Photos by Joachim Mueller-Ruchholtz
I don’t need to say much to Stephan Schneider and his work. Several months ago when I asked who I should try to interview for StyleForum, his name was at the top of the list, and its obvious way. His a thoughtful designer, who has a clear vision of what he wants out of a collection, and his clothing is, if nothing else, supremely subtle. His work needs to be handled to be fully appreciated. Checkout the SF thread here.
Ben: What's your background, and how did you get into the industry?
Stephan Schneider: I was born in Germany. I was born in Dusseldorf, an industrial city with a lot of coal mining industry, which was booming in the seventies. I grew up there. My father was a chemist, I had a very scientific family. No one had anything to do with culture or art, for sure not fashion. My sister is a doctor, my brother also became a chemist. When I was a teenager, my major problem was how could I escape from here, how could I leave Germany. [It was] the unhappy teenager time, I [was] listening to the Smiths, crying in my room. [laughs] My solution was to go to a boarding school in Yorkshire, England. There was an exchange program, and when I was 16 I went to a very traditional boarding school, and there was the first time I got into... I wouldn't call it fashion, I would call it youth culture. We were going out to night clubs, dressing up, [listening to] music... actually going out, music and fashion was one big thing. I was never into haute couture, but when I saw for the first time this music - bands like ABC... a lot came from the UK. Suddenly I felt a certain energy [in this culture]. I got really excited, and this got me interested in fashion. To dress up to belong to part of a youth culture. I was into gothic [clothing] when I was 16, and from gothic it went over to the Japanese, to Yohji. When I graduated from high school when I was 18 my biggest dream from my parents was to get a Yohji Yamamoto suit. Through this youth culture I came to fashion, and most of all, the London designers at that time - Vivienne Westwood. It was a big exchange between music and fashion. When I graduated then, and came back to Germany, I thought "let's give it a try, let's try to study fashion." I applied in London at Central Saint Martins and in Antwerp at the Royal Academy. [Then] it was the 1990s, and the Belgian designers were well known in London – they had showed already in 1986 for the first time – and there was a big relationship between the UK and the Belgian designers - it was before they showed in Paris, it was really in London that they were first selling and showing. When I came to Saint Martins I felt [that] it was not so much about the garments themselves, and I felt much better about the entrance examination at Antwerp. Walter von Beirendonck himself was there, he was doing the examination, and I felt there was a very close relationship between the school and the students. Actually, school started the next day [after my examination] and I stayed. That was in 1990 and I a still living in Antwerp right now.
B: You never left, you've stayed the whole time.
S: Yep. [Then] when I graduated in 1994... it's strange, talking to you know [about it], but to me [then] it was natural to open my own store straight away. For me fashion is always meant to be worn and sold. I've never felt that I wanted to make clothes for my idols or to hang in a museum. I always wanted to make garments to be sold. When I graduated I directly opened my store. Since then it's been in the same location, it's still there [today].
B: Did you start immediately with your own label, or were you carrying other brands in the beginning?
S: No, actually I started straight away with just my labels, with mens and ladies. My graduation collection was mens and ladies. I like to do both. I couldn't really choose which one I like more or less, and straight from the beginning I did both of the lines, and still today it's both.
B: How would you describe your aesthetic?
S: I want to make friendly garments. This sounds very stupid - "what do you mean by friendly?" [laughs] The garment itself, for me, is very important. The process is less important. For me, the result is very important. It's really important in the end what it looks like, can you wear it, and can you sell it. [While], I'd never design anything just to be sold, when we have our sales, we're always looking at the garments that did not sell, and asking ourselves how could we improve those. For me, it's important that people really buy it and want to wear it. There should be a demand. This is, I think, a very different approach - on one hand you could say I want to make garments that are commercially successful, and on the other hand I don't push the commercial garments, but rather the uncommercial ones. There's a love/hate relationship between selling and designing, and I think you feel this in my aesthetic. I also want to be close to people [who buy my clothes], I don't want to have a big distance to the people who wear them. It shouldn't be fashion with an arrogant, cold, distance approach. When people like [my clothes] it's a big compliment to me.
B: Would you say your collections are a mix of pieces that you know will sell well and are very approachable, like your scarves, and more adventurous pieces that are harder to sell?
S: Absolutely, and this mix comes naturally, because we're such a small team [here]. Also, every day I walk through my store - the offices are upstairs - and I'm confronted with the real collection, the real customer. On one hand you can say that's a reality shock, because you really see what works and what doesn't, but on the other hand it also makes you close [to this process]. I'm so surprised when fashion becomes so abstract and you have a designer who never sells in a store. This closeness to the customer is a good character of the collection.
B: I know textiles are very important to you. What do you look for in a textile, and how do you develop your own?
S: A weak part of [my clothes] is the visual approach. I don't think pictures [of them] are that strong. I've always been told, once you put [my clothes] on, once you feel them [it's different]. It's likely because I spend so much time on the textiles. When I go to Premiere Vision, the fabric fair in Paris - at the fair you have more than 3,000,000 swatches of fabric - but there's never a single one where I say "this is one I like," so I always design them by myself to bring some structure and some life [to the clothes]. I try to bring imperfection to the fabric, that they look in a certain way more... I wouldn't call it worn, because then you'd say I distress the fabrics, which isn't really what I want... but I want to give them a smile. I want to make them friendly and alive, without washing or distressing them. I try to weave them with mistakes, with shadows inside, with lines inside, that when the garment is made there's a certain personality inside. The most difficult thing is that, through [the] industrial manufacturing process, once the garments are industrially made, they do look dead. They look like *poof* - all the energy [is gone]. With my fabrics there is so much love and energy put into them that, in the end, when they're on the rack, in the shop, you feel it. The textile gives back the energy, the idea that could have gotten lost through industrial manufacturing.
B: When it comes to producing your own textiles, do you work with a mill, or do you do it own house? Do you have a factory as part of your studio?
S: It's [done] at our big factories, our shirt maker [for example], who also makes the fabrics for Tommy Hilfiger or for Diesel. It's big factories and I'm the smallest of the smallest customer for them, but because I've worked with them for such a long time - some of my makers I worked with for my graduation collection [in 1994] - and I'm very loyal to them [they work with me]. I'm [also] very disciplined, I'm German, I'm very disciplined on giving them drawings on time, knowing what they can do, explaining to them the warp, the weft, the weaving structure, that they're looking forward to making those strange fabrics for me. When they see them they say "my God, what did you make out of this strange fabric you've created" and they're challenged season by season [by] my designs. They're big makers and big factories, but because of my loyalty, working season by season, we've built up a relationship and they're willing to do this for me.
B: Do you design the textiles first and then design the pieces?
S: Exactly. It starts so much wit the textile. Now, for example, we're right in the middle of finishing the Fall/Winter 2014 collection. [Sometimes] when we see a textile here, we say "wow these textiles are so beautiful" and we want to make something very simple, because the garment becomes too big and [draws] too much attention the textile gets lost and gets destroyed. Today, for example, we got a few textiles in and we decided to add a certain garment to the collection to let the textile breath and speak. The collection is really made and drawn from the function of the textile.
B: I actually just spoke with Frank Leder a few weeks ago, and you and him sound like you have similar techniques when it comes to producing clothing.
S: Interesting. Frank - I know him - is also German, graduated from Saint Martins. We have a very similar approach, and I think a very traditional approach. We like tradition, old techniques, old manufacturing. We like to keep the garments as they are, not invent a new look. Rather, keep what our tradition, our heritage created, but give it a twist and something modern from today.
B: Turning to the retail world, at least in America you've become much more popular over the last several years. What would you attribute this growth to? Have you done anything different?
S: For sure I didn't do anything different. I think it's funny. When I started, you think you have to do it like it's written in the golden fashion book, you have a show, you do catwalk shows, so I did catwalk shows from 2000 to 2007, and it was expensive. I spent loads of money on these shows, and the moment I stopped doing them, and I started investing more time and energy into the real products, the US market suddenly came and was growing season by season. Shops like Project No. 8 in New York, Odin, those niche shops started to grow and become important. In Los Angeles [as well] for sure, Opening Ceremony is one of the nice stores. Their customers feel that there's a lot of attention to the garment themselves, and they're not so sensitive to press and PR and to advertising. I think once you've found those customers, they're also very loyal, and some of them I've had for 7 or 8 years.
B: You've been talking a little bit about the wider industry. What's your perspective on it? Do you stand apart?
S: I'm very afraid that I'm one of a dying species. When I see the world around, it's so much about big brands, big advertisers and big groups. I get bored a lot when I see high street. On the other hand, when I'm in the US, for example when I'm in Los Angeles, it's where I get so much energy from. When you go to Silver Lake, you suddenly meet a little bag designer who makes his bags there, there are a lot of denim people who still manufacturer in Los Angeles, and you feel perhaps there's a new generation coming, and there's more of awareness of looking where garments are made. Still today all of my collection is manufactured in Belgium. I go to the makers, I talk to them, and you feel this when you see [my] garments. Let's hope there will be more smaller brands and stores that represent those brands, but I can't really see the future. I just hope people become more aware of big brands and big advertisers, and that the luxury industry is an industry, and it doesn't have [much] to do with creation.
Stayed tuned for Part II.
Edited by Teger - 12/30/13 at 4:53pm