A Conversation with Frank Leder: "To share my ideals is the most important thing"
Words by Ben P.
Frank Leder is a fascinating designer. While his clothes are not flashy and don’t scream design, they represent an immense amount of thought, time and skill. My last interview was with Peir Wu, and while both she and Frank Leder share a deep sense of care about their work, they’re in very different points in their careers. After talking with Frank, I was left the lasting impression of a grizzled, experienced veteran looking back at his body of work and sharing the life lessons he’s learned along the way. He’s a fashion outsider – he avoids tradeshows and doesn’t show his clothing on his runway – and he views his garments as a mechanism by which he can communicate his unique worldview to his customers. His level of considerations, and the obvious joy he finds in his work, puts many designers to shame.
Ben: What's your background and how did you get started in the industry?
Frank Leder: I was studying in London, at Central St. Martins, quite a while ago now. I did both my B.A. and my M.A. and I stayed there for around 7 or 8 years total. When I was in my M.A. course I already [knew that I] wanted to start my own label, and I realized that it was quite difficult to get the [production] quality I wanted to have with my limited English speaking skills in London. I decided to move in Germany. [Moving back] was never on my mind when I set out to study fashion in London, but in the end it was the right move. It was much easier to set up a label here because I could speak the language, I can visit the factories, and Berlin really developed over the years - it was helpful to have a big city where you could afford rent, have a big studio with a lot of people doing things. That was 12 years ago. I came here in 2001, and developed the label over that time. [Originally] I worked with a couple of shops, and over time a following started, and it grew into something that I'm feeling comfortable enough with to setup factories for shirts, trousers and jackets. That took time. In the beginning there was nothing of a fashion industry for niche designers like I am. I had to educate the people [in the factories] to help me sew a shirt - I was learning to have a shirt sewn. That took time, but from the beginning I tried not to take on too many shops. I always said I wanted to grow with the shops, and keep pace with production. For me, product quality is very important. I've always had a problem with turning shops down because I couldn't fulfill for them, which in the end was the right decision to [make]. I grew very slowly. I had an opportunity to make mistakes, and try not to [repeat] them with the next collection until we got the point [now] where we could accommodate a much larger number of items.
B: You mentioned factories. Do you own the factories that produce your clothes? Or do you contract it out?
FL: We definitely work very closely with [third-party] factories. I always go to the factories - myself or my team. The most important [part] are the people in between me and the factory, the factory's spokesperson, who's getting the orders and going through the orders, checking all the details. I'm always driving around [and visiting], that's why the factories are all in Germany. It means I can easily access [them]. When factories are all over the world it would be very difficult to visit them, and I would always have questions [about what was going on]. It's important to me know even the people on the sewing machines. When they know your face, they're much more motivated to sew a trouser or a shirt for you, because they know it's for this guy and it's going there. They're proud. They're educated in the brand. That's so important. Otherwise [Frank Leder] would just be another clothing brand that you could buy all over the world. After the factories have sewn the garments, the garments come here first. They're not being shipped out directly from the factory where we don't know anything about it. Everything comes through my studio, meaning we have all the garments here. We look through, we pick them out, we check them, we repackage them and send them on their way. Everything goes through our hands one last time, which is another factor that is very important to me because I want to have a good feel for the garments. We can notice the mistakes, which sometimes occur because everything is made by hand. We're trying to give the garment the attention it deserves. [To me] taking care of garments is the most important thing.
B: How would you describe your aesthetic?
FL: It's closely related to the place I come from, which is of course Germany. In menswear and even womenswear there's not really another designer that's really going deep into the cultural history of Germany and trying to find [motivation]. I am interested in social groups - groups of men - that's where I get my inspiration from. It could be the German countryside, it could be a special group of German people you wouldn't know about in the [wider] world that I could have access to. The recent collection is all about the carpenters who are going around for 3 years and 1 day in Germany and working in different locations. [I'm interested in] groups of people who are proud of themselves and their traditional lives. I try to meet them and try to [use] them as an inspiration, to capture their overall feeling, integrating them into my design language.
B: How do you research these small cultural groups? Are these groups you've always known about, or are is there a process by which you find them?
FL: It's the [latter] I'd say. I'm always looking out for them and researching them. I have a lot of friends who are artists in this [lifestyle] and they tell me "you should look into this kind of area more" or "did you meet this guy." Also sometimes it's sheer luck. You find someone who is part of one of these groups and its [becomes] much easier. Most of the groups are actually open, you'd be surprised. They're happy to share what they're doing because nobody has ever asked them. It's a matter of asking around and keeping an eye open. The same goes with [clothing production] as well. My buttons [for example] - most are vintage buttons from the 1920s, '30s, '40s, '50s. I can't really go to a shop and buy them. I have people around Germany who are looking for me. Resources are very important. I have a lot of people who help. Everyone contributes a little to the idea, and everything comes together when the collection is being created.
B: It's a collaboration.
FL: Yes, exactly.
B: I know you produce more than just clothes. You have a line of skincare products, as well as other products. Could you speak about those?
FL: Of course. The skincare - the body care - I've had them in mind for the last three years, but it took a long time to develop because I wanted everything to be made in a very small factory, everything had to be right. I designed all the packaging myself. I collaborated with modern artists for the pictures on the packaging. That took around two years. There are six different products, which have been on the market since the beginning of the year, and right now we're working on another five products, which will come out at the end of this year. I wanted to have something that in a way shows my aesthetic - the world from which I draw inspiration. All the characters [that inspired these products and are on the packaging] have appeared in my lookbooks, or will appear in my lookbooks, in a certain way. The skincare line is a manifestation [of these ideas]. [For example] we have this exciting student figure on the packaging on the shampoo product. Everything is connected to the world I design in, but it's a product that's more easily accessible than garments. I wouldn't be interested in doing a perfume or something, that's bullshit and boring. They're little products that are the essence of the Germanness of the world I draw inspiration from. It's something that you can easily buy, without thinking about it so much - you don't have to try it on.
B: Have you found that most of the stores that pick up the skincare line already carry the clothing, or is it new retailers who have never heard of you before?
FL: Both actually. I wasn't so much thinking about having the bodycare products as bait, but it's an opener to my world. It's unique. There's not really anything on the market [like it]. I'm not treating [the products] like a company would treat them that's only doing bodycare products. For me, I [approach it] like an artist. It's a widening of my portfolio. It's something that comes closely from the heart. It's not something that I do to make money. There's too much handwork and production involved [to make money]. It's not a mass market thing. It brings people joy. This goes for my clothes as well - it makes me really happy. To share my ideals is the most important thing.
B: How you operate seems to be very different from how most brands operate. What do you think of the wider industry? Should more brands operate like you, or is that part of what makes you special? Clearly it's a business, but it sounds to me like you're much more concerned with the integrity of the product than simply selling as many pieces of clothing as possible.
FL: That's exactly right. I'm surely not alone [in my thinking]. Off the top of my head, maybe Carol Christian Poell operates in a similar style. He's even more into going to the limit of a garment. Our clothes are more approachable than his, more wearable. He's probably similar in the way we treat our customers.
B: It's very interesting that you mention Poell. You clearly have very different aesthetics. I've talked to a number of designers and his name always seems to come up.
FL: I don't know him personally, I've never seen him face to face. One of my colleagues in the studio, she knows him quite well, so I have a couple of insights into how he thinks and how he views his work, and there are similarities very much so. There are others [besides us] as well. It's a matter of having self-respect. I try to putall of my thought into the garments we produce. It's a really nice job to do. I couldn't be more happy. Of course there's a lot of stress - we're doing around 140 different pieces a season, and we're producing 4 seasons, and that's a lot of work. We're a really small team here, too, because I want to keep it tight. I want to be involved in every step because it's my name on the garments. The customer can expect that I'm heavily involved in all the garments, otherwise it wouldn't be fair to them. When [you have clothes] where it's [just] a nametag, and the designer isn't involved... I can't understand that.
B: You’ve mentioned accessibility a number of times. Do you think your clothing is not accessible?
FL: I don't make it easy people to find me. For me, being in Europe in Germany [to sell like everyone else] I'd have to go Italy, to Pitti Uomo, and show my collection, which I don't do at all. I decided a couple of years ago that I want to concentrate on the garments themselves, and not the selling. At the moment I have around 70 shops who are selling my garments. While I could go to a trade show and get 20 new shops, it would be very difficult to keep the level of quality I have now. People find me, and shops find me, through [word of month]. They see [my] garments in other shops or see interviews. When I feel the shops have the right ideas that we want to work with, I start a relationship with the shop. It's more like a friendship - it's a longterm relationship. It's not so much about business. [My] clothes need to be correctly presented by a person who understand what it's all about. [Simply] selling is boring, it's not something that really attracts me. [The shopowner] needs to the right person. He's selling to the guys out there - he's the collector between us and the customer. He has to be the right person, the missing link. It takes time to establish this relationship. So far it's worked well. We've really found the right to people work with and to present us. Without this way of working, the brand could be something that spreads, and lots of people want it, but you're losing something of your soul. For me it's a perfect way of working.
B: I found your brand through South Willard in Los Angeles.
FL: Ryan [from South Willard] is one of the guys I speak of. He's the right person to present our garments. He has the knowledge and the cleverness to translate our philosophy to the customers. We're very happy with him. I like the shop very much.
B: Do you have a lot of customers in the German market, or are they usually international?
FL: I have a lot of Japanese [customers] of course. Over there the market is very big. [For the rest] it's spread around. In Europe, it's not in every country, but it really depends on the shop. In Germany, not so much - the interests of people are far away from the homeland. I don't know why that is, but I guess when you see the clothes everyday you don't appreciate them. When I started studying in London, the theme of Germany and German manufacturing wasn't instantly on my mind. It came over time after realizing, during my years away from my homeland, that there was something I wanted to show to people. If I started in Germany and stayed here, maybe these ideas would never have materialized in myself. It took the step of going to another country to have distance and reflection and realizing that's something I want to do. When I was in London, everything I came back my belief that there was so much potential here kept getting stronger.
B: Looking forward, how do you see the brand changing? Do you see the industry moving at all towards your direction? Or will you continue to be off to the side?
FL: I've always been off to the side. I never really looked to other people when I was setting up my business. I've found out that that's the best way [for me] to work. I can see a new generation coming that's much more into the niche I'm working in, especially in menswear. A lot has changed. It's a matter of if these brands can survive - luckily for me I have my 70 shops and I don't have any problems with cashflow. I'm healthy at this point, but my situation took a long time to develop to the point [it's at now] where I can really concentrate on the garments and not think about where the money for the collection comes from. Which is good. When new designers are coming out and trying to set up a label, while they're often very gifted and talented, the connector is missing - the person who actually sees the talent and supports [it]. And these labels die after a couple of seasons, which is a real shame. They never reach the audience they deserve. For me, a lot of people don't know me yet, but I just try to keep on working. I'm always happy when new people approach me and respect the way I work.
B: I know at least on the internet, you have a lot of fans.
FL: [laughs] I don't really Google myself. Maybe I should put more things into the computer, but to be honest I'm not quite a computer guy. I have a computer of course, but I'm much more comfortable [without it]. Maybe that's something I should work on and pay more attention to. On the other hand, people are aware [of me] and can find me. But, in a way, having access to my sources in Germany, the buttons, the fabrics, small manufacturers that specialize in one thing can't be done with the internet. I have to call them or drive to them. That's a nice thing. In a way I'm preserving German craftsmanship - my part, I guess, is bringing [these craftsmen] to a wider audience. For example a shoemaker or a clothes maker in Germany you would never have heard me, through me they're able to survive and they can share their craftsmanship with the world. That's really something extremely satisfying for me.
B: To keep those industries going.
FL: Yes, to be the link.
B: Any final thoughts to leave with our readers?
FL: I would say, myself, I'm a niche designer. I'm happy with what I'm doing. People should keep on being curious. Keep on searching and trying to find new people, like I've found, to support. Also, the customers are the most important people. They're supporting the designer. Designers should be aware of the customer. The world needs more people who appreciate and not just consume. Appreciation is key. As a designer, I'm very thankful I have customers who appreciate what I'm doing and have supported me for the last 12 years. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here. Everyday you have to think about that - that's why I take everything so seriously. I never take anything for granted. I have to grow with my customers and do things that make everyone happier every day.