Bernhard Willhelm: Maverick with a Mission

hen he began showing in Paris in 1999, Bernhard Willhelm—a German native residing in Belgium—broke about eight million fashion rules by using colors, volumes and themes that defied categorization. Ingenious pop references from toys and computer games to trash and American footballers suddenly seemed as obvious a course to chart as mimimalism in the 90s. Now, at 32, he's still the fashion world's darling, confounding and enlightening more than ever with a relentlessly novel, dazzling and egalitarian approach to design. In his cheery Paris studio, he opens up to DARYOUSH HAJ-NAJAFI about his cockeyed world, from dirty underwear to the luxury of limitation.

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Is there such a thing as too crazy?

When I'm designing, I don't see the clothes as crazy. I've got to exaggerate to find the essence of an idea. In starting a collection, the most important thing is to bring an idea out quite clearly. Fashion people only react to very strong ideas. One season I was into rubbish, so I based the collection on McDonald's Happy Meal figures. That's all I needed. I design to express something. Cutting myself off completely, then being free to do whatever I wanted has always appealed to me. I always had the feeling I was in a prison. Maybe that's why I've always chased the exotic.

There's also a childish playfulness.

In some cases, when I've been inspired by kids' na´ve artwork, it's okay to label that childish. But with the collection based on American footballers, or an older one based on the Japanese car industry, that sort of insp300x600tion isn't childish. American football players just look amazing. All that padding brings to mind superheroes.

Is it in part a reaction to the blandness you grew up with in Germany?

It's part of growing up in a small town. I've never believed in national identity. I'm completely not sentimental about Germany. Being a foreigner is an opportunity in Germany. They refer to it as the "freedom of the fool." You see things differently when you're away from your own culture. If I had stayed, I wouldn't be who I am. It's vital to get away. It wasn't so hard for me. I fell in love with a friend in Antwerp and decided to move there. I didn't even move there to study fashion.

Falling in love moved you toward fashion?

Love changes you, and the people around you, and being in love is the best reason to do something.

What's your design process?

It has a lot to do with accident. We [the studio] will get an idea, then move on to the next, working on anything we love at the moment. I never think in terms of needing five skirts for the next collection. I wanted to do something with dinosaurs one season, and it's possible. I have that freedom. The beauty thing isn't important to me. It's about making a strong idea and producing the image. Beauty comes from emotion. It's satisfying if I can feel something. That's the nice thing. The next collection is always better. There's that chance every season.

Your shows are often very unusual, too.

In the future I want to think more about the shows. They're always dealt with at the last minute. I want to plan that better. I've done films, but I haven't been successful. People can't see the clothes. It's not necessarily about larger shows, just the way they're produced. Shows are not people just walking in and out to some music.

Give us your favorite fashion items.

I like five basic things. I really like sweat materials. I like things that have been washed. Good underwear is essential. I like boots. And I like anything overly masculine. It's a privilege to be a man. Today I'm also feeling we should wear skirts again.

What kind of underwear do you wear?

Mine, Me? In winter, long johns look good. They feel great and, with pants over, they also make my legs look a little bigger. Jockeys have the best cut, while white is the best color. I collect the sexy stuff, too, but that's more my going-out underwear. It makes me feel different. I don't like silk so much, but I don't mind dirty underwear.

Speaking of, you were on Butt's first cover.

I liked the roughness and the pink pages. It looked like the sort of magazine I'd make if I could. They only printed 1500 at first. They didn't expect it to take off. It's funny that the English people still connect me with Butt. You're so prudish. I suppose you don't see many fashion designers naked. Even Yves Saint Laurent didn't show his dick.

Let's talk about the bad Bernhard.

I think I'm quite annoying. And sometimes I like to be evil. I can be quite cruel and piss people off. Food is somehow really important for me. If I don't eat, I feel bad. And I spend too much time in the gym.

Your favorite exercise?

Legs, of course.

Which, the sort of pushy one or the crunchy one?

The pushy one. Let's see, what else is bad. I'm actually lazy. If I didn't have to work, I wouldn't do anything. I need to be forced to work. But because of my protestant education, I define myself through work. If I don't work, I feel guilty.

I'd bet most successful people are driven by that fear of laziness. I read that Bill Clinton could schmooze for twenty hours straight, but left alone in his office he'd literally do nothing and fall into a depression. There's only success or failure to you?

Definitely. That's what it's about, I guess, because a person is in many dark places when he's alone. Sometimes I don't like anything, when everything is bad. I'm quite chaotic, but with a team I'm forced to come to a point everyday. It's impossible otherwise.

Since you've just come back from Japan, you can answer this for me. Why are all the best designers big in Japan?

The Japanese have two stages in life, a sort of extended teenager one and later, when they have to work. What I'm doing is for the young people. They want to go crazy. They're freer in spirit, more into what the clothes are about and not so bothered about status symbols. The Japanese are very supportive of young designers. The mindset is all about wearing something first. (cont'd)

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