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THE INTERVIEWS: PROF. KURT ZIHLMANN

DRESS UP PASSION  — WAKE UP FASHION! 

The head of the Institute of Fashion Design, Kurt Zihlmann, and the artist Alex Silber,  who last taught at the HGK FHNW from 1993 to 2015 as a lecturer for performance and forms of presentation, met in Laufental, Solothurn, away from the pulsating world of fashion. The exchange was not intended to involve putting on a show, but rather an open discussion about what the two of them have had in common over the past twenty years: uphill and downhill rides in the vast terrain of wondrous tenues …


Interview. DOING FASHION Paper Issue 7

WISH AND REALITY CHECK

You’ve probably also once in a while looked at your clothes after getting rid of them, them lying there, on the chair or on the floor, next to the bed; or noticed them hanging on a hook in the fitting room and thought: Don’t they look like me? Or rather: Who do these rags belong to? Both statements may be a motivation for fashion making. For me, trousers can mean home.

Your observations echo our current training concept: By “Doing Fashion” we mean a holistic practice of design, which the Institute of Fashion Design has been teaching for twenty years. Fashion is thus negotiated as a part of everyday culture, whereby a critical attitude towards societal changes is adapted, which acts as a driving agent, in the sense of desirable change. The essential aim is to create alternative spaces for action in the field of fashion design. In doing so, ideas that go beyond a conventional understanding of fashion are being pursued. By relating bodily perception and design, fashion thus unfolds in its aesthetic, sensual and social function.

In the complex field of fashion design, personal questions are welcomed and always valuable. What can you remember about the moment when clothing became important in your life, for the very first time?

I actually have to say something about this that I never thought I’d say. There was a career counsellor in Uri, when I attended a boarding school in Central Switzerland and wanted to become a goldsmith. After a one-hour conversation, he recommended that I go to Zurich to see what the craft of tailoring was all about. This is still so present to me, because the career advisor was right: I started an apprenticeship in this field.

This came out of the blue, so to speak?

Definitely. Surprising!

Surprising, how fashion can be sometimes. Maybe the career consultant took a good look at how you were dressed? Were there any buttons missing from your pants or was your shirt wrinkled?

In high school, clothing was not an issue at all, nobody was styled — not as it is nowadays — which is why I was so amazed by the career guidance …

Meanwhile you have spent many years paying attention to clothing. Can you say when the term “fashion” first became important to you and how this question became concrete? 

The term referred more to the garment as such, not to fashion. In other words, for the professional craft in the men’s tailor’s workshop back then in Lucerne, it was all about the quality of clothing. And yes, clothing should be embellishing, elegant. The word fashion, however, was not decisive for me, it was first and foremost about giving a person a feeling of security and well-being through dressing. I later became more intensively acquainted with the term fashion through my contact with the Textile College and the School of Design in Zurich and then, of course, through the contact with students from the Körper und Kleid Department of the School of Design in Basel. It was here that the then director Hannah Strøm involved me in the development of the educational curriculum.

When was that?

If I remember correctly, this was around 1995 / 96. Because of my mainly technically oriented work, I was affiliated with the schools in Zurich in the 1990s. I came into intensive contact with the fashion world during my freelance work in the 1990s. Through the formation of a group with the ambiguous name SAFT in Zurich, which included Pink Flamingo or Apropos among many others, I was closely connected with avant-garde fashion in Switzerland.

SAFT — a trendy term?

The SAFT-Group ( Swiss Avantgarde Fashion Trends ), founded by young fashion designers in the 1990s, marked a new departure for the understanding of fashion in Switzerland. This also affected ski clothing and new trends in the design of work and leisure time. Above all, however, burning questions about the possible loss of craft traditions led to the restructuring of the educational institutions. Marketing was the order of the day — also in and for the schools.

As a lecturer, I experienced three developmental phases of institutionalisation within almost two decades …

… changes that have taken up a lot of nerve and hard work.

And apprenticeships were costly! As you have already mentioned, Hannah Strøm stood at the very beginning
of today’s Fashion Design Institute. In 1993, after my return from the USA, I sat down with her and she spontaneously invited me — as a performance artist — to serve as a juror for K + K’s final projects. This event had consequences, because it developed, at first quite modestly, into a kind of third letter, A. Especially since there were no really profound training formats for presentations or even performances for the then small classes of only seven students on average. For the team and me, there was the opportunity to get involved with this third letter A: the art of performance. That was — if I may add this immodestly — the birth of the later successful shows and many commitments to help young talents thrive in public and in the industry. The well-deserved, nationwide authorisation for an upgrade then also went to the school in Basel. The thanks here go to all the contributors from back then! And now the classes are attended by about 25 students?

Correct.

Fashion is associated with a term that cannot be overheard: ambition. Without ambition — that is closely connected with emotion — there is no way. Exuberant ambition, euphoria, even hysteria and excessive demands are the order of the day in the process of fashion creation, they are its fuel, so to speak. Let’s remember once again: at the beginning, the teaching segments were extremely modest, the budget for lofty ideas was tight to non-existent. Today, with more students and growing needs, the existential basis has not changed significantly. The question of the possibilities of realisation in this exotic field during and after the training is still being questioned repeatedly. This is certainly also part of what — in general — makes the exploration of design attractive!?

Yes, the dare for something new. When I met Hannah Strøm, she had — as they say — a nose for new things. She had the courage to open up something. The novelty was that she contextualised respective needs and the understanding of fashion, which in itself is actually self-evident, because craftsmanship and body, and yes, world affairs belong together, and she was able to name and implement this. The body, the elaboration of an individuality, contains the essence of clothing. And that always coincides with the manufacturing process. In detail and in dialogue with the wearer, clothing is always unique. And Hannah Strøm introduced this basic idea of the body, with the self-evidence that body and dress together, form a new whole. And she was able to persuade the students and the team to turn it into fashion. That fascinated me: this willingness to cross boundaries, to meet people in areas that were not solemnly associated with elegance, luxury and beauty. The approach and concrete realisation of what dreams are made of was a discipline for her, that means: to activate interfaces! The context mutated into design.

What I have learned from all of this, is the indispensable encounter, the necessity of dialogue with the You. And also that this has resulted in more teamwork and responsibility. When I hear the term “fashion industry” today, I also think of online shopping. If the presentations back then were very much accompanied or determined by tactile sensations and still want to be, I ask myself where the essence of fashion — namely the time-defined appearance of human beings — can be further developed and interpreted !

LABYRINTH AND REAL WORLD

To sum up: From the long-standing vocational and applied arts schools developed the advanced technical colleges with short-lived intermediate designations — in our case the FHBB — and from these ultimately developed the Academies of Art and Design, which now are understood as universities. On the one hand, touching, trying things out and trying things on, sensuality —  units of measurement which you, as a master tailor, speak of when it comes to precision — are still the norm. On the other hand, the fast-moving present also reveals itself as a maze of fantasy. This holds many pitfalls and challenging passageways. Bridging is needed if we assume that the small formats are to become large formats. Your expertise in the field of digital expansion was much sought after.

Yes, I had established the Textile Technical School ( STF ) in Zurich in the field of cutting pattern design and digitalisation. That was in the late 1980s. That was where I installed the first training system in the field of CAD, in cooperation with the software manufacturer, and it was, if I remember correctly, the first one of its kind in Europe. We started training students in the field of digital media. This starting point naturally shaped my thoughts of combining design and new technologies. In addition, the clothing industry was very present in Switzerland at the end of the 1980s. And there were two fashion design courses in German-speaking Switzerland — Basel and Zurich — and one in Geneva, which were responsible for the education. With the major turnaround brought about by the nationwide education reform, the race was then on for design schools to become universities. Geneva and Basel were successful.

Hannah ( mit h ) Strøm had in the last instance left this run to Doris Galantay, Pia Herrmann, Reinhad Stortz and myself, the “gang of four”. It took enormous stamina and a lot of passion! 

This was to be observed from all sides — an exciting phase in which I was now and then involved. Basel was extremely lucky to be authorised to go many steps further with the new educational approach with the Körper + Kleid ( Body and Dress ) concept and to be able, in contrast to Zurich, to continue a fashion education at university level. The textile craftsmanship moved from Zurich and Basel to Lucerne. Thus also a political moment and the point in time when I was asked to join Basel ( 1999 ) and to take over the management of the course ad interim from the 1. February 2000, with the aim of becoming head of the course in the autumn of the same year.

Körper und Kleid: in the official logo appearance at the time deliberately set with a + , a plus in other words; K + K wanted to be very close to the body, in the sense of a philosophy of added value and value creation of the experiment. K + K could certainly also be read as a confession of faith. Körper und Kleid was secretly the unmistakable reference to the cross that one always bears with fashion when it comes to novelty. It can also be understood as a symbol of the way of the cross, which fashion undertakes with all its toil and seems to be ready to carry out again and again, if it wants to be taken seriously. A fashion show is thus not far from the image of a procession. By means of performative abstraction, the longing for attainable beauty is always celebrated. And the motif of redemption always resonates with it.

KÖRPER UND KLEID (BODY AND DRESS)

Alois Martin Müller, director of the then University of Applied Sciences of Basel-Stadt and Baselland, which was then called “Fachhochschule beider Basel”, had a passion for fashion. He was not really a “fashion victim”, but he had a keen sense of the driving force under his roof. Increasingly, experts from the real fashion world and with financial experience were brought in. With the focus on a larger format, departures could not be avoided. A stage was reached in which the term design obviously seemed more compelling than the discipline itself: Externally, K + K belonged to the past. When I recently visited the institute, however, I had the impression that under the artistic, experiment-oriented direction of Priska Morger and your constant professional ethics of the craftsman, the continuity of the wakeful production has remained true to its established roots; but — what happens next ?

Yes, what happens next? Maybe twenty years ago your question would have been easier to answer. As there was practically no “professional” infrastructure at the institute at that time, it was clear what was missing in this respect. According to my experience in the industry, I didn’t encounter much. On the other hand, as I said before, it was amazing how fascinating dress forms and looks were created out of persuasion and with the few means available. There were household sewing machines, an ironing board, professional tools were available, but too little space, etc. Yet what I encountered was a team and students, both parties highly motivated to make a socially meaningful change. This was fascinating and at the same time completely unusual for me. At the beginning, I entered a world with many open questions. My primary wish was to give this department — later: the institute — tools to enable visions of clothing, in its development and implementation. Alois Müller had a lot of trust. Within three months, I was able to provide an infrastructure that enabled us to produce actual designs ourselves. What I had brought with me from my basic training — the craft and the haptics — could thus be preserved in this process of self-production, be it in regard to virtual worlds or not. For the quality of a design the material as well as the associated surface design is decisive. This is not only perceived through the eyes. Touch is elementary, and that is and remains accurate. What keeps us conscious in relation to the dress, is the feeling of an ideal combination of fabric and skin. It should be possible to continue to pay attention to this! This is a great concern of mine.

This touches on the questions of next steps in future edu-
cation concepts. Being human is undoubtedly central to this. But how and by which means, in terms of fashion, in view of the horrendous challenges in personal life and the extreme world situation. Survival fashion on all fronts?

Now — it sounds quite amazing these days, that the twentieth anniversary has started under the credo “Human Being, an Occurrence”, that Priska Morger suggested. And the longer I think about it, the more she has brought the present to the point: that a paradigm shift is imminent and that the situation, as it has been in recent years, in education, in clothing development and in production, must renew itself. What do we, both as an institution and our students later on, undertake in the terrain vague of wondrous tenues? What if value no longer has any appreciation? Where are we drifting to, in the truest sense of the word? What provides us all with a sustainable role model in fashion? Can the system be broken, can the course of events still be systematised at all? The tried and tested “formats”, such as seasonally determined new collections — the collection idea as such — have been increasingly sidelined in recent years. The demanding tradition of a multi-faceted appearance has been challenged by “uniques”, vintage pieces or special editions. The reason for this is probably that more and more small labels are out and about, which have deliberately refrained from large-scale productions. The competition is diverse, but has become extremely tough. The production of tons of superfluous clothes has to stop, as it consumes the resources of both the manufacturers and customers! I think a completely new attitude towards fashion is necessary: how can the past, the present and the future be tackled in order to produce new fashion ?

So it is quite possible that we could lose fashion ?

No, I don’t think so. As already indicated, the consumer is being obtrusively confronted with the novelty of collections. But the superficially constantly new has become uninteresting. But how can this idling cycle be contained or capped ? The short-term nature of fashion, the fact that one can buy cheap goods at the expense of the worst production processes and that the transportation is more expensive than the production of the goods, is unacceptable.

Well, we’ve known that for a long time.

It is no longer acceptable at all. 

The really new thing, if I may summarise goes in the direction of responsibility.

Absolutely.

BEING HUMAN

In these past twenty years, there have been some people who have benefited from the training and who have been able to develop a valued clothing direction with their skills. They stayed and they are repeatedly part of the conversation. They are present. Would you like to mention some names? 

It’s very difficult to give names. I’m not just thinking of highlights, but also of the many great talents who have developed in other areas after their studies. What strikes me is that students who graduated between 1998 and 2005 are still in the context of fashion; and that they have found ways to individually fulfill their desire to produce clothes. From small to sustainable labels, there are also positions in large houses that alumni are able to influence. Yes, it makes me and the team proud that we were able to support them so far. And this confirms that these moments of performance, of showing and representing — and importantly: of arguing in the development of intersections between clothing and art, architecture and music — are indispensable. Fashion, and this has always been a major concern of mine for the shows, should convey that its lightness is to be taken seriously. Entertainment was not the main focus. That’s what I was standing up for.

However, the students also had different ideas about the appearance …

I think what we have succeeded in doing, is to train fashion designers to formulate an independent standpoint, a clear opinion about themselves and their own work. Our priority has always been not to pursue a certain language, i.e. a creative, aesthetic language, as other schools do, but to promote the potential of the respective students. That is why we see the institute as a “hotbed” …

… which is celebrated and reflected in every year’s famous publication of the institute!

Exactly, in the Doing Fashion Paper that was initiated by Priska Morger in 2011. 

Sometimes, when leafing through it, one gets somewhat a feel of a frozen product. If you look at it for
too long, it is melting away. 

We might as well say that it is coming alive! We’re here in number 7!

PATCHWORKDESIGN

I like to add a footnote here, an asterisk from the pioneering days and long before all official publications. I remember one work. The pieces looked like props from the Polish theater maker Tadeusz Kantor. The student was working with elephant shapes, and it became a trouser dress. It is interesting that this cannot be seen in her creations today, but somehow it is still part of the overall picture. Elephants look like protestants to me: their slowed-down gestures seem generous and discreet, but with a verve that can’t be ignored. This is how I see the label. Do you have any idea who I’m talking about?

That was before my time …

But are you happy that the name has made it?

( Smiles silently )

Over the course of twenty years, a great deal of attention and presence has been built up both internally and externally. Sometimes I have suffered from the fact that great stuff also very quickly disappeared. That must have been felt by you and the team, too, from time to time!?

It seems important to me — and this sometimes surprises me anew — that the institute has managed to maintain the courage to stick to what it was based on: the orientation towards the “human laboratory”, with all the detours, which has contributed to the fact that this feu sacré has never ceased to exist. Certainly, there were phases where sparks were driven in some other direction. But there was always ember … without it smouldering!

Emotions … indispensable! For example, the unforgettable tension of the audience and the acrobatic models, secured with ropes and sent across the steep face by Priska Morger in the final presentation of her project in 1998. And to my astonishment, such a wall walk could be seen in one of the current fashion week shows, twenty years later. Yes in such moments, emotions are running high!

The horizontal human …

… always ready to explore the unfamiliar.

… as professional choreographers as well as various dramaturges, artists, performers and actors have brought forward in the partly daring shows, receiving a great response.

GESTURE / VESTURE

For your significant contribution, dear Alex, to include forms of presentation as a performative discipline in the curriculum, is something for which I want to thank you in this place.

What comes to my mind in this context: the first small classes, mini-workloads and no budget. The point was that — if something wants to go out into the world and be asserted — the cash register has to be right. Out of this adventurous desire we proved skill and were also lucky. The exchange with international institutes began. And support followed by partnerships, joint ventures, including financial sources. Doing Fashion was positioned, some factors had played well, and things were moving forward. And then there was always the question: How do we cope with this, how do we generate continuous income in order to ensure our success? I suppose that this is still the case today? When we talk about reducing production, about wanting to produce quality and find out that it is becoming increasingly difficult to mobilise large audiences for something good. Of course, social media strategies have created new dimensions, but these “streams” often lead into emptiness. It seems to me that we are moving more and more away from the live act of the show and also from direct dress sales. Especially when the resources for consumer habits become scarce; the persistence is noticeably lacking. 

The limits of public presentations have been reached in every respect. To count about 1200 souls or more in the audience and to have an exchange was of course great. But I think that in the future, we should focus on creating more intimate meeting places — away from mass representation — rather than such big events. We are currently experiencing a phase, a conflict between development and financing, which could make this perspective possible. I believe we have the opportunity to initiate this change. However, this requires a great deal of patience and understanding from the university and its structures, from the students, as well as a keen understanding of culture on the part of the upcoming generation. I believe that the audience as well as the producers feel that independence that is based on mutual interest, is in demand.

INTIMACY

The intimate room. Intimacy and industry, a contrasting couple that often collide in the fashion world — and not only there. For me, the proximity to the fantasies and desires, to the students’ conceptions, was an important moment when it came to working out what was going on. Socio-politically, we have reached an extremely difficult point. Erotic discussions lead to polarizing positions. I am no longer allowed to use the word “treat” when talking about women; it sounds pejorative. I am getting into disrepute for being a “womaniser”— so I’ve heard! Does a formulation have to be found that redefines the vis-à-vis as a human being? Only interested devotion can achieve this: intimacy. Sometimes it seems to me that what passes itself off as a clothing strategy is mostly far removed from what I could call “authentically intimate”. But this is precisely where the demands are tending to, to work with body shells in the realm of attraction. It wants to be seduced. We seek the balance between suggestiveness and distance, to indulge in distant appropriation. When we observe what nudity does to us in front of a sculpture by Rodin, when we are seized by the situation, it can happen that we feel equally sculptural. In the remaining part of our perception, this encounter then reveals itself as a “body of thought”. That is what fashion does to me.

Mhm

Of course, such moments of discovery are often blocked by too much fantasy ( laughs ). What would be now — at this very moment — the absolute delightful idea of clothing for you? You are all alone … and are dreaming away …

So first I would like to … ( silence )

( Laughs quietly ) 

… well, it’s something that’s often forgotten: dreams, intimacy, longing. Dealing with this remains a great challenge in education. It requires respect from all sides and an extreme amount of trust. Because the body is what is being worked on and for. And so it is precisely the protected space that is predestined for this, so that, for example, the ugliness of erotic realities can be debated as a given.

To follow the thread … 

To follow the thread … 

PROF. KURT ZIHLMANN
has been the head of the Institute of Fashion Design, FHNW Academy of Art and Design since 2000. He teaches classes on new media in fashion design, production and cut development. Since 1988 Kurt has been teaching fashion-related subjects at the various design and fashion schools across Switzerland, including School of Design (SfG) in Basel, School of Design Zurich (ZHdK), Swiss Fashion School (Zurich/St. Gallen) and Swiss Textile School Zurich (STF). He is also the author of numerous teaching materials in this field. In the 1980s Kurt founded Pro Forma — cut design, prototype development and production company servicing avant-garde designers.

ALEX SILBER
is an author and performer who has been presenting installations, pictorial work and contemporary writing since 1971. 
As varied as his activities are in drawing, photography and video among others, his early training as a typographer shaped continuously the self reflection and the discourse within the media. Longer periods spent in Brazil and the USA (1983–1992) influenced his focus on language in general and specifically on its transformation through different aspects of media on body language and language bodies. Frequently other artists participate in the Gesamtwerk. In teaching presentation form and performance, art and fashion were the main theme of the classes given by Alex Silber at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel in 1993–2015.