Arthur Arbesser’s Functional Art


Raised in Vienna, based in Milan, and educated at Central Saint Martins in London, Arthur Arbesser is one of the top young designers to watch. A seven-year veteran of Armani, Arbesser started his eponymous in late 2012, with his first collection debuting at Milan Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2014. In less than two years, Arbesser has shown at Pitti Uomo 88 as a special guest designer, competed as one of seven finalists for the 2015 LVMH Young Designer’s Prize, and been named the next creative director of Italian fashion house Iceberg.

Inspired by architecture, interior design, and contemporary art, Arbesser is not afraid of experimenting with material, texture, and color. His Fall/Winter 2015 collection, for example, included intarsia sweaters, oversized suits, a grey belted coat with a sailor bib, a logo sweatshirt, a patchwork dress with a sheer-paneled trim, and a metallic matching skirt and top. There were bright reds and graphic prints, black and white pinstripes, and simple solids in a mix of vegan suede, rubberized cotton, wool, chenille, and faux fur. Everything, however, was grounded in wearability and utility. Arbesser’s clothes, while inventive and innovative, are not overly fanciful.

Here, Arbesser talks to rising model Avery Tharp. Like Arbesser, Tharp has only been in the fashion world for two years, but she’s already caught the eye of fashion’s elite. During her debut runway season last february, Tharp modeled for the likes of Opening Ceremony, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Rodarte, and Carven. In May, the Santa Cruz, California-native walked in the Chanel Cruise show, and earlier this year, Tharp also starred in her very-own Interview editorial.

AVERY THARP: I love your work. Your clothes are just beautiful. I think they are very chic.

ARTHUR ARBESSER: Bless you. Thank you. That’s so sweet. It’s such hard work so it’s very nice if you hear some comforting words.

THARP: What is the most rewarding part for you of being a designer and being so successful? 

ARBESSER: I started this project on my own with the support of a lot of friends. So [it’s] when people—for example, I was nominated for the LVMH Prize, which is a very big thing for a young designer—that don’t know you and only know your work, look at your work and think it’s great. I have been so lucky with the support of friends, but when people from outside just look at your work and decide, “This is worth being bought or being looked at or being judged,” like at a competition, I feel I am doing something right. That’s, right now, the biggest reward to me. Obviously if I see lovely girls wearing my clothes, that’s also a beautiful reward.

THARP: How do you begin a collection? Like the theme, color palette, material?

ARBESSER: For me, it’s mostly conversations—[with] friends or at dinner or when you meet someone or talk to someone about an artist or a book they’ve read or an exhibition they’ve seen. It always starts with a conversation. Then I hear something, or I hear a name, and I am curious about it, so I go into deeper research and get some books. Often I dive into the persona of an artist and his life and I do some proper research. We all do love reading biographies of people; I love going into the life of someone. For the next season in September, the collection is going to be all about a French artist. So the last few months I’ve been reading, I really went into his world. Then the next step is often the material. I love fabric; fabrics are really important to me. It’s the thing that distinguishes the clothes from all the rest. There are so many clothes out there, so you must be very sharp and intelligent in the material that you use and then you can make something very particular. Then, from there, it starts catching. But I often start already having the material in mind and then the material inspires the shapes and the clothes. I am traveling so much to all the factories and the mills—very boring trips. But on these long trips, on the train in Milan, Italy, I always have my best ideas. Then it’s all work-in-progress. It’s always a very nice process when you see the first prototype and the collection comes. 

THARP: Amazing. I never knew how you started the process. I thought it was just an idea in your head.

ARBESSER: It’s always something very personal. I feel if you are a young designer at the moment, you really need to do something very special and personal. If I can link the work to a story that’s a little bit deeper or if you give the press something more to dig into, it’s always very nice if you can connect. Your work is actually just clothes, but if you can connect them with emotions, a story, or a persona or music or something…

THARP: I was having a conversation the other day about what really inspires you in life. What inspires you?

ARBESSER: It’s people in general. I love getting to know people and I’ve been so lucky so far in the last few years that I’ve met such interesting people. I’m always very curious about the lives of others. In my circle of friends, I always ask too many questions. If someone just told me about a party or something, I [would say], “So how was it, you left the house and…?” I love when someone tells a story from the beginning to the end, so I always ask, ask, and ask. I think that’s the way I am getting a lot of my ideas and inspiration. I am very curious about details and about how things are done and how it all worked out and how someone met someone else and the whole story.

THARP: Which country are you most influenced by? I know you’re from Austria and in Austria right now, but you studied in London and you’re currently based in Italy. So which country or culture inspires you the most?

ARBESSER: I don’t know. I am from Vienna, which is the capital of Austria. It’s still not a massive place, but it’s very cultured, very intense, and there is a lot of history. It’s a very rich place grow up. The whole Austrian DNA and culture is definitely deeply rooted in my brain, but at the moment I think it’s a good mix of the strict and severe Austrian upbringing and culture with this soft and joyful way of living in Italy. My four years in London were very important, very fun, and very intense. From 18 to 22 I had a lot of fun there. I am a very European person, so I guess Central Europe is my main inspiration. Are you coming a lot to Europe? I guess so. 

THARP: Yes. I am from Santa Cruz, California, so I am from a small town. I go from small town to some of the biggest cities in the world. I’m really, really lucky.

ARBESSER: Since when are you in the business?

THARP: I’ve been in the business for two years now. I’ve only done one fashion season. I actually walked for Iceberg. You’re the new creative director, right?

ARBESSER: We have to make it again this year! It’s fun. Are you going to come to Milan in September?

THARP: Yes! 

ARBESSER: Perfect, perfect.

THARP: So what do you plan to do with Iceberg?

ARBESSER: It’s actually a company that’s been running for 40 years. It’s quite an old company and it’s still family owned, which is really nice. The mother that founded Iceberg and the son, they are really supportive of me and excited about me, but at the same time they have such a knowhow. It’s very nice to get technical input and ideas from them, because they’re specialized in knitwear so it’s all about knitwear in their factories. It’s a beautiful place and so many dedicated people working there, and most of them have been working there for 30 years. It’s also great because some amazing designers have been doing this role: Jean-Charles de Castelbajac in the ’80s, Marc Jacobs, Giambattista Valli, and Dean and Dan from DSquared2. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me also as a designer to get my name out there more and be in touch with all the press because my own brand, I’m starting and it’s tiny and it’s a battle. It’s nice to work for another company where everything is big, working, and organized. The press has reacted in such a positive way about my nomination because it feels like Milan needs fresh blood, it needs new energy, so everybody is supportive of the news. I’ve been working my arse off over the last few weeks and hopefully the collection is going to be nice.

THARP: I’m sure; I am very excited to see it. What is the point of fashion?

ARBESSER: When I think of what am I best at and what comes naturally to me, it would be doing clothes and fashion. In that sense, to me personally, the point of fashion is simply my way of working and getting on with and doing my thing. I think in general fashion is such a a treat to so many people, such a wonderful way of making you dream, making you aspire to something. Also buying a nice piece of clothing or a bag can instantly give you so much happiness or a great attitude or a great way of feeling and walking. It’s like medicine I think, because it can really give you so much positivity. At the same time it’s an incredible world that connects the most passionate people and the most creative and the most open-minded and hard working people, so it’s kind of an amazing little planet, let’s say. Do you feel it that way as well?

THARP: I know what you are talking about when you say that, because whenever I go shopping and I put on a new outfit that I feel great in, I am so much lighter, my spirit is so lifted; I can feel so great about myself. It is like medicine, it’s very therapeutic. 

ARBESSER: Yes, therapeutic. That’s even a better word, medicine is a bit serious.

THARP: So is fashion art? Or where is the line between fashion and art?

ARBESSER: No, I think they are very close to each other and walk happily side by side, but fashion, at the end of the day, is still a business and a product. It’s very close to the art world. It’s a very creative field and very colorful, but I wouldn’t call it art. It’s something that has to connect with the human body and has to be worn, has to function and has to have a functionality. It’s not just something that stimulates your brain—although it should, its main job is functional. I guess every designer has a different point of view, but I still love when the clothes are actually wearable and are not simply a massive gown or something that could be considered a work of art. If you think about Alexander McQueen, he was an artist. In general, fashion is a beautiful side product of the art world.

THARP: What made you choose to study fashion in London?

ARBESSER: Back in the ’90s there was so much press about John Galliano and Stella McCarthy and McQueen and all these designers that studied at Central Saint Martin’s, so that university was simply my goal. I needed to go to that school. It was something that I put in my brain and I somehow convinced my parents that this was my place. I applied and happily got in. I think London is a very healthy place for a young person because it opens your brain and makes you aware of all the diversity in the world, especially if you come from Vienna. So it was a very natural decision but Saint Martin’s and London was my goal; there was no other option.

THARP: I had inspiration like that too to come to New York City. I just put that in my mind and I had to do it, and I worked so hard to get here. And when you get there, it’s so amazing. 

ARBESSER: And if you have that mission in your mind, you are so much more motivated, and you work so much harder to get there. Then it feels so rewarding if you get there.

THARP: So then were you always interested in fashion?

ARBESSER: Yeah, I guess so. As a child, I had very nerdy, very cultural, very intellectual parents and they took me to the theater and to the opera. I saw a lot of stage stuff, and so I think via the stage my fascination with costume and fashion started: the lights going up and down, it’s a show, something is happening, clothes are moving in a certain way, the lights are reflecting something. I remember very well one lunch I was 13 or something, and I have a brother and sister, they are older, we all spoke about what we are going to do in our lives. When it was my turn, my dad already responded for me and he said, “I guess you want to do beautiful clothes for beautiful girls one day,” and I was like, “Yes!” It was all set in stone, basically.

THARP: Did you have the best style in school?

ARBESSER: Maybe not best, but the funkiest probably. If I look back, I looked like an idiot, but I felt like I stood out of the rest of the gang. I was very conscious. Now I am totally into just t-shirts and shirts—they just need to be clean at the moment I am focused on work. But as a teenager you are so much more aware. Lots of bleached hair—the usual.

THARP: I can see that.

ARBESSER: My school was a conservative boy’s school, a catholic school, and it was even more fun to provoke them. When the Fifth Element came out with Milla Jovovich and she had all this orange hair, all I wanted was to have the same hair color. The next day I went to the hair dresser and it was a big scandal at school.

THARP: I also went to a Christian school and it was very structured and organized and that can be very suppressive. They won’t let you branch out.

ARBESSER: Exactly. Then you want to be even wilder.

THARP: Yeah, it makes you want to push back. Is your family artistic?

ARBESSER: Sort of. They are very much into music. My grandfather was a painter, so there is definitely a bit of a creative vibe going on. My father is quite conservative. Now they are very proud so it’s all fine but for parents, if they hear that their son is going to be a fashion designer they get instantly scared that I am going to be a wild, party animal and not work at all. Now they realize it’s actually a rough job and are full of respect. 

THARP: That’s great. It’s hard for people outside to understand.  

ARBESSER: I guess for you it’s the same, no? It all sounds so glamorous but it’s a very hard job.

THARP: Exactly. I can tell them I just did this amazing editorial and they will be like, “I’ve never heard of that magazine,” and it’s so frustrating because it’s so good and I want them to be proud of me.