Bernhard Willhelm: Maverick with a Mission

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How was working for Walter Van Beirendonck's W.&L.T.?

Walter was the only member of the Antwerp school who would go crazy. Walter really interested me because the ideas he developed had never been seen before. We liked the same things. He likes pop, he likes color and he likes sex. While he was working for the jeans label Mustang, Walter hired a football stadium for one of his W.&L.T. shows. He was responsible for Paris's most amazing and most expensive shows.

Who's your fashion hero?

When I was sixteen, Jean-Paul Gaultier really impressed me by going against the powerful and rich 80's style, like the Japanese designers. He did those corsets and worked with Madonna. That was really cool. I found the 90s quite boring.

What about now?

I don't think about who's better or not better. I see myself as part of a generation. I really appreciate what others are about, people like Raf Simons, Wendy & Jim, Haider Ackerman. And I used to like Viktor & Rolf. Haider and I were in the same class. When things work for him that makes me happy. Raf has huge talent for putting on shows. I really admire him. If you can move people with a show, it's incredible. Wendy & Jim's style is postmodern like mine, in its way of thinking. Nothing is beautiful or ugly.

I know this is a terrible cliché but what sort of music are you into?

I'm not big on music. I like switching on the TV to watch MTV. I like to dance. I love going out. I like clubbing—dance clubs and sex clubs.

Do you worry people might recognize you?

No, sex clubs are not about the face. The French are exhibitionists. There are now all these clubs were you can be nude or in your underwear. Does Trade still exist in London?

No. (Trade was a famously raunchy Sunday morning gay club.)

I was really young when I first went to Trade. It was the first time I went out and took drugs. Crazy place, Jesus Christ!

I never went, but people tell me there was something almost fascist about the topless muscle-clad men waving their arms in the air.

It was. Yeah, yeah, completely fascist (giggles). And so unfriendly. Trade really was a pure ego thing—horrible, but good. In Germany, the raves are friendlier. It's a social thing. In Paris, everyone's taking GHB. I took it once. It's good for having sex. You feel all warm and just want to hug. But it's no good for dancing and it's dancing that makes me happy.

What's your own way of dressing?

I like to change and play with me. Even if somebody says I found myself or whatever, that's crap. The nice thing about life is it changes everyday. The real you or me doesn't exist. Sometimes it's good to show your legs, while other days you might cover them. It's not good to hide yourself all the time. Sometimes you even have to let the ugliness out.

You don't believe in a wrong or right way to dress?

No, no, no.

So the way people dress never gets on your nerves?

No, no, no. Absolutely never. I don't criticize. If people want to look like that, it's fine.

What excites you then?

I like it when people make an effort. It's so rare. The one thing I don't like is fashion as a status symbol. I don't buy things to look rich. I have no respect for that. I'm not into the power that fashion can bring. I'm really against power dressing. Fashion's too linked with status and money. It's obvious and false. It kills the creativity. It kills everything, even your personality.

Do you ever design with sexiness in mind?

Er, not necessarily. Sexiness is not the reason I design. I don't think about designing for a person except for the two arms and two legs. It's more about the ideal image. It's very abstract. It's the pure aesthetic that interests me. I like diversity. Different groups are all equal in my eyes. If people find they belong to a group, that's good. Wanting to understand all the different groups makes fashion interesting. I find the best energy comes from the African and Arab communities.

One of the things I really love about your work is its visceral immediacy. Anybody can get it.

Yeah, there's freedom to imagine what it's about. Little kids really react to it. Sometimes the girls in the studio tell me about kids just running up in the street yelling, "Hi! What's this? What's that?" The clothes do speak to people.

In 2004, you revitalized the Roman house of Capucci before working solely on your own line again. I love the boxy shapes you created for them.

Capucci took a lot of energy out of both my [men's and women's] collections. People were asking, "What's happening? He's doing less." But in the beginning, we did too much.

You're so willing to go off on your own tangent. Why?

The only luxury I have is to limit myself. I don't have to cover the whole spectrum like magazines do. That's something really good. It's like I can lock myself up in a tower and exclude the parts of fashion that depress me. I'm still fascinated by popular brands like Tommy Hilfiger. I appreciate Hilfiger more than some fashion student doing yet another slightly deconstructed but still commercial evening dress. If you do commercial, go the whole way and make money. That's cooler and more honest than doing something a little bit arty or everything in black. Tommy Hilfiger's the real thing. Hilfiger inspired me to print the American flag upside down. If people want to wear the American flag, why not print it?

I want to know about Bernhard the man, so tell me about your childhood.

I had a greenhouse when I grew up. And I was completely involved with my little world of meat-eating plants. Some of them live in the water and eat plankton, while others grow on surfaces with no food other than insects. It's a fascinating form of evolution. Even now, my mother phones me to tell me how the plants are. I wasn't interested in toys as a child, but I am now. Toys have this extremely fantasized form of craziness that connects with the way I design. It has nothing to do with what's real. I'm not really bothered about the body or person. Just fantasy. That's what I like, pure fantasy.

(Air travel courtesy of easyJet)

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