Drawing from diverse cultural and stylistic influences, the fashion brand Bernhard Willhelm is renowned for its unisex garments, collaborations with artists and for working outside the mainstream of the fashion world.
This group of garments belongs to the Autumn/Winter 12-13, Autumn/Winter 15-16, Spring/Summer '15 and Spring/Summer '16 ranges. They are characterised by the use of shapes derived from folkloric, Asian, African and medieval designs and feature striking fabric patterns using tie dye, paint spots and embroidery. The outfits from the SS16 collection are accessorised with motorcycle-inspired denim boots and sandals from the label's debut shoe line and a crown-like helmet made of chicken wire and plywood by Caribbean/Californian artist, Duane Paul.
Bernhard Willhelm and Jutta Kraus use their fashion label to challenge fashion consumer culture and present a broader view of beauty and style. They aim to transcend the uniformity of the consumer culture by producing garments that are genuinely unisex, by referencing diverse cultures and historical periods and by collaborating with artists working in various media such as Bjork, Olaf Breuning and Carsten Fock. Although the label did participate in the Paris shows before its move to Los Angeles, it now launches collections in various innovative ways, such as via the museum exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, California in 2015. Willhelm believes that the age of the internet has rendered the traditional shows obsolete.
Willhelm states that he does not design only for the young and beautiful and uses 'real' people of various ethnicities in his publicity campaigns, including the fifty year old black, gay porn star, Cutler X. His interest in porn in the fashion realm goes beyond the use of models, as Willhelm explained in an article for Interview magazine, 'The Art of Sexualising Fashion' by the abovementioned Cutler X, published in September, 2015: "Usually, I start draping on a little doll…. I usually start working with my hands and a piece of fabric without a concrete idea and then I work around it…it's a very abstract way of actually starting a collection. A porn star also needs to get a feeling and that's why it's close to porn…you work around the body…". He also claims that in both porn and fashion, a sense of humour is essential.
While Willhelm is far from the only fashion designer to collaborate with artists and exhibit in museums, what makes his work distinctive is the use of multimedia to promote his ideas about fashion and consumerism. This, along with the deliberate referencing of porn and drawing upon diverse cultures for inspiration, accompanied by an irreverence towards the fashion establishment, makes the label truly unique.
Julie McFarland, MAAS volunteer, under the supervision of Glynis Jones, Curator, 2017