The Art of Sexualizing Fashion
ABOVE: BERNHARD WILLHELM IN LOS ANGELES, FEBRUARY 2015. PORTRAIT BY DANIEL TRESE.
Known for quirky, theatrical collections and collaborations, German fashion designers Bernhard Willhelm and Jutta Kraus create garments fit for statement makers under Willhelm’s eponymous label. Though the collections are considered ready-to-wear, they appear more as works of art, commenting on the status and role of fashion in society, and are always presented in a type of installation and tableaux vivant.
Now, for the first time in America, Willehlm has a museum exhibition, “Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows the Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger.” Featuring an array of site-specific media, including video, photography, and fanciful displays of ephemera, the show debuted on Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Design Center in Los Angeles.
“All of the installations have come from Europe, like pieces from the mannequins, so we have to build all of the things. To do any exhibition is a bit like a puzzle,” Willhelm said before the opening. “Everything has to come together; everything is last minute. This is the thing with fashion: it’s all last minute. Until the model goes on the catwalk, there is still change possible. It’s the same with organizing an exhibition.”
Tracing his studio and team’s relocation to Los Angeles from Paris, the exhibit hints at past collections that included draped garments from the Middle East, India, and Africa as well as punk-inspired ensembles. Each piece reflects a part of diversity in conversation with a growing global coherence. As a whole, the exhibit sparks conversations that blur the lines between the realms of art, fashion, and consumerism. Before the show’s installation, the overtly sexual Willhelm spoke with his newfound friend Cutler X (arguably the most well known African American in the gay porn industry) at his studio in L.A.
BERNHARD WILLHELM: This is my third exhibition in museums. Before there was one in the Antwerp Fashion Museum, then there was one in the Groninger Museum in Holland. We moved the company one and a half years ago to Los Angeles, after being 10 years in Antwerp [and] then 10 years in Paris. We opened a company in America, operating between Paris and Los Angeles. We are based in here in Beachwood Canyon…Actually, Cutler X is one of my favorite black porn stars. Maybe you can explain how long you are doing it and how you started? Maybe it’s good to know why and how you are here…
CUTLER X: Well, I’ve been doing porn for the past 10 years. Unlike many, I am 50 years old and I think I’ve been described as being at the peak of my career, but I’m in more demand now then I was 10 years ago, which is a fantastic thing.
WILLHELM: I started very young. I started my company in 1999 directly after graduating from the Antwerp Fashion College. I have also worked also as a nude model. I was the cover boy from Butt Magazine number one; that’s how many people recognize me. I’ve never had a problem with nudity and sexuality. I’m from quite a conservative German background—I’m from South Germany—and I don’t know why I ended up in fashion, but I still like both. I like sexuality, I like fashion, and I think Cutler is a role model for interracial gay sex—since I’m in America I’m much more exposed to racial issues. I’m now in Hollywood, which is quite white. Sexuality has a lot to do with what you are actually turned on by and interracial sex always was sort of my thing where I get turned on. That’s a little bit the same with fashion—you like fashion because of certain points, but hopefully you get turned on by it and you feel good in it. It has to do with sexuality. That’s what Isabella Blow said, “You put something on in order to get laid.” She wasn’t wrong. God save her. I have met Isabella. I have worked with her for Alexander McQueen, who also raised a lot questions about sexuality, human nature, and evolution.
For that show in the MOCA Museum, there will be this question: evolution, sexuality, diversity, and also humor. Sex without humor is unbearable. When you have sex and can’t laugh it’s a big problem. My erection is not there anymore. It’s funny, sex. In America, sexuality is taken so seriously in a way that humor is somehow not allowed, especially since the rise of HIV [and] how people have sex. It’s one of those things I have to ask the person performing of the non-safe sex—what do you think about it? In my generation, when I was 16 Rock Hudson died and now I see people performing bareback. I think it’s important to talk about this, because you are performing.
CUTLER X: Well, I think that the way people view sex [has changed]. Now that there are medications to prevent people from becoming [HIV] positive, the view or the taboo of having unsafe sex is not what it used to be. Just because a person is having unsafe sex doesn’t mean that he or she is positive, not positive, or can even infect someone.
WILLHELM: But can you explain that most people actually prefer to watch porn unsafe? Because the ejaculation is missing? I mean, my company here in L.A., I called it California Creaming. Maybe there’s a reason for that.
CUTLER X: [laughs]
WILLHELM: I prefer my cream whipped, this is what I’m saying. I don’t like the spray cans, you know, faking it.
CUTLER X: I wasn’t expecting that. [laughs] Let me back up a little bit. Years ago, I would not do porn unsafe because it seemed that people were being influenced by porn stars. Like, “Oh, if they are doing it, it’s okay.” Well, it wasn’t always okay. Now there is medication [that] gives a person the option to have unprotected sex and not become positive. So what does that have to do with fashion? Sex and fashion run together. In my own life, I dress in a way that I think will provoke people’s eyes to look at me and to want to have sex with me. If I can find clothing that is beautiful, that is socially acceptable or socially challenging, that would make me look and feel sexy, I like it.
WILLHELM: This is a good question, because fashion over the last 20 years has been very conformed, which in my opinion, has to do a lot with the fact that people are educated at a very young age and that’s why you call them an educated consumer. At a very young age, especially in America, you get trained in all that you like—things that you see in the media you eventually want. One good example is if you go to shops like American Girl. A girl can get their [look-alike] doll, which somehow pretends that you can choose your doll, but it’s a little bit like Stepford Wives: it’s a doll just with a different wig in a little bit different shade of skin. You dress her in already exiting things, which you buy there.
I was in that shop last week in New York—we were looking for a present for our children’s birthday—and all of us were shocked that the shop was completely full. Every girl in America wants to have a doll from the American Girl and I was shocked by the conformity of it. I was shocked that it was pretending to be individual, but every girl in America has the same doll and the same image of dressing that doll. Maybe it’s the same thing with Barbie, the most important American icon of fashion. Jeremy Scott did it and now when we see it on the catwalk it’s not that surprising anymore. The conformity of fashion, this is the American ideal of the woman and so many girls have been brought up like this—that for me is the most scary thing. I think my clothes at least try to show an individual experience, which is not conforming to that image.
CUTLER X: Everybody still dresses one way. Every once in a while you’ll see someone who steps out of the box, and everybody is watching that person, which is a good thing.
WILLHELM: How do you make money [in porn]? How do you make money in fashion? That’s also a question. Andy Warhol never really made money…now Interview magazine also has to make money. Maybe this is the reason why people conform…because it has to do with money.
CUTLER X: I can agree with that. The reason people would conform in porn is because of money. You were forced to confirm to having only safe sex or be blacklisted. But now there is a new freedom in sexuality because…
WILLHELM: Because of the Internet!
CUTLER X: Actually, the Internet is good and bad. That’s with everything; everything is good and bad.
WILLHELM: Same for fashion! But I think the Internet for fashion has been very important. Suddenly, it’s not important anymore if you show in a fashion show that is in New York or Milan. Suddenly everybody can show his fashion on the Internet. Maybe that is the same with porn. You don’t really make your money with porn; you make your money with escorting.
CUTLER X: That’s correct. I have clients that I see every time I go to a particular city, but there’s always new clients and you have to take the time to talk to them about their own personal experience. You never want to make your people cookie cutter. You don’t want to go, “Okay, we’ll kiss three times and go to the bedroom.” People come wanting a range of things. Some people want me to dress up in underwear. Some people want me to be very dominant. Some people want me to cuddle with them. Some people want me to tie them up.
WILLHELM: You can’t judge it by the moral. You have to judge it by the technique. It’s the same with fashion designer. You like a fashion designer because he’s good in certain techniques or cuts—working with the body. Gianni Versace is very important. You can see from 100 meters away that the shirt is by Gianni Versace. Then you see somebody like Helmut Lang…
What I like about my work is that thoughts become things. It takes half a year to get your thoughts and your ideas out, then half a year later eventually the collection or sample collection—it takes another half year to be produced and in the shop. It takes me basically a year to bring something out in this world, a very long process in order to operate. It’s not a nine-to-five job. I cannot say when something is finished; I just can say when the collection is finished.
I get up in the morning around 8:00 and do a little hike around the Hollywood hills. I go up, walk around the mountain, and I come back. Then I start working. Usually I start draping on a little doll—it’s a technique I have kind of taken over from Madeleine Vionnet, which was a couture atelier in the 1930s, ’40s. I took the cut and flesh technique, which is working on the straight grain of fabric. I usually start with my hands and a piece of fabric without a concrete idea, and then I work around it. Then I take my draping exercise—usually I do that everyday—to my maker, who I’ve worked with for 10 or 15 years. She is making it big, so she has to enlarge it 200 percent, and then we fit it 10 times. That’s how the garment starts. It’s a very abstract way of actually starting a collection. A porn star also needs to get a feeling and that’s why it’s close to porn: you work around the body. It can be very abstract but it also can be very concrete.
CUTLER X: Let me refocus us. We officially met at an awards event in West Hollywood in which Bernhard approached me and asked me if I would be interested in being a model for one of his photo shoots and of course I said yes.
WILLHELM: Funny enough, I saw Cutler on the beach during Miami [Art Basel]. That was the first time I saw Cutler and I was kind of like, “Oh look at that guy! He’s a porn star.” Then I was imagining you like getting up to the office and making the art better.
CUTLER X: Really? [both laugh]
WILLHELM: Because Miami was a nightmare! It was a nightmare! I had panic attacks in Miami.
CUTLER X: What year? Last year? In December 2014?
WILLHELM: I just looked at you. Yeah, that’s the first time I noticed you.
CUTLER X: I didn’t know that.
WILLHELM: And then by accident, a friend of mine was working with one woman who does gay porn and we went to the gay porn awards. So I went there with and I thought, “I want to meet Cutler,” and there you were. So some things in life they just happen without planning. We basically have known each other for two weeks?
CUTLER X: Three weeks.
WILLHELM: I think we talked maybe enough. What do you think?
CUTLER X: Yeah, I’m falling asleep.
BERNHARD WILLHELM 3000: WHEN FASHION SHOWS THE DANGER THEN FASHION IS THE DANGER IS ON VIEW NOW THROUGH MAY 17, 2015 AT MOCA PACIFIC DESIGN CENTER.