the interview

How and when did you come on the idea to create the designer label »abteilung : k«?

C.K. You may laugh – it was after a visit to the opera. I can’t remember now which opera, but that’s no longer important. My wife, Layla Shah, »abteilung : k« muse and model, had already had her mastectomy and was on a course of chemotherapy, in other words bald! To make a long story short, Layla looked very good but she was wearing a dress which did not hide the fact she was asymmetrical. She never thought of wearing a wig, even though the health insurance would have subsidized one. We were returning to the theatre auditorium after the interval, when I noticed a group of three old women, openly nudging each other and pointing at my wife. The same thing happened after the performance, as we waited for our coats. It was clear to me that I should do something, but what? I had no idea. Angry, as I was, I was more inclined to run amok – which would not have been a good idea – rather than found a designer fashion label.

There are many other ways to react to such an experience, other than with a fashion label?

C.K. Naturally, I could have worked through this in my former medium, fine art, and painted pictures, in order to lay bare the unfairness of nature in striking down women, in this case my own wife, with such an illness. Many things came together and spoke against this way: My mistrust in the possibility, through provocation, even aesthetic or intellectual, to actually move anything. Then the interest in fashion, as a result of my daughter’s studies. It dawned on me that fashion had developed into an independent medium, and in part it had, because of its closer relationship to reality, overtaken the fine arts.
As in previous eras, there are always leading genres in the arts. Previously that has been architecture, opera, photography and film, today it is fashion – fashion, naturally, in a far wider sense than just seasonal changes of silhouette. Principally fashion is driven by economic necessity, to encourage demand, in order to prevent saturated markets stagnating. In this function, fashion is nowadays part of everything, architecture, fine art, the car industry, and in furniture. The art market would have been long dead if it were not for fashion, the life elixir! What was more obvious then than a fashion project?

But cancer is about life and death, even when, thank goodness, for many cases there are successful treatments. In these situations, are clothes and fashion not completely irrelevant?

C.K. Exactly, this contradiction urged us on. Every art deals with Eros and Death, longings as well as anxieties, bound together, even when often hidden, in the way in which we reveal ourselves through clothes. Even without being ill, most people are so far away from achieving the aesthetical ideals of their time that they believe they have to use corrective aids, either on the skin with clothes and cosmetics, or under the skin with cosmetic surgery. How far we go depends on the amount of suffering caused by a subjective perception of our »imperfections« The theme goes much further than our starting point with breast cancer. It has to do with no less than the factual violence, which results from such a poetic word as “Beauty”. Many women have the feeling that beauty is their most important capital. When it disappears bankruptcy threatens. A man with an amputated limb is a hero. An amputated woman is no longer a woman.

L.K. The British journalist Dina Rabinowitch laconically wrote about her breast cancer, »They are calling this the fashionable cancer. But, no one answers the question, what does one wear afterwards.« This »afterwards« interests us. Is it not humiliating to have to hide oneself, be stared at, perhaps even begin to hate oneself, while pretending to be normal, by strapping on a spare part or letting oneself undergo a reconstruction, which is not more than the creation of a piece of flesh without nerve ends. That sounds much more serious than what we are doing with our fashion. You can laugh about some of it. Some of it is provocative, but that lies not in the clothes themselves but in the way in which they are seen. Apart from that, many of our clothes can also be worn by non-Amazons.

Let’s come to the clothes. Some underline the asymmetry, in others it is hardly noticeable or is hidden under the very different, or one can also say, unique designs. Are we dealing here with clothes or art?

L.K. It changes, and that is for many fashion labels very normal. There are clothes which appear on the catwalk only as special attractions in the staging of a collection and are never seen again, not to mention that they never find their way into the shops. I see the line in another way, between being wearable and being statements. There are theme-clothes, and just-clothes, which Amazons can simply wear, in which they can feel comfortable and attractive without looking like street posters for political action. We think both these positions are legitimate. We also don’t want to say that those who wear spare parts are cowardly and stupid. What an arrogance that would be! Nevertheless we want to claim for an alternative, and not to think of asymmetry as a blemish. When one is strong one can laugh about misfortunes or, as a woman said to us recently, “The womanly breast is greatly overestimated.”

C.K. If it’s art or not? Behind that is usually the question: Is that allowed? Art gives us the freedom. We are not cutting art out. But, we are also not cutting out the everyday. And, naturally, we are polemical in contrast to journalists who act like masters of the universe when they write, »Unfair, but genetic: Beautiful people have better sex,« and furthermore, »The symmetry of a body and face shows how healthy and stabile an organism is. Asymmetry is the mark of a failure in development and disease…… it is clearly so, that symmetrical people also smell better.«Those are the findings of Darwinist biologists and are unquestioningly publicized. We prefer Modernity, the attractiveness of thought and asymmetry.

Do you think your fashion has a marketing chance?

C.K. + L.K. Next question!

Put it another way: Who would wear »abteilung : k« fashion?

L.K. Ten percent of women qualify. These are the women who have to deal with this question, whether they want to, or not. Whether this market niche, cynically said, is taken over by the medical reconstruction industry, or whether it becomes superfluous due to an enlightened attitude in dealing with this problem, I’m skeptical. I imagine women wearing »abteilung : k« have not given up their spirit, even after this illness. They prefer to provoke, rather than duck the issue, and with their appearance give others courage, to see fashion not as coercion but as fun.

C.K. I don’t think about it. Had I done so I would probably not have even begun this project. I want to get away from the usual concerned gestures and charity actions, whose usefulness I’m in no way putting down, but which always involve the healthy and successful looking down, patronizingly, on the ill and disadvantaged. The questions are: Who profits from such a repressive ideal of beauty? And, is it not time to tackle the standards of definition for beauty and attractiveness? Then women would wear »abteilung : k«, or something else, within a new meaning of beauty.

Questions by Claus Mewes, Director of the Kunsthaus, Hamburg, Germany.