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Esther Perbandt was born in West Berlin in the mid-1970s. After graduating from high school, she studied fashion design in Berlin, Paris and Moscow. Perbandt is based in Mitte with her own shop and studio and works in an interdisciplinary way; she has organised fashion shows at the Volksbühne and cooperates with Berghain bouncer Sven Marquardt. She received international attention not least thanks to the fashion show "Making the Cut" on Amazon Prime. Perbandt has just designed an exclusive T-shirt for tipBerlin. On the occasion of the sales launch, we spoke to the woman who is a symbol of "Berlin Style" worldwide.
Esther Perbandt is one of the most incisive fashion designers of our time.
"Imma uff Kante jenäht", says the T-shirt that Esther Perbandt designed for tipBerlin. The Berliner is one of the most incisive fashion designers of our time. In the "Making the Cut" competition, which ran as a series on Amazon Prime, she introduced herself to a fashion-interested audience all over the world. Despite all attempts at persuasion, she remained true to her "Esther Perbandt Universe". Black and white dominate there, no colours or shades in between. Creativity and straightforwardness made her the favourite of the jury around supermodel Naomi Campbell and the presenters Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. She is just like Berlin. Stubborn and consistent, just uff Kante jenäht.
That could also be said about tipBerlin. The city magazine has been reporting from and about the city for almost 50 years. Esther Perbandt and tipBerlin - the magazine and the fashion designer: a "match made in heaven". Both originally come from West Berlin. Both have been at home all over Berlin since the fall of the Wall. Esther Perbandt now in Mitte, tipBerlin first in Tiergarten, then at the Alex and currently on its way from Charlottenburg to Wedding.
The idea for the joint T-shirt project came about in preparation for tipBerlin's 50th birthday next year. It was not meant to be a promotional product, but a cooperation at eye level. Just as the editorial team is always looking at Berlin, we asked Esther Perbandt for her fashion perspective on the city. The result is a white T-shirt with a Berlin motif that stands for "Perbandts Berlin". But we wanted to know even more about the woman behind the T-shirt, we wanted to know how she became one of the most interesting fashion designers in the country and find out her own personal Berlin story.
Ms Perbandt, you have become known as a fashion designer. Black is your trademark. In a way, they stand for the style of this city. How much Berlin is there in Esther Perbandt?
I'm a child of the Mauerstand, I grew up in Charlottenburg in 1975 at the end of Suarezstraße, in the neighbourhood around Lietzenseepark. When I tell someone that today, the reaction is 'ah so, really middle-class'. It wasn't like that back then, it was the student area, when I went to the S-Bahn I had to cross Stuttgarter Platz, right through the red light district, where Kommune 1 used to live. There were many Turkish Berliners in the neighbourhood. We had a huge old Berlin flat, as you'd imagine, but it was actually my parents' shared flat, flatmates and all. When I was still at primary school, my parents were still studying.
You were born into your parents' student flat-share?
Totally, my parents' flatmate took care of me and my sister. It wasn't like Dad went to work and Mum cooked at home, we were latchkey kids, always had to help out around the house and when we were hungry we got Bofrost dishes from the freezer. Speaking of Papa and Mutti, I have called my parents by their first names all my life (or rather all their lives). I never used Mum, Dad or anything like that. That, too, was probably a part of new parenting methods.
Did the Wall make a special impression on you as a child?
We had a holiday home in the Fichtelgebirge and when we left West Berlin we had to drive over the transit route. We stood for hours at the border and I remember a little covered conveyor belt that was used to transport passports from one border house to the other. I found that super exciting. But I didn't see the Wall as a threat, it was part of it.
About life in West Berlin?
What I liked about West Berlin was the endless telephone calls. A call only cost 20 pfennigs, no matter how long it was. I chatted with my friends for hours, we watched TV together, went to the toilet in between or made ourselves something to eat. When the Wall came down it was a big drama because the clock was introduced, which I ignored, and the phone bill was suddenly astronomically high.
Then the Wall fell, how did you experience the changes back then in the early 1990s?
I only got to know the East later, in the early 1990s I had a band with my friends. It was like a surrogate family for me. We were called Quo Vadis, I played drums and sang in the background, our singer founded a label, a friend did the graphics, played very small concerts in front of 20 or 30 people. Someone once compared us to Ton Steine Scherben, the lyrics were very political, German singer-songwriter rock.
Was the experience with the band the beginning of your creativity?
No, it already started in primary school. I grew up without a television set, my parents were against it, those were 1968 education methods. They wanted to teach us more personal responsibility but also more creativity, so we also had a huge dress-up box full of all kinds of absurd clothes. One afternoon, I dressed up as a Turk with two friends. Jogging pants and skirts over them, hiding the body and of course the headscarf. We went to Stutti and further to Ku'Damm, took the bus and pretended to speak Turkish.
And what happened then, were there any reactions?
Not really, today you would get in trouble for that. But we didn't make fun of it, we wanted to experience what it was like to slip into another identity. I lived in the middle of it all, half of my classmates were Turkish, yet I didn't know their lives at all. We wanted to know what it felt like to be Turkish, we wanted to understand.
To slip into another identity and to do it very clearly through clothing, through disguise. Did your interest in fashion already develop when you realised how strongly clothing and identity are intertwined?
I suspect so. The Turkish example is just one. But I enjoyed adopting other identities at a very early age, and that was through changing clothes. That led to my career aspirations. When I was twelve, I wanted to be a costume designer, and I did an internship with a costume designer at the Schaubühne. Then, as a teenager, I also tried out a lot on myself, mohawk, dyed my hair, put on torn vintage clothes. My class teacher at grammar school once called it the "Trümmerfrauen look".
And that's how you ended up at the University of the Arts where you studied fashion design?
At university I got to know a much bigger world. During my studies, I was in St Petersburg and Moscow around 1999 and that inspired me a lot. There I worked for the Russian artist Gosha Ostretsov, who saw himself as a son of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s. He was a sculptor, painter, drew comics and was also the stylist for the Russian "Vogue".
Were you already starting to develop your own fashion style back then?
The time inspired me so much that I made the Russian avant-garde the subject of my thesis. I still see the influence in my fashion today, the constructivist, austere, uniformed, high-necked. What I do today is not only the result of my Berlin biography, but it is the three cities where I spent more time.
Moscow, Berlin and...?
Paris. From Berlin comes the rocky, punky, cheeky. From Moscow, what I just described, and then Paris, where I did my master's degree, added the finishing touches, so the noble, elegant and feminine was added.
Is the Esther Perbandt style ready?
(laughs) I had to work my way there. In the beginning I was very colourful, I brought that from France and took it with me until I realised, funny, I always dress myself in black, why is there all this colourful stuff hanging here. When you start out as naively as I did, it sometimes takes a while to find your own unmistakable signature.
You're not only known from the Berlin fashion scene, you've had shows at the Volksbühne and participated in the Amazon Prime show "Making the Cut", a competition for fashion designers and makers from all over the world. Only the small shop in Mitte, would be too small for you?
These cross-connections are important to me, because only fashion is not enough for me. That's why I did two big shows at the Volksbühne, I need input from others and like to work in an interdisciplinary way. This year I had an exhibition in Leipzig for which I made art and not fashion. I called it "Haute Couture for the Wall". It was important for me to distance myself from my actual work for a while, so I created these textile sculptures, but I wanted them to retroactively influence my fashion again and that worked out very well.
You are also considered the Berlin fashion designer closest to club culture, nightlife and especially Berghain.
That's so funny because I've been to Berghain maybe four times in my life. I'm friends with Sven Marquardt on an artistic level and I really appreciate his opinion and his view, his sense of fashion, but it's not about club culture. He once said about our friendship that it made him think of the friendship of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. But my fashion is perhaps not necessarily suited to a club night, to sweating it out dancing somewhere for 12 hours. But maybe that depends on your budget, what an unforgettable club night in Berlin is worth to you.
Nevertheless, your brand symbolises that special Berlin feeling. Do you see yourself as a fashion ambassador for this city?
I can't say that myself, but I notice that there is this feedback. Only from where? Of course, my clothes are black, mystical in their own way, avant-garde, they have to do with the night. But that's my fashion, that's who I am, it wasn't my aim to use Berlin as a figurehead. But if people want to see me as an ambassador for Berlin fashion, then that's what I like to be, I stand by Berlin, it's my place of inspiration.
In "Making the Cut" you were actually a kind of ambassador as the only fashion designer from Germany. You came in second place there. How was your experience with the streaming fashion docu-show?
It was a very important experience where I learned a lot about myself, about the business and how I want to continue it. The most beautiful gift was that I was allowed to just be creative for these ten or twelve weeks that we shot. I didn't have to answer emails, answer the phone, organise productions, do accounting, nothing. I got braver because there were these very specific tasks there and I just went for it. "We have nothing to lose but our fear". Buying 20 metres of tulle and sequin fabric and just making a haute couture dress! That was a milestone for me, that courage still has an effect.
What is the future for Esther Perbandt and the fashion business?
Of course I want the brand to grow and for that I need to expand the product range. I would like to work with other materials, with porcelain perhaps, I really enjoy cooperation. My style is very clear and I would like to transfer this style to other things. It could be a sports collection, a bicycle, perfume, interior design and I dream of being able to design costumes for an opera.
We'll recommend you to Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper, maybe he'll like the idea! But let's finish by talking about the collaboration with the tip.
Without knowing what was in store for me, I said yes straight away. I grew up with the tip. The tip. and I have our history with this city and I thought a joint project was a nice idea. We wanted to create something that told about my Berlin, we looked for elements and inspirations, the 1920s, the silent film "Berlin, Symphony of a Big City", old art deco posters, but it shouldn't be from the past, it should be transferred to today and there came such symbols as police helmets from the May Day demonstrations, beer bottles, spray cans, records, music, from which an artwork emerged that told my story with Berlin.