Oral Exams / Bernhard Willhelm

October 30, 2015

I recently exchanged a series of e-mails with German fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm in hopes of discussing his recent studio relocation, from its longtime home in Paris to sunny Beachwood Canyon.

The conversation quickly derailed, promptly turning to an unabashed interest in sexuality, cyberspace, clubbing and collecting — all underscored by wide-ranging references, from “73 Questions with Victoria Beckham” on Vogue.com to Latino house music by Alejandro Paz.

How do you relate sex to fashion?

If you are dressed up on the top, bring it down to the bottom. Raid your boyfriend’s closet for oversized tees and undersized jackets. Tomboy looks are chic this autumn. Shop this look. You are a true entertainer. A “so-called pure raw diamond of entertainment.”

Is maximalism or excess here a form of subversion? 

Maximalism and minimalism can be fucking annoying. How many times can you say, “The cow goes moo and the pig goes oink”? It’s like talking to a supermodel. Tacky.

Yet the role of decoration seems primary in your collections; money, rope and cockatoos (for example) are used as props or accessories. It reads like a daily shopping list for the sexually adventurous.

It depends what you see in it and what you project onto it. It’s about visualization.

Broccoli: I look like a tree.
Walnut: I look like a brain.
Mushroom: I look like an umbrella.
Banana: Dude! Change the topic.

What incited the move from Paris to LA? I read somewhere it had to do with a brush with death.

partly truth.
partly fiction.
partly paradox.

A bit like Kris Kross described it in their song “Jump”: “and everything is in the back with a little slack ‘cause inside-out is wiggity wiggity wiggly wack.

How does the brand of sex vary between LA and Paris? 

The French avant-garde is always a bit kitsch. In Germany, form follows function (I’m from Ulm, home of the school of Bauhaus, Albert Einstein and the highest church in the world. It’s gothic.) But then Isa Genzken said fuck the Bauhaus, and suddenly things got exciting. To embrace the ornament can be erotic and sensual. But, the pure form of Bauhaus can also… It’s somehow tactile and erected. Isa definitely has virility in her work, and she is a woman.

Holy Isa
Holy Angela

Both not botoxed. Richard Hawkins keeps it cute.

The Japanese call it kawaii. He’s of the type: “Thou shalt not look like a dick in public.” The emojistickers on his work cover up the spermspots from wanking. (In other art-related forms Dash Snow put glitter on it.)

Reflections on Californian ideals?

Moving identities virtually. Endless repetition and reflections. (That’s where fashion lives: Tolle Tage im untergrund.) The entertainment industry and Silicon Valley. (Today’s human-digital relationship forms an infinite network. Cybernetics are the new crumping.) I guess there’s a time for everything. As long as we are jumping on coaches again.

Do your collections cater to hedonism, to a pleasure-driven club aesthetic? 

It’s about creating desire. Some people want to party. Some people want the opposite. Yes, there’s vertigo; a feeling of dizziness… A swimming in the head…

The lexical describes it figuratively as a state in which all things seem to be engulfed in a whirlpool of terror. The opposite would be: Total Zen. This starts with cleaning your inside and also your environment. Like Cy Twombly in the upstairs studio of his country house: “Hard, clean, bright — the beauty of an empty canvas — and a nearly empty room, filled with inspiration that Martha Rosler never found.”

“This (Bernhard Willhelm fashion) house is so much like me that it is almost like talking to myself,” says expatriate painter-sculptor Cy Twombly.

Do you consider your garments as installations rather than collections? Objects rather than outfits?

I agree with Pierre Huyghe: Past and present are ever-present. Fiction and reality, event and encounter (interactions between cloth and person). Followed by codes, protocols, roles, elements, markers, rules, conditions and behaviors all creating desires or anti-feelings and alienation.

Or you’re like a Baroque painter. A (very) late Mannerist engaged every bit as much in iconoclasm, elaboration, reactivity. There’s a relationship to art.

In many ways I refer to Jiri Georg Dokoupil’s statement when he described his paintings: It was a joke at first, but it soon occurred to me that the dumbness, which was meant ironically, was actually the truth. (Dokoupil openly admits he is a sex addict and moved to Brazil.)

Suddenly you realize that the thing you were making jokes about the whole time is actually the thing that occupies you the most. That should also be figurative, and a metaphor for the world in which we move. But these open necessities, intuitive shameless working credos and convictions can be discussed afterwards. It’s about pure visualization.

Tell me about your last trip to Miami Basel — after all, it incited the interview between gay porn actor Cutler X and you, which then inspired this conversation to happen.

“If you don’t want gay men in the military, make the uniforms more ugly,” Joan Rivers stated.

And Miami art was full of gay men. In this sense, it was beautiful. I have the feeling that these arty fairs are there to compensate for an inner emptiness. The woman wearing shapeless gams at the fair would not do her favors. Women efficiently use the hallway of arty fairs, dressed in body-hugging, pastel-colored and botoxed Alaïa copies, as a red carpet or catwalk. In that case, the dress would need a slit to flash the leg. (“Angelina Jolie had troubles,” some soulless Berlusconi wannabe-babe told me.) Understandably people in fashion are not always interested in art. But maybe some people find true personal happiness in a difficult fragmented life like several tanned Italians I met at the fair. (I ate organic food.)

Do you collect?

There are some conceptual problems with collecting: someone has to pay for it. Sometimes an Isa Genzken costs more than a liver transplant. (And she needs one.) Sometimes such openly displayed splendor is just a gracefully extended invitation to a different kind of time.


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