With her unique look and “Berliner Schnauze,” fashion designer Esther Perbandt is anything but ordinary. Her androgynous silhouettes are blurred with deconstructed details, referencing classical menswear. S2S met up with the Berlin designer who was born and raised in Berlin and stays true to her individual style, no matter what the rest of the fashion world might say.
S2S: You state that you were already fascinated by fashion at an early age. When did you get to the point of actually transforming that passion into your personal career, your vision?
Esther Perbandt: I made up my mind at the age of 12. I grew up without TV. Instead there was a huge treasure chest with dress up clothes. So, already as a kid I was mesmerized by adopting different identities. Some even would say that it was boring to play Barbie with me, as I was more interested in undressing and redressing them, rather than constructing a proper plot.
S2S: Is fashion a disguise to you? A way to express something else, since the outfits in the treasure chest were one of your main reasons to join the fashion world?
Esther Perbandt: Actually, my first interest was costume design. During an internship that we had to complete for school, I went to the Schaubühne at Lehniner Platz. But the time there irritated me quite a bit. During the last days I got very ill, which was quite abnormal for me when I was a child. To me, the working hours of the costume designer, an elderly lady, were just incomprehensible at the time. I just couldn’t imagine living a life where there was apparently no time for family or anything else but your job. For some reason, I assumed fashion design would be less time-consuming and that is one of the reasons why I decided to focus on that instead. Of course, there is a tighter connection between costume design and the masquerade of identity, which is one of my personal interests. When it comes to fashion, however, it is less about disguise, but rather about underlining the true personality of somebody. However, that is a notion that is almost meaningless and insignificant for my taste. I once said that my clothing wear the wearer and not the other way around.
S2S: I read that many architects like wearing your designs. Do you want to speak to a certain audience with your fashion?
Esther Perbandt: That happened naturally, I never chose a certain demographic to wear my fashion. It’s exciting that architects are drawn to my designs since architecture was my second dream job when I was younger. However, my math skills probably would not have been good enough.
Some designers have a certain type of muse or woman in their mind when they create their fashion – I don’t! I want to satisfy needs. When I am in the conceptual design phase, I often ponder my personal expectations and how I would like to feel in the collection of the next season. This method is a very personal approach and therefore I can almost read my old collections like a diary. Some are very feminine and others stem from the theme of androgyny. The label and I, as an individual, walk hand in hand and are almost like Siamese twins. With my views on life, I give the brand its’ impulse.
S2S: You obtain the inspiration for your creation process from within. Yet are there also influences from outside?
Esther Perbandt: I would say I am like a sponge, absorbing things in my environment very openly. There is no specific influence. I don’t have to deliberately go anywhere nor would I say the streets of Berlin give me inspiration. Yet, I can feel when something seems to be important or when the universe is trying to tell me something. For example, when I encounter a word or personality more than once a day, I almost know that there will be a connection to my next project. The theme for my 10th anniversary show, which evolved around the cabaret artist Valeska Gert, actually came to life while I was sitting on the couch of a friend in Paris speaking of my Dad. From that moment on she never left my side until today actually. Even after the show, I am reading a biography about Valeska Gert.
S2S: So the name Grotesque for your show at the Volksbühne stems from Valeska Gert?
Esther Perbandt: Inspiration for the entire production was Valeska Gert, even though she herself had bridled against her association with the grotesque. From my perspective, I think it suited her, as grotesque also means absurd and conflictory. She was loud and yet silent, attractive as well as abhorrent, ugly but also beautiful. She was described as nitric acid to civic ideology. She had something very strong and androgynous. Of course these kind of personality traits trigger something in me. Certain stories and personalities attract me on a very high level.
S2S: How did the characteristics of Valeska Gert have an aesthetic impact on your collection?
Esther Perbandt: Actually, already very early on it was apparent that she wasn’t going to inspire the clothing, as there is a very clear Esther Perbandt style that has been shaped over the last three years and wasn’t all of a sudden going to change. Valeska Gert was an inspiration to the production and the show, which I put most of my energy into. I would almost say that the fashion for this show was a side product. The fashion collection developed itself within the show, and the show took away a lot of the pressure from the development of my collection. I wanted it to be huge, as it also was part of my birthday present to myself and so I focused on all the elements like the choir and the setup of the program. My assistant Mellie, who knows the brand by heart, supported the process and helped me focus on the structuring of the night at Volksbühne. It made me realize how much fun it can be to organize a show like that, creating the concept and forms of presentation. Since the market is saturated, I also understand that it’s not enough anymore to just create a new collection and to participate in a fashion fair. It’s more about personality and storytelling. With every piece of clothing that I sell, people can actually purchase a tiny slice of Esther. Witnessing how everything came to life, created the desire in me to keep on extending the means of presenting my fashion.
S2S: Looking back at the show what did you take with you?
Esther Perbandt: I was actually expecting quite a bit of negative critique, as my show required a lot of time from the audience. There was a sound and performance choir – actually the former choir of my Mom, which I hired for my event. It was quite difficult to convince the choir to be part of my performance, as well as my own crew. In the beginning everyone thought I was nuts.
My idea was to combine electronic beats with the special voices of the choir, and have the dancer, Fine Kwiatkowski perform. Eventually, with a lot of time and patience it all came together.
S2S: Since S2S connects Berlin and New York, we would like to know if New York has any significance for you?
Esther Perbandt: New York stands for desire, a longing I haven’t yet been able to satisfy. I don’t know why, but I personally think I belong there. When I was 21, I actually visited, but since that time I haven’t been back, even though one of my oldest and best friends has lived there for almost 15 years now. I connect with some of the sensations described by Patty Smith, in her memoir Just Kids, that one has in New York City. And I often hear people tell me: “You’re so New York.” I would really love to sell my fashion there. This year, for the first time, there will also be a Berlin Show Room in New York and I would love to be a part of it. So, maybe this year is my time!
This interview was conducted by Stefanie Tendler and Raphael Jacobs.
Raphael Jacobs currently studies art history and theatre sciences at the FU in Berlin. In Berlin, he encounters the most interesting people for you, visits hidden spaces and is always on the look out for the next kick of cumulative creativity. When he doesn’t lapse into music or eloquently enthuses on art, he organizes events and spreads the wings of a social butterfly.