The Genteel
October 23, 2017
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Esther Perbandt is known throughout Germany for her strong, architectural designs. Photograph by Florian Kolmer.

The unique aesthetic behind Esther Perbandt's androgynous designs is founded on an appreciation of clean lines and muted colours in combination with elements of men's tailoring. The Berlin-based designer is well-known throughout Germany for her strong, architectural designs, alternative fashion shows and bold collaborations. However, as one of Germany's most popular contemporary avant-garde designers, Perbandt explains to The Genteel that sometimes designs appearing black-and-white conceal a kaleidoscope of complex influences and experiences.

Pieces from Perbandt's A/W 2012/13 Collection.
Photograph by Florian Kolmer.

When Perbandt looks upon her completed collections, she finds it difficult to define the exact sources that influenced her in the first place. "Very often it happens that I miss a certain piece in my own wardrobe. [I decide] what I'm missing and start designing it," notes Perbandt. "I don't sketch every piece of the collection beforehand, I don't have an outset plan for the collection before we start producing the samples. Very often it happens that people around me freak out because I don't [have] any pieces finished yet."

Perbandt's greatest asset may be her creative intuition, however it is her wealth of fashion experience that has helped her realise her strong - often dramatic - designs. After earning her diploma in fashion design at the Berlin University of Fine Arts (Universität der Künste) in 1999, the German designer started a masters degree in fashion and textile design which included three-month stints at design schools in the Dutch city of Utrecht and at the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM) in Paris. During her final exam at IFM, one of her professors persuaded her to apply for a post-graduate programme for international fashion design. 

It was during the French post-grad programme that Perbandt got in touch with the business side of the fashion industry. "Unfortunately we didn't get confronted with business during my time in Berlin. Luckily, that [has] changed at German universities - at least, that's my impression," she notes. 

In contrast, IFM was very concerned with helping its students find jobs. As Perbandt recalls, "every two months we had presentations, where bigger fashion houses and headhunters participated." It wasn't long before Perbandt parlayed her experience at IFM into a job as design assistant with French label, Chacok. The Cote d'Azur-based brand is known for its use of bright colours and flashy prints - not a style Perbandt herself preferred. Meanwhile, the rising design star began to long for the German capital. 

I once had a friend going out dancing in one of my dresses. She felt very comfortable and safe inside it. But she noticed men were puzzled by it, trying to flirt with her and figuring out what that dress was about and why they were so attracted by it.

Thus, in 2003, Perbandt moved back to Germany. "Once I was back in Berlin I wanted to stay there permanent[ly], with my friends and family. But I knew getting a job in that business would be almost impossible. So I thought: 'Why not make something by myself?' Right after working for another label, my first designs were brighter and more colourful until I realised that this is not my style," the designer remembers. With each successive collection, Perbandt increasingly poured her own ideals of the female aesthetic into her designs, refining her androgynous style. "It took some reflection to find my own handwriting," Perbandt recalls.

Indubitably such reflection was devoted to one of the most influential and intensive periods of Perbandt's education; the time she spent in Moscow with Russian artist, Gosha Ostretsov. "I wanted to spend some time in Russia, I was fascinated by the country, especially by Moscow," recalls the designer. In preparation, Perbandt had spent two years learning Russian in evening classes (born and raised in West Berlin, she hadn't learned the language in school). She didn't know Ostretsov before she moved to Russia, but a friendly journalist gave her the number of a Russian colleague, who introduced her to the artist. "It was very confusing at first, because Gosha didn't speak English, only French - which I wasn't so good at back then - and my Russian still needed to improve. He didn't really know what I wanted from him. His girlfriend needed to translate for us."

The multi-media artist behind "New Government," an anti-utopian art project, Ostretsov is also a painter and sculptor. Every now and then, the avant-garde creative experimenter would design single fashion pieces - designed less for function and wearability than for their aesthetic. Remembers Perbandt, "he wanted to sew a dress and called me at the place where I was staying, at 6pm. We pulled an all-nighter until 8am the next morning and I guess he was impressed by how hard I could work. That's how he got the idea to produce a whole line - 30 different designs - which he never had done before." That collection was presented in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. The Russian artist made a huge impact on Perbandt, who recalls, "It was a very intensive experience, Gosha is very creative, he sees himself as a son of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s. I learned a lot and I think you can still see the graphic, constructed and deconstructed impact he made on me." 

Berlin-based designer Esther Perbandt.
Photograph by Oliver Rath.

Ostretsov's creative individuality no doubt also inspired Perbandt to embrace her unconventional fashion attitudes. The Berlin designer refuses to go along with mainstream attitudes towards sexiness. "My clothes are not super tight with a deep cleavage. Sexy is a matter of character, of confidence - of not showing off everything you have." An attitude which, Perbandt says, is shared by most of her customers. "I once had a friend going out dancing in one of my dresses. She felt very comfortable and safe inside it. But she noticed men were puzzled by it, trying to flirt with her and figuring out what that dress was about and why they were so attracted by it."

Much of Perbandt's personality flows into her designs, fuelling the strong, independent aesthetic her buyers have come to adore. "Most of my customers are somewhere between the ages of 45 and 60, older than you would normally expect. She's the kind of woman who can afford my fashion and has a strong personality."

But Perbandt is careful to note that not every customer shares her bias for an exceptionally androgynous appearance. "Some of the women that come into my store here in Berlin are very feminine in their look and the clothes don't look as androgynous on them as they do on me, for example." However, for Perbandt, her own body is her guide, as she explains, "I design a lot for the kind of body I know - tall and slender. Not necessarily for a certain gender." The designer claims five of her current designs definitely work for men as well - as long as the men are also tall and slender. The gender ambivalence of her designs is one of the reasons she shoots many of her collections with male models.

Perbandt's designs are sold in a number of countries, however it is in her German homeland that she has found most success. "I'm proud to have established the reputation [that] my label produces androgynous clothes. My personality and my label are hard to separate," she contends. "Everything I design is definitely wearable, so back when I started my label it wasn't that shocking in German society."

So what does Perbandt think of markets that are less receptive to her androgynous designs? "I don't think there is a sudden trend for androgynous designs, it has been a part of fashion and culture for quite a long time, if you, for example, think of Marlene Dietrich, who wore a tailcoat. But still, it is hard to establish your own brand, with every collection again. But I'd never give up my label."

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