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|Photographer and stylist Katja Rahlwes spoke with Helga Schania and Hermann Fankhauser, the Viennese team behind the Wendy&Jim label. Katja collaborated with the duo on their most recent Paris shows.
KATJA: Vienna's annual Opera Ball inspired your show last spring. People said the experience gave them goose bumps.
HELGA: That's what we hope for. Our shows go to the heart of what we do. Because we're trying to create an atmosphere for our work, we're very focused on the room, the music, and the models.
KATJA: Why the Opera Ball?
HELGA: It's a famous gala, a destination for the rich and famous from all over the world. And there are always demonstrators outside the Ball, protesting capitalism, globalism, and U.S. foreign policy. Both the ball-goers and protestors get dressed up for the event. It's a chance for both sides to parade around in their own way. The funny thing is we know people who go to the demonstration and the Ball.
HERMANN We wanted to play with the differences and the similarities between the protestors and the attendees. At our show, the models who played the ball-goers wore gray lipstick and red eyeshadow, while the demonstrators wore gray eyeshadow and red lipstick. We mixed high fashion with a little grunge to make the collection a bit chaotic, like the scene outside the Opera House. The show was staged at a small gallery that didn't have enough space for a runway. We built a barricade from wooden pallets and installed the models on top of it.
KATJA: Do you feel like the Parisians understand your work?
HERMANN More and more. They might have been a little pissed off by our first show.
HELGA: We collaborated with an artist's
collective from Berlin called Honey Suckle because we liked the way they performed. The group includes a photographer, a stylist, and a landscape architect. The Honey Suckle
models didn't pose. They just stood straight and powerful, looking dead ahead. They were very self-confident.
KATJA: Yeah, when you saw them coming, it felt like a major event.
HERMANN I think people felt irritated
by the way we presented the models, as well as our overall aesthetic. The Parisian style
is quite romantic and fragile, and we're
HELGA: Our ethos is that everybody is beautiful. We wanted women who were not physically perfect, just normal. We used to be scared of professional models. We were always looking for an alternative. We've since lost our fear of sensuality.
KATJA: Does that have anything to do with Paris itself?
HELGA: Yes. Vienna is not a sexy city. When you walk through Vienna, there is no eye
contact. People don't pay attention to each other. Everybody is in their own world. Paris is exactly the opposite. There is sex on the street.
KATJA: And seduction.
HERMANN In our last two Paris shows, the models really engaged with the audience. There was an electricity that I found very sexy.
KATJA: Despite the charms of Paris, you're both still very much attached to Vienna.
HERMANN It's easier for us to work in Vienna because we do most of our production in Hungary and eastern Bulgaria. Austria is no longer a border country. The expansion of the European Union has put us at the center, which makes things much more accessible. You don't need your passport to go to Hungary. And you can go to Bratislava for lunch, just across the border in Slovakia. Everything is far less complicated than it used to be.
KATJA: How did you two meet?
HERMANN As students at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna in 1994.
KATJA: People sometimes assume that you are romantic partners. Were you ever involved?
HELGA: No. After we discovered how much we enjoyed working together, we fell, not in love, but in workmanship with each other. Around the same time Hermann met Naomi, his future wife, and I met my former boyfriend, with whom I spent five years.
KATJA: Helga, I know working with clothes runs in your family.
HELGA: Yes, my mother was a seamstress ™• she used to make very ladylike outfits for me. I had to liberate myself from her conservative style. I lived in a village on the outskirts of Vienna, but I managed to find out about the gothic and punk scenes. I was constantly looking to break away. The bands I saw in Vienna, like Bauhaus and EinstY™Nrzende Neubauten, had a big impact on me.
KATJA: Hermann, was fashion always a big part of your life?
HERMANN Yes, ever since I was old enough to dress myself. One time ™• I was quite young ™• I pleated a blanket to make a kind of coat. Then, as a teenager, I was completely addicted to Yamamoto, Versace, and Armani. I worked as a cook, a waiter, and then at a bank for four years. But when I was twenty-five, I decided to become a producer rather than simply a consumer of fashion. I applied to the Academy since I knew it had a good fashion program, with people like Jil Sander and Karl Lagerfeld on the faculty. The first time, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, who was in charge, didn't accept me. I tried again a year later after Vivienne Westwood arrived. She took me.
HELGA: Growing up, I always worried that I would get stuck making clothes in the back room of a little shop in a little town. What a nightmare! When I learned that Versace, Lacroix, and Ferre had all trained as architects, I went to the Academy to study architecture, thinking that was the best way for me to become a fashion designer. Two years later, Helmut Lang joined the fashion program, so I switched to fashion in 1994 in order to study with him.
KATJA: Lang was living in Vienna then.
HELGA: He had an aura about him. At the time, we all thought that living in Vienna was a disadvantage because it was a big city in a small country, and not terribly international or modern. But Helmut Lang helped us realize that there was huge potential in our sleepy city, and that being international and modern was really a state of mind. He always told us to believe in ourselves and what we were doing.
KATJA: Last May you did a show at the Comme des Gar?ons guerrilla store in Barcelona. It's a new concept for Comme des Gar?ons. They open stores ™• for just one year ™• that offer limited edition t-shirts and objects. They're in places which are not usually considered big fashion cities, like Barcelona. As part of the program, the stores also invite artists they admire to present their work.
HERMANN We got an email from a friend who told us that Comme des Gar?ons liked our work. We decided to produce a version of our Opera show for them, adding some of our favorite pieces from past collections. We did the casting in Barcelona and found really beautiful models. It was quite interesting to work with a new group of people.
HELGA: One of the biggest problems in fashion these days is that the big houses usually don't try to work with the small brands.
KATJA: It would be nice to do something with Ralph Lauren, wouldn't it? You could do a line of jeans for him.
HERMANN We'd love that. He has created the best corporate identity. It's not like other brands, where it's little more than a name on a store window. When you go into one of Lauren's shops, you really enter into his world.
KATJA: I always feel like I'm going on a picnic, enjoying the fresh air and drinking a glass of champagne.
HELGA: I once heard a DJ describing his favorite music, saying it was slow, hard, and dry. That describes our clothes, as well. We like a certain slowness, working out a single idea throughout an entire collection. Hardness evokes our radical edge. And we're like a good dry martini, not a strawberry daiquiri.