modern. Whatever they decide to do.
Gea Politi: What I like about your work, Bernhard, is that I am never able to define you. Do you have a definition for yourself?
Bernhard Willhelm: Everything I do comes from being bored!
GP: Where do you start in your work? Is your approach with creation always different or does it follow a path?
BW: Usually I make a concept. It is important how a collection is set up in a room and presented in public. My concept is never the same, there are no rules. Maybe that’s my reaction to the Belgium school where I escaped from… The Belgians were the exact opposite of me; unassuming and discreet. In the world of fashion there has to be occasional indiscretion. With a lot of Belgian designers, you can look at the first or the twentieth collection and you can’t tell the difference. They’re still clinging to the same basic idea. I was always thinking to myself — come on, lighten up!
GP: I can see historical, ethnic and pop culture references; your way of designing is far away from fashion. Would you agree?
BW: Yes, but I like to keep it unreal! Ingeborg Harms wrote, “The stiff silhouettes, granny-length skirts, childlike imagery, folksy embroideries, frills and flounces, crochet appliqués, billowing clownesque collars, tablecloth checks and riotously colorful knitted sweaters came as something of a shock. Nobody could quite figure out where these ideas came from or how to classify them. Some hailed the Ulm-born designer as the Black Forest wunderkind of fashion, as the inventor of folkloric pop, and as the first German designer to openly embrace his ethnic origins in fashion terms.”
GP: You took over the fashion class at die Angewandte (University of Applied Arts Vienna). Can you give us any names of the latest talents who have emerged under your supervision?
BW: I started to teach just last November. For me it’s all new at the moment, so let’s see which talents will evolve!
GP: Your show in St. Petersburg proves yet again that you are a real performer. Or your models are at least, but you are a ‘metteur en scene.’ What are your influences?
BW: See what Ingeborg Harms writes [GP: again and again and again]: “Willhelm himself feels the greatest affinity to the tradition of the Surrealists — not only the first generation, who explored the marvels of the world through the shabbiness of everyday life, but also the circle around George Bataille [which] emerged as great stylists of the French language. This group, who came together around as the same time of the Nazi regime, called themselves the Acéphale: the headless. Their aim was to switch off the dictatorship of the mind. […] Their orgies of mutilation in the forests of France were anything but pretty. Yet prettiness itself is a strict concept of style whose dictates rule with an iron fist, precisely because it is so difficult to master. Willhelm and Kraus counter such servile deference to the cool glamour of the runways with a battle cry in the spirit of the Acéphalistes. Their clothes and the orgiastic nature of their shows shout: ‘Go for it! Experiment!’ ”
GP: Are there any contemporary artists you are working with? I know you recently did a project with Olaf Breuning and Christian Holstad.
BW: Besides them we worked together with Marc Brandenburg. The installation in St. Petersburg came from a collaboration with Christophe Hamaide-Pierson of AVAF (Assume Vivid Astro Focus). I just participated in Chickenbingo with Christian Holstad during Milan Art fair. At the end of the bingo, the chicken laid an egg. What a nice way to say goodbye.
Gea Politi is Flash Art International editor at large.