Tank's fashion director Caroline Issa talked to American designers Flora Gill and Alexa Adams of Ohne Titel, winners of the 2009 Ecco Domani Foundation Award for Womenswear. Often recognised for their innovative knits, architectural shapes and graphic use of colour, they have also been nominated into the top 10 for both the 2009 and 2011 CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund Awards as well as for the 2009 Swiss Textile Award. As this issue reaches the newsstand, they will be presenting their 2013 resort collection in New York to press and buyers. The duo took a break from working on their spring/summer 2013 collection to chat about inspiration, mechanisation and collaborations.
Caroline Issa Are things really busy?
Alexa Adams Yes they are. We're in the midst of resort and we've already started on the spring/summer 2013 collection. But it's exciting. We're going to work with so many interesting projects this coming season. We're collaborating with the band the Black Soft. They're two guys who played in our Fashion Night Out event last year. Their performance was great and everyone loved them.
Flora Gill They also did one of the songs in our fashion show music.
CI So what are you planning with them?
AA They are designing jewellery for our spring/summer 2013 collection and potentially for resort.
CI Musicians? Jewellery?
AA Yeah! It's something they've been working on, more as a side project. We thought this could be a really interesting collaboration and actually just met with them today to kick it off.
CI In the past you've worked with female artists on different collaborations [Tauba Auerbach designed a jewellery line and Shirin Neshat was the face of their digital SS11 campaign] and I know how inspired you are by the art world. What is it about somebody that makes you want to collaborate with them?
AA We start with the artist, someone whose work we generally love and are fans of. Their aesthetic needs to be similar to ours: an innate understanding of the severity, power and tension that a feminine silhouette can have. So it's great to work with people who have an outsider's perspective. It's different from what we're used to doing, and I feel like it adds another layer to our collections.
CI I love that you embrace the unexpected, as your brand name suggests. As neither of you are German, how did you go about choosing it?
AA We chose a German name because a lot of the artists and imagery that inspired us in the beginning were German. Ohne titel means "without title", and we loved the mystery surrounding that name. When you Google "ohne titel" your search will result in an eclectic mix of work, like it's a discovery.
CI That's as good a reason as any for a name. How did you two meet?
AA We actually met in college.
FG In our first year at Parsons. We had all of our classes together and we were really drawn to each other's work.
AA It was your first year but it was my second year - it was one of those great coincidences in life that we ended up in all the same design classes. We became really close, in terms of inspiration, interest and aesthetics. We were working back and forth a lot, even when we were in school, bouncing ideas off each other and collaborating. I then got a job working for Helmut [Lang] and Karl Lagerfeld followed, When they were looking for someone to do knitwear with us, I immediately thought of Flora.
CI Were you nervous about leaving the comfort of a big brand and starting up on your own? What was it that made you feel "we have to do this now"?
FG: It was just the right time; everything fell into place. We had enough experience working with great designers at that point. We had the opportunity to do it. It was always something that was a dream for us and it just seemed like the right thing to do.
AA I think both of us always thought we were going to do our own lines; we didn't realise we'd do something together. Somewhere in the back of your mind when you're working for other people, you're thinking: "What would I really like for myself?" So I agree with Flora, it was just this perfect moment that happened; both of us had finished working [at Lagerfeld] and we were both thinking of doing our own lines. We started talking and it just seemed like it made a lot more sense to work together.
FG It seemed like a really strong collection when we put our ideas together.
CI Has the way that the two of you work together as a partnership changed over the last few years? Did you have very defined roles initially?
FG I feel it's become even more collaborative.
AA I agree.
FG We come to each other with new visual inspirations and then during the fittings we can completely change direction from the original idea. It's really fun and mutual. Our relationship is like a permanent sounding board.
AA As we're getting more comfortable working together, you get an intuitive sense as to what the other person might be saying, even when you're designing separately, so I think, in a way, it's become easier. We've both worked together for so long, we've become used to working together.
FG I feel like we've learnt a lot from each other too. We've both had a lot to bring to this partnership and I know that I've learnt a lot from Alexa. It's great that we've been able to build off that.
CI I think you were really smart to bring a business partner on board [Stephen Courter, whom they met at Helmut Lang] to manage the company from the start, leaving you free to focus on the creative side.
AA It's been so great having Stephen with us. It's important to have people you trust on board and to get critique so that, once you all agree to something, you feel stronger about the whole decision.
CI Do you design with a certain type of woman in mind?
FG Because we are women, it is very personal. We think of what we would wear.
AA And we also think about what the people around us who inspire us would wear. I think there is a certain kind of woman we design for, but it's not defined by a specific age bracket; it revolves around a feeling. Someone who is powerful, intellectual, curious, well travelled and urban.
FG I think individuality is really important to us; I don't like the idea of trying to fold our woman into a preconceived mould. I like the strength of each individual woman to really shine through in our clothes.
CI So tell us a little bit about the inspiration for this autumn/winter collection - the graphics were so striking.
AA The inspiration started out with the idea of weaving and exploring graphics, surfaces, textures and patterns. We wanted to play with these ideas of tucking and weaving and applying knitting techniques to create patterns. There's a lot going on in the collection, whether it's a subtle idea of an animal print, abstract feathers, flora or a jacquard technique.
FG It's actually a tucking technique. We worked with our factory to develop a new machine technique for those weave check jackets in the first few runway looks.
AA A lot of the collection is about strong, graphic prints and combinations of colour.
FG Powerful textures too.
CI Do your factories baulk at the requests you make? I know that Flora has been known to hand-knit runway samples in the past. How do you get the production side to translate that incredible handmade craftsmanship into something you can reproduce at a good price?
FG They definitely see us as a challenge. Sometimes they're really up for it and excited; they want to try something new. Sometimes they're like, "Ehh…". I like to work with them directly and sometimes we can find a solution that is really easy to produce, something different to what I was originally thinking but perhaps even stronger. That's really when we find that perfect balance.
AA I think it's so interesting, that whole idea of mechanisation and doing something quite technical. Taking something that starts off as very handmade and sculptural and finding a technical way to do it. To me, it's much more modern than doing something entirely by hand that's absolutely gorgeous but almost old-fashioned in a way. To take the traditional and change the context; that's what's so great about mechanisation.
CI It's fascinating that you still have the ability to do that. There is that weird translation from your handmade to the mechanical. I love the fact that you come up with new machine techniques that then become your trademark.
AA It's funny, because sometimes we'll joke that the interesting thing about our knits is that they're not something you could easily copy. Someone who tried to copy a knit of ours would have a very hard time of it. In that way it's wonderful because you feel like you've created something quite original.