Albert Kriemler, Minimalissimo
WHILE OTHER LUXURY BRANDS MAY GET MORE HEADLINES, THE SWISS HOUSE AKRIS SEEMS TO KEEP A DELIBERATELY LOW PROFILE, YET IT IS THE GO-TO LABEL FOR A BEST- DRESSED WHO’S WHO. IT IS UTTERLY CHIC, DEFINITIVELY MODERN, SUPERBLY MADE AND UNIQUELY WEARABLE. THE CREATIVE FORCE IS ALBERT KRIEMLER, A DISCREET CHARMER WHO WOULD PREFER THAT THE CLOTHES DO THE TALKING BUT WILL DISCOURSE ELOQUENTLY IF YOU INSIST.
Akris was founded by the Kriemler family ninety years ago, and Albert joined the company as designer and creative director in 1980 at the age of twenty. From the beginning, he has combined simple lines with the most luxurious of materials, and over the years, he has made Akris a leader in fabric development and tailoring and in the use of embroidery and printing techniques. Kriemler is a talented yet slightly elusive man with a keen interest in art and architecture. He lives in St. Gallen, Switzerland, where Akris, as well as much of the Swiss textile industry, is based. Here Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, talks with Kriemler, while Glenn O’Brien holds the recorder.
Valerie Steele: The fashion magazines are full of minimalism, a signature of yours. What does minimalism mean to you?
Albert Kriemler: I was not purposely working on minimalism. I feel that clothes should be simple looking, and that’s how I got into that. Today it’s considered great to be a minimalist; it seems right.
VS: Is modernism a better term?
AK: Modernism is a very philosophical, tricky thing. Especially when it comes to fashion. You think of a jacket with seventeen zippers, or black stretch leather pants, or a gown out of twenty-five meters of tulle. That’s dramatic, but is it modern?
VS: That seems to be about futurism. But modernism seems to go back to Chanel.
AK: I like Chanel’s expression, because she broke up the idea of putting a woman into dresses. She had a relaxed feel that was very modern, very far-sighted in its thinking, and quite liberating. But for me, modern is what’s beautiful, emotionless and timeless. To be a minimalist is very precious now. I am surrounded with all these really great designers, and it’s wonderful. Armani seemed to be the first minimalist, followed by Calvin Klein and Jil Sander. And now we have Phoebe Philo at Céline, who has a culture that is minimal. That’s lucky, when you drop into a fashion moment with a signature that makes you look very right. I did that ten years ago.
Glenn O’Brien: Maybe timelessis more relevant. Fashion is about planned obsolescence, but your things seem unlikely to become obsolete.
AK: Yes, but “fashion” is still fashion. Things change. Fortunately, we have no rules anymore, like in the fifties and sixties, when there was a clear skirt length, a clear volume, a clear waist silhouette that was the formula of the moment. Today’s woman can formulate her own way of dressing.
I do think we are less driven by obsolescence now, because there is less fashion diktat per season. Now there is an openness to designers’ vision, and we have more appreciation of that than for the fashion picture of the season. We still are criticized when we don’t meet the fashion moment. When we do a show, we are judged both ways. Every editor judges whether are you in the fashion moment, but also in the light of your own signatures.
Today more is possible for a smaller designer than in the eighties or nineties, when we had six to eight grand ones. New York played a major role in breaking up that institutional thinking, creating an arena where new talents have a place, where someone can come from nowhere and say something.
VS: I think the individual is really central to what you’re doing.
AK: I’m a designer who makes clothes to be worn. It’s like food. You look at food, and it may look wonderful, but if it doesn’t taste wonderful—well, it’s not food. I like women to wear the clothes, to appreciate the clothes.
VS: How does that thinking go into designing something, such as trousers?
AK: Pattern-making is more important than many people realize, even designers. A collection that is beautiful on the runway is very important, to get the message out. But I learned over the years that it’s very important what happens after the show. You want your clothes to be worn. It’s a very creative process to get patterns right. And you are dressing women in Asia, in America, and in Europe, which are three very different cultures. It’s not a mathematical process to get a pattern right; a lot of thought goes into it. In my team, the tailor is really important. To do the pattern so it looks great on the body . . . it’s a sensitive process, and it takes a lot of discussion, which I am very involved in.
VS: You’ve said patterns are mathematical, but bodies are not that simple. That’s art as well as a science.
AK: I feel very critical when the term art gets into our thing. It’s more about logic. It’s also a question how you respect the human body and do the right executions. You want every woman to look sleek.
VS: What does it mean when you say you start with the fabric?
AK: I’ve always had a passion for fabrics. My father did. My grandmother did. It’s probably in our family genes, but it’s also about logic. You don’t wear clothes only to look at; you feel them on your body. I need to know the drape of the fabric to formulate the silhouette.
VS: Your clothes are not usually thought of as sexy, because they are not about revealing the body. But there is a tactile eroticism, and I think your clothes are extremely sensual.
AK: There is a lot of formulation around “sexy.” I don’t use this expression, but I like it when you tell me that our clothes are sensual. It comes through the feel. A lot of . . . let’s call them “simple line” designers, have a tendency to do androgynous clothes, but my clothes, although very simple, are also very feminine.
VS: People talk about your clothes in terms of incredible luxury. What does “luxury” mean to you?
AK: For me luxury is time with friends. Luxury is a common expression, but I prefer my own formulation. I like to say, “We are not luxury; we are a type of refinement.” Luxury is often presented as something which is not achievable . . . but luxury is achievable. I am often asked, Would you be able to design the clothes in cheap fabric? I say, “No, I couldn’t, because I would miss the feel, so it wouldn’t be Akris.
VS: I like this concept of refinement, rather than show-off luxury.
AK: We will never be in that group! [laughs] Somebody who likes what I do likes clothes that aren’t showy, and that’s a major part of my design attitude. It is about the second glance. It’s impossible when a woman enters a room and first you look at her clothes, and afterward you see the woman. It’s wonderful to appreciate the woman first and then realize that she is wearing something beautiful. This is my approach.
VS: Art and architecture are important to you. You’ve talked a lot about the architect Adolf Loos, and you supported the Paul Thek exhibition at the Whitney. Can you talk about the importance of art and architecture in your life?
AK: In my first ten years, I was simply passionate about fashion. I liked what I did, and working in St. Gallen you are not too distracted. I was so excited just getting things moving. But after ten years of work, I said, “I need something different. I can’t live only in this fashion community.” I traveled regularly to New York, and I started to see wonderful exhibitions. I started to go to Art Basel regularly, just to look. My parents didn’t collect art. They were busy building the company. But I said, “Okay, I’d like to train my own eye.” I always came home from New York very motivated, because I saw a lot and felt inspired. At Art Basel, I got to see new artists growing. Art is a wonderful mirror, I think, because you’re able to judge your own feelings looking at art. You know what has meaning for you, or what is intriguing you, and you want to come to this on your own . . .
Then I met architects, and with one in particular, I got into discussions about Adolf Loos, one of the greatest architects, who broke the rules. He was not a modernist but was very important to the birth of modernism. He was more sensual. He loved the sensuality of materials. The Bauhaus was more rigorous, less human.
Switzerland has fabulous architects. I made a lot of friends in architecture, and I continued to visit exhibitions, but in the eighties, I collected nothing. I had no time. I bought two or three drawings from Corbusier. Then I bought a first piece by Paul Thek, the first piece of my art collection in the late eighties, early nineties. I got very involved in this artist; I was fascinated. He was a wonderful draftsman. He did wonderful oil paintings. He also was great in sculpture. It was fascinating to see how he developed his own capacity. He really explored himself and trained himself. It was extraordinary to observe his really unusual attempt to develop a sort of incomparable handwriting that is just as strong today as it was then. The more I got into his newspaper drawings, the more I appreciated his color sense, which was absolutely fantastic. It still is today, so modern and so right. I discovered that in the Whitney Biennial. And that’s how it started for me. It’s very inspiring to look at artists’ work.
VS: You’ve done dance costumes. How did you get into that?
AK: It wasn’t my idea. John Neumeier called and asked if I would do costumes for his New Year’s concert in Vienna. It was totally unexpected. He called me in October, and I said, “I don’t know if I know how to do that, but let’s try.” It was intense, because we had only two months’ time. He would explain to me what he saw for Strauss, and I said, “Okay, I’ll try to do what I feel.” And something completely different worked out.
It was an unbelievable experience making clothes that give freedom to dancers and still look right. When we had the fittings, they said, “There’s no tapering. Normally our clothes are tapered to the body.” That means they are fixed on the skin, and that’s not comfortable. There was no question for me that clothes should not be tapered; they should move to give them the freedom to dance in utmost liberty. And they felt well, and it showed.
Working on individual dancers was my first . . . let’s say, couture experience. The most beautiful compliments were those from the dancers. They said, “We would love to keep these clothes, because we feel so well in them.”
We are very disciplined. I do ten collections a year, which means every month we finalize a collection, so it’s good to do something completely different. You challenge the team to do something new, and it’s wonderful how they move ahead. We always need something fresh, because rules and habits that develop in day-to-day work can lead to uninspired moments, but something like this really inspires and refreshes.
VS: What’s the relationship between architecture and fashion?
AK: The principles are similar. Fashion designers do collections that in most of the cases are to be worn to fulfill a role, and architects build buildings that have a pure purpose. I think that’s very similar.
But I think architecture has another duty when it comes to its relation to time. Architecture should never look obsolete, whereas fashion is fashion precisely because there is obsolescence. Things date, but good architecture is never obsolete. It can mark the moment, but it is the worst thing when you say this architect is fashionable. As good as it can be in fashion, that is how bad it can be for architecture. Good architecture keeps its value. If architecture is fashionable, that means it’s probably very dramatic at the moment when it’s finished, but after three or four years it can look already dated, and it loses quality.
Another similarity is the whole material-color process. Materials are enormously important in both. And proportion, which is very important in clothes, and also in architecture. I think proportion is something that people neglect now in architecture. Adolf Loos could do the smallest room with an utmost quality. If you look at the American Bar in Vienna, it’s the smallest space. You can accommodate fifty people, and everyone feels well, because the surroundings are human, precious and beautiful.
Designers and architects are familiar; artists are very different. That’s why I think saying that designers are artists is wrong. An artist is engaged in a type of self-expression. It has nothing to do with a target, like what we do.
GOB: Art is used mentally and spiritually, but it’s not functional.
AK:That’s true. No functionality. Architecture needs to fulfill that need, and it should not be self-expression of the architects, and we are in a moment where this is quite often the case.
VS: What do you think are the main functions of well-designed clothing?
AK: My brother tells me that we should do clothes that work from morning to evening, seven days a week. It’s great to meet needs, because when a need is fulfilled, other attributes come with it. I think clothes should be functional. Adolf Loos said functionality is beautiful. He would never hide a function. He would show a screw or a pipe, because he thought function is beautiful. I thought that was fabulous. He was also very critical when it came to materials. If the material was precious and beautiful, and had its own appearances, it’s just about proportion. I don’t need to decorate beautiful material.
He would say, “We always stress newness, but because something is new, it doesn’t mean that it’s more modern or more right.” If something looks right to your eyes, it’s better than the new. That’s an attitude I use in fabrics. There’s a stress on always bringing new materials in, but if there is a fabric that still looks amazing, you should stick with it and think of a color that is unusually new. If a new fabric doesn’t improve on the function of the fabrics that you have used already, why change? I don’t get lost in newness. I judge what’s right, and if this material still looks modern, I keep it.
On the other side, I am always tempted to develop new materials. We deal mostly with menswear weavers; I love the quality they do. It’s never right for women in point of color, but it’s often right in point of the use of the fabric, and it’s wonderful to dye these natural fibers in feminine colors. I started doing that in the eighties, and still today I develop fabrics that I can’t find. I go there and tell them how it should look. I do the same thing with our embroidery partners.
VS: What textile innovations are you proudest of?
AK:It’s not about what I’m proud of. It’s about what works. It is about getting fabrics that help you to formulate your identity. You do that with a partner in weaving or embroidering. I love fabric development. It’s amazing when you create something with a fabric that exists as a plain thing, and you put three-dimensionality into it.
VS: I heard that Oprah talked about your pants; they’re the world’s best pants or something.
AK: I don’t know how it happened. We’ve gotten a lot of admiration, and it’s fantastic.
GOB: What was your inspiration for using photography and printing?
AK: It wasn’t planned. Technology is always interesting to look at, especially when it comes to fabric, and I got some information about photo printing being possible on fabric, and I was amazed. This was four or five years ago. I said, “That’s interesting; maybe we can start doing something else with prints,” and it was a collection inspired by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work. He’s a Scottish artist whom I visited and whose work I love. I had visited Little Sparta in Edinburgh, where he lived, and came home with these wonderful garden photos. I said, “Okay, why not do a print?” My collections didn’t have a lot of prints before that. So there was the garden pond and there was the garden . . . what is the expression . . . lichtung . . .
AK: Yeah. These two things are very important to Ian. I said, “Okay, let’s take a wild lichtung and the garden pond and attempt a print.” I did one attempt on a silk chiffon, and I was amazed at the appearance of it. We started doing a dress, and the dress looked stunning—surprisingly different. I think every collection should do what people expect from you, and then it should also have this surprise moment. I only realized when the show was over what it meant to my collection. It was an amazing experience. BG
The Bergdorf Goodman Conversations are conducted and edited by Glenn O’Brien.