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I was born in the spring of 1975 in Berlin, isolated by the Cold War and divided by the wall that shaped our lives in the city. Thanks to the great courage of my grandmother, who at the last moment fled to the other part of the city, I was born in West Berlin. She fled with her sewing machine hidden in the laundry basket and holding my little father‘s hand. West Berlin was the part of the city with the outsider status that creative people like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed felt affected and drawn to.
It was the place to be when you wanted to do what you want, say your opinion out loud, fight for your rights and live the freedom you were longing for. I think it is unique in history that this was a place where young men were exempt from military service. Educational methods were redefined and people lived the sexual revolution and free love: „Who sleeps twice with the same, already belongs to the establishment“. And of course it was a hot spot of the feminist movement.
My childhood and adolescence during the 70s/80s was strongly influenced by my open-minded parents, who were strong proponents of egalitarian rights and inclusivity. Growing up, I had no television but instead many other useful tools, like a huge costume box, which strongly inspired my imagination to create and explore various personas, depending on the outfit combinations that were available to me.
At a super early age of maybe five my mother often took me to feminist movements and demonstrations. There I found myself marching down the streets, one hand in my mother’s, the other one holding the hand of an unknown woman, wearing purple dungarees which were a popular symbol of the feminist movement.
I remember how much I hated my mom for forcing me to wear one of those terrible things (not in purple though) on the day of my school enrollment, when I so badly dreamed of wearing a princess dress like all the other girls. I grew up surrounded by women who thought that a woman cannot be a strong, powerful, intellectual and receive the same rights as a man, if she underlines her feminine appearance with high heels, short skirts, jewelry, nail polish and lipstick. This was a rather radical approach which doesn’t transcend into current times for me. Feminists fight on different fronts today – different from the generation of our mothers.
My dear mother Hanna never used to be a lady. She never wore high heels, she didn‘t even own a pair. She hardly ever wore a skirt or dress and she never put on makeup. She never even owned a bra. This tradition was passed on to me until I turned 42 and discovered the beauty of my feminine side and how luxurious it feels when you treat yourself with tender lace underwear.
(Putting all this on paper here makes me smile. No wonder my collections are designed to protect and empower people, to let the wearer feel safe, confident and proud.)
But there was this one day when my mother Hanna bought some make up for the very first time. I think I was around 7 years old. It was so extraordinary that I remember it like it was yesterday. As I said, she had never used makeup before that day and the times she did afterwards can be counted on ten fingers. But obviously this one day there was an inner need of her to feel more feminine and to dress up a bit. I immediately knew that something special was going on. So she went off to one of the better department stores in Berlin with a high-class cosmetics department and came back with a tiny bag and an enormously large guilty conscience. I could feel it very clearly but I didn’t understand her ambiguity. I watched her unpack the tiny bag. It was in our tiny bathroom and I was standing on the toilet so that I could see better.
We had very little money, my parents were both still students and so there was no extra. All finances were planned very precisely, every penny was turned over. And so my mother stood there, torn between the tormenting guilty conscience and this pleasant feeling to have finally just done something really good, just for her, to reward herself. Because of that, I noticed immediately that the contents of this little bag was something very special. Something that can give you a great feeling and that you have to work hard for if necessary:
A kajal, mascara and a kajal sharpener… All in a beautiful black noble packaging with the well known white CHANEL logo on it.
I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
The pencil sharpener especially had caught my eye, it was also all in black, with the white lettering CHANEL on it. I really wanted to own it and since that day I imagined that one day I would finally inherit this special piece from my mother. Hanna did not miss my great interest. Immediately, there was the instruction not to get the idea to sharpen my school pencils with it. Over and over again I went to the bathroom to look at this beautiful black kajal sharpener by CHANEL. This object became a symbol of something from another world that did not belong to ours and the environment in which I grew up. But something I still wanted, something that needed to be achieved. You are always longing for the things you can’t have.
A couple of weeks later I said to Hanna, that I want to become rich and famous. She was shocked. This would be the last thing she could think or dream of. Poor Hanna presumably reproached herself, wondering what she did wrong in my upbringing. She could understand the desire to be rich because we couldn't afford everything, but being famous sounded so absurd to her.
Many many years later, just before she died in 2010, she gave me a little note that said: rich, famous AND happy. All these years she was still wondering about what I had said back then and realized that the most important thing was missing on my wish list: to be happy.
Thank you Hanna!
The pictures are taken by the amazing photographer and dear friend Oliver Rath (R.I.P.) Thank you for your friendship and the several crazy portraits you took of me since 2010. For years Oli was always dreaming of taking pictures of a whole „Esther Army“. That's how he called it. All models wearing wigs with my haircut, like I had done it in one of my big fashion shows. As we were both very busy, we were talking about it for years. Finally one day we just decided to do it. Luckily, because only a few months later Oli left our planet. Thank you so much for this amazing army of powerful and proud women.
Love big time
Photography: Oliver Rath